Rembert Explains America: Detroit vs. Everybody
An interesting exchange takes place when you tell people you’re headed to Detroit.
While it’s never the same response verbatim, it usually revolves around three general themes: “Be careful,” “Why?” and “Take pictures.” These would be reasonable if I were, say, headed to a zoo. When discussing a city that people still call home, they’re more than a little off-putting.
Detroit was one of the first places I knew I wanted to visit when this trip’s route began to take shape. I’ve studied cities and their planning (or the lack thereof) since college and always knew this was a place I sorely needed to see. But if you were to ask me five years ago, 10 months ago, or even a week ago why my presence in Detroit was imperative, I’m not sure I’d have a good reason.
Truth be told, it was mostly voyeuristic.
The same way we’re fixated by car crashes, we’re mystified by struggle. And blight. And right now, there’s no city mired in more struggle than Detroit.
On the whole, I don’t think this country wants Detroit to make it. It sounds maniacal, but I truly believe that. We’ve made our peace with this still-great city firmly existing in the land of “once-great.” This has been especially true since news of bankruptcy threw the city’s woes on the front page of every major publication. These pieces were specific on the details of Detroit’s dire economic situation, but they were operating from a distance. Highlighting the very real flaws, leaving no room for the imagination to assume positivity. They rarely acknowledged the chance of a bounce-back.
And because of this, due to the brainwash that happens when you read too much about the city, you begin to assume the worst. As you approach the city limits, you envision buildings have crumbled, cars have been overturned, the homeless outnumber the sheltered, and things are but a few steps away from martial law.
I fell victim to this line of thought only two minutes after making it downtown.
Having not even made it to my hotel, I felt as if I’d entered a Third World city.
“Be careful” and “Take pictures” were suddenly on high alert. As was the “Why?,” as in “Why did I come here again?” Cities are my foremost sociological love, but this was unlike anything I’d seen before. Perhaps everything I was reading was correct. Maybe there was no hope for this place.
Finally, I pulled in to my hotel to check in, moderately rattled, and the woman at the desk gave me a heads-up.
“Don’t be startled if you hear explosions,” she said with a big smile on her face.
I don’t know the look I gave her, because I can’t see my face, but I’m certain it wasn’t a big smile. Staring at her, without words, I stood still for a second. But there was no follow-up, no second sentence. She just went back to work.
Standing in the lobby, now on minute eight of Detroit, I sat down. Where was I? What was this place? And why did no one else seem taken aback by overturned subway cars and future explosions? Walking to the elevator, I overheard a conversation between two other employees during their break:
Employee 1: Did you see Mark Wahlberg the other day?
Employee 2: No, he was here?
Employee 1: Yes, I saw him. I wonder how long he’ll be in town for Transformers 4. I bet it’s gonna be good.
There are moments in your life when irrational fear or prejudice or judgmental nature backslap you in the face and all you can do is apologize.
I’m sorry, Detroit. I got caught up.
Now that I understood the previous 10 minutes of my stay in Detroit, thrilled that I could finally approach the city free of biases, I set out to learn. Not to explain, or philosophize, or pitch solutions, or make pretentious generalizations about its citizens and doomsaying conjecture about its future. Just to experience it.
The Heidelberg Project
My Thursday morning in downtown Detroit had already proven that there was life in the city. Less than half a mile from my hotel, I truly embraced the beef between neighboring hot dog sellers Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, watched more than 30 people picket outside the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse over pensions, and walked through Lafayette Greens, a half-acre garden on city land used to grow food, house vendors, and teach classes.
While this block was certainly vibrant, there was more Detroit to see, and one of the most recommended sites was only a quick drive away. I didn’t know much about this Heidelberg Project I’d heard of, beyond the location, and in retrospect am elated that I came into it so blindly. Not that a supreme amount of research could have prepared me for it.
Because I’ve never seen anything like it.
On the surface, the Heidelberg Project is a two-block outdoor art installation. Many of the homes have been purchased by the project and its creator, Tyree Guyton, but scattered among the decorated homes are houses with residents who continue to live there normally, separate from the project.
I spent an hour in the district. It’s both beautiful and sad, a shining parallel with the city’s current status. The beauty comes from the fact that something like this can exist, even through partial demolitions directed by two former mayors — that it can cover such a large surface area and offer such an amazing artistic vision. With that said, the project began, and still exists, as a form of political protest over the deterioration of Guyton’s Detroit neighborhood.
Asking one of the Project’s employees how the surrounding area responded and respected the houses, as well as the art strewn throughout the grass, he said that for the most part things went untouched. “Everything was going great until recently, when someone burned down one of the houses.”
I asked him if it was an accident and he quickly responded, “Oh, no, it was arson.”
He told me about his background in the “traditional” art world, and why he left it for something more meaningful like the Heidelberg Project. “It was just filled with hipsters who would come into the city because they treated everything like ruin porn.”
That phrase, “ruin porn,” stuck with me, because it was a phrase I knew I’d read before.
“At first, you’re really flattered by it, like, ‘Whoa, these professional guys are interested in what I have to say and show them.’ But you get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.” —Vice, 2009.
This, too, was said in reference to Detroit. Pulling this up on my phone and reading it after finishing our conversation, I looked out into the neighborhood. Three teenage girls were getting their picture taken in front of the burned-down house, Charlie’s Angels–style.
Kendrick Lamar at the Fillmore Detroit
I’d never been to Detroit, and there’s no real tie between the rapper and the city unless the L.A.–Kendrick–Dr. Dre–Eminem–Detroit plotline means something to someone. So I was very curious to see how this show played out. This was only intensified upon learning it was a 21-and-over show, meaning the gaggle of teenage fanboys that can make any crowd hyperactive would be at a minimum, with the exception of some successful fake IDs.
Even before the set started, however, just feeling the buzz in the room, I knew it would be one to remember. Because on that night in that venue, everyone was excited, almost feeling privileged, to see Kendrick Lamar, rap star. And for once, the throng of rap concertgoers that mouth the words to themselves and refuse to show any joy and happiness were nowhere to be found.
The lyrics were shouted back at Kendrick for the duration of the concert. For an hour, it felt like everything that occurred outside the doors of the Fillmore didn’t matter. The horrible things being said about this city failed to penetrate.
For an hour, it was just Kendrick giving everyone in attendance a release. And even though all rappers have shtick that can make any crowd feel special, scripted or not, he made Detroit feel like the center of the universe for a moment.
Belle Isle Park
Detroit has a park and it is called Belle Isle Park and it is larger than Central Park. By more than 150 acres.
But virtually no one was there.
Yes, there was a tennis lesson place, as well as a man blasting music and smoking a cigar in a lawn chair, five men playing handball, a father giving his son a basketball lesson, the lifeguard guarding zero lives, and a few scattered family reunion barbecues, but all of these activities could have taken place in a large cul-de-sac.
This was a 982-acre park. It was startling to see that much space, and these public services, go unused.
The instinct is to say “go to waste.” But that’s not exactly accurate. Because they were being used, just extremely sparingly.
When things aren’t crowded and lines don’t exist, it often seems as if they’re not meeting their full potential. There’s no one arguing that Belle Isle Park is operating at maximum efficiency, but there is something pleasant and calming about a place — a public one — where you can have the space and freedom to do whatever you want.
Just like Heidelberg, it was beautiful and sad. The freedom to roam at your own pace, at your own volume, in as much space as you desired is something those in densely populated areas can only dream about. But at the same time, a wonder like Belle Isle Park should not be so desolate. Never.
Hart Plaza Amphitheater
A sign is affixed atop the amphitheater that sits inside downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza advertising four things: restrooms, an ethnic gallery, food booths, and a police substation.
Walking around the space midday, I found that none of these entities appeared to still be in use.
While the plaza was bustling, especially as I neared the waterfront, there were only two people in the spacious underbelly of the amphitheater: me and a man who seemed to be sleeping down there.
We acknowledged one another and he gave me what I took as a head-nod of approval to roam around.
Still unsure of whether this space was always uninhabited, or perhaps only recently, the increasingly strong stench of stale urine made it feel as if barren was the norm.
The stark contrast to the barrenness and the smell, however, was the art down below:
This was a place that once mattered. I was sure of it.
Walking around, I constantly felt as if I was trespassing. But I also knew that I was the only one who seemed to care about that space at that very moment. Continuing to poke my head in different corners of the space, to continuously find rooms that appeared untouched for some time, until I’d traversed every nook, I walked out.
Again, at the street level, a different world existed. The sounds of children laughing, people having lunch on stoops, tourists taking pictures of the water. One random, seemingly abandoned structure existed on the street level, however, that didn’t fit with everything else.
Unsure of what it was, I approached. The windows were reflective and dirty, and it certainly wasn’t something commonly in use.
I couldn’t see inside, but it did provide a nice backdrop of the skyline. Just taking a stab at it, I removed my phone from its case and put the camera flush against the rusty window.
Unreal. Or was it? I didn’t know at that point. It was troubling, I knew that. Seeing that something appeared to be written on the wall of this room that hadn’t been tended to in months, or perhaps years, I put my camera against the second window:
I jumped back almost expecting to see a dead body. After searching for good among the troubled for two days in Detroit, this was the first encounter that was purely despicable. Not only that this was written, but that it was allowed to remain.
I left Hart Plaza. Discouraged.
Three days in Detroit is perhaps only enough time to make a declarative statement on a Coney hot dog choice. (Lafayette.) Nothing else.
As I drove out of town, I left knowing I’d be back. Soon. This place had taken hold of me, as had the people, those seemingly stuck in Detroit and the contingent that have voluntarily chosen to see this tough stretch through.
But I’m tired of taking pictures and simply experiencing. Now I want to help.