Detroit is like a tuxedo several sizes too big. Its dramatic decline over the last 50 years or so as a major American city (once the fourth-largest in the country, and before that nicknamed the “Paris of the Midwest”) is well-documented. Its population is said to have gone from over 4 million to somewhere around 700,000 these days. That decline was very obvious upon our arrival in the city for the opening of the Media City Film Festival at the Detroit Institute of Art. Streets are mostly empty, populated with a sparse but steady stream of shuffling characters with the unmistakable drag of having nothing to do. This nothingness seems to run deep in Detroit—even as cultural offerings spring up on both official and DIY levels, emptiness is the order of the day. The most impressive buildings in the city are the empty ones—the long-abandoned train station; the prime, ground-level office space around the main square; the towering columns of boarded-up windows around painted or red brick.
Just as noticeable is that the buildings themselves, beacons of all the ornate glory of the booming years, are often giant, industrial-sized. DIA stands across the street from the public library, both in white marble with pillars, carvings, etchings, and trimmings that almost befit courthouses or statehouses, or cities built centuries before the Industrial Revolution put the impetus for construction on money, not quality. Warehouses and theaters and row homes and even just apartment buildings are New York-sized, all facades and carved stone trim, brimming with personality and craftsmanship—this may be why so many of them still stand, moated by paved-over parking lots, overgrown alleyways, or empty grassland.
Last night we headed from DIA to the Temple Bar at the corner of Cass and Temple. The view from outside the bar was unlike anything I’ve seen. The 10-story building across the street, the former America Hotel, was empty, boarded and bricked up, fenced around, graffiti’d. Across the street, a parking lot. Diagonally, another parking lot next to a boarded up warehouse with ominous fan sounds inside it. On the fourth corner, the building next to the bar was boarded up, fenced in, all the second- and third-floor windows broken, wooden window frames bashed in. On the other side of the bar, a three-story firehouse-type building in red brick, for sale. Across the street from that, next to another parking lot, a single-lot, two-story factory, bricked-up entrance with 8-foot second-story windows and a smokestack in the back, also for sale. And so on, less than a mile from downtown, for blocks in every direction, blocks with only a few buildings growing out of the desolate landscape, dotted with towering relics—churches, office buildings, functional apartments.
During a brief phone conversation outside the bar, I tried to describe the scene and mentioned that the vast emptiness it seemed somehow “scary.” I was asked what was scary, because there weren’t any people around. The reason is that, being in a city, especially a dense one like Chicago, you expect people to be around. When they’re not, you’re thrown off, wondering what they’re up to instead. Someone must be somewhere around here, you think, mind racing toward sinister conclusions. The lack of people is like a haunted face you might see on the street—you know there must have been something horrifying to result in such a face, but you don’t dare ask what it is.
For the moment, it seems clear that living here hardens people. The bar—with a buzzer on the front door, something I’ve never seen before—was dotted with regulars saturated with bizarre pathos. An older couple draped over and fondling one another in the corner, collapsing in laughter. A group of perhaps strangers at the other end, drinking Milwaukee’s Best on tap (never thought—or hoped—to see the day when the only tap beer at a place would be Milwaukee’s Best) and making drunken pronouncements about their preferences. A muscled and tattooed but somehow soft gay man with a blank look dancing alone on the empty floor to ‘80s New Wave. A flock of skinny hipsters looking like Chicago circa 2008—perfectly coiffed hair, bushy moustaches, thick glasses, tapered jeans, gnarled posture. Talking about ideas and art. The crew of filmmakers and friends that we entered with immediately dispersed into the atmosphere, at home in a place that, if they’re like me, they hear about but almost never experience. It’s a feeling of almost mythical loss and infinite future (Paris 1927, San Francisco 1955, New York 1979, Chicago 1983), something that in post-Industrial society is a rare privilege popping up only for a moment here or there before racing on, the vast smothering blanket of upward capitalistic development wrapping itself tighter and tighter, homogenizing all behavior and thought. And, at the moment, Detroit is one of the loosest ends in the world.
Today, the outsize nature of these Detroit buildings, their faded grandeur, is like a big, empty architectural suit that simply can’t be filled. But, by nature or by man, it will be eventually. What is dizzyingly exciting is the freedom and potential to remake the city in an image unlike any other in the world, which one can really taste by being here for only an instant.