Detroit: The Shrinking City

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:52 pm by Benjamin Ross

From Henry Ford to Motown, and from the Great Migration to the Great Recession, there is perhaps no other city in the world with a story like Detroit. Detroit was the prototypical boom town of the early industrial age, and then a generation later the poster child of post-industrial decay.  As an undisputed “industry town,” Detroit’s prosperity has paralleled that of the American automotive industry.  When times were good for Ford, GM, and Chrysler, times were very good for Detroit.  And as the Big 3’s dominance has waned in the post-WW2 era, so have the fortunes of the Motor City.  Reaching a peak population of 1.85 million in the 1950 Census. 2010 figures show the population has not dropped to 713,000. In 1950, Detroit had more people than any American city outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Today, it’s bleeding population, as the shell of a great city remains, under-utilized and in decay.

For an up-close view of Detroit, and to learn first hand about the effects of industrialization and deindustrialization on the Motor City, and America as a whole, I spent last weekend in Detroit.  The following are photos and observations from my trip.

While Detroit is infamous for its urban decay, Downtown is in much better shape than the city as a whole, especially when compared against the broad spectrum of American downtowns of the 21st Century.  Although much of the city has deteriorated, Downtown remains a primary employment center, and still sees a fair amount of economic activity.
Downtown Detroit actually has more pedestrian activity than a fair amount of other Midwestern downtowns, but when considering the scale of the architecture, it still feels under-utilized.  With a bit of imagination, one can feel the aura of a bustling megalopolis of the first half of the 20th Century.
My first impression of Downtown was that it looked as if it was a spectacle of architectural magnificence 50 years ago, but that little had been built since.
Ford Road, Chrysler Freeway, Cadillac Square (pictured), even place names in Detroit bear the influence of the automotive industry.
Between all the art deco skyscrapers and other vintage early 20th Century architecture, there are also occasional modern structures as well, but these are few and far between.
In many respects, I’d say the closest analog to Downtown Detroit would be Philadelphia’s Center City.  They both have that feel of past munificence lost in the age of post-industrialism, but still a spirit of resilience in the face of economic restructuring.
Overall, I was impressed with the early 20th Century architecture of Downtown, my own personal favorite being the Book Tower, completed in 1916.
Like other Midwestern and rust belt downtowns, Detroit also has the requisite expanses of parking lots, endemic of post-war urban development.
These days, increasing amounts of tourists come to Detroit to see the blight and urban decay.  But downtown is, on the contrary, a surprising contrast to the conditions of most of the rest of the urban core.
Downtown Detroit is also home to many well-intact early 20th Century church buildings.
…and the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, the only congregationally-owned synagogue left in Detroit proper,
The Detroit metropolitan area is also home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab Americans.  Whereas many American cities post signage in English ans Spanish, signs in Detroit are often posted in English and Arabic.
The most eye-catching landmark in Downtown Detroit is the 750 foot Renaissance Center.  Built in 1977, the “RenCen” is home of General Motors’ world headquarters as well as a hotel, shopping center, restaurants, banks and a 4-screen movie theatre.
To clear up any potential confusion about its country of origin, eight American flags fly in front of the RenCen.  Yes, for those unaware, GM is an American company.
While no doubt an architectural work of mastery, the RenCen appears out of place in its surroundings dominated by art deco skyscrapers and other early 20th Century architectural styles.  Originally conceived as a means to revitalize the downtown core, the RenCen instead sticks out as if a building from Dubai or Shanghai was plopped down in the middle of the America Rust Belt.
No Midwestern city would be complete without its signature hot-dog-based local food specialty.  In Detroit, it’s the Coney Island hot dog, or as it’s commonly referred to “the Coney.”  Consisting of a beef hot dog, topped with beanless chili, onions and yellow mustard, Coney’s make for the ideal late-night post-bar indulgence.
On the suggestion of friends, my Coney came from Lafayette Coney Island, which as you can see, has a limited menu.  You come here for the dogs…and maybe the chili fries.
Detroit is home to the most peculiar mass transit system I have ever encountered.  Opened in 1987 as another boondoggle attempt to “revitalize” Downtown, the Detroit People Mover (yes, it’s really called the “People Mover”) consists of 2.9 miles of looping track, which runs in a single direction, around Downtown.  For comparison sake, that’s only .2 miles longer than the internal transit system at O’hare Airport.  Being that it doesn’t go anywhere a person couldn’t walk in 15 minutes, I couldn’t figure out much practical use for this system.  The only other people I saw aboard were there for the same reason as me: an aerial view of the city and a chance to take cheesy tourist photos.  For this purpose, the People Mover is well worth the 50 cent toll.
But being that Detroit’s boom followed closely with that of the automotive industry, Motown is truly a city built for cars.  Broad, straight avenues radiate from all directions of downtown in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, connected by a vast network of interstate highways which cuts through the city neighborhoods.
While Downtown is in reasonable shape for an aging American city, the same cannot be said for the remainder of the urban core.  After reaching its apex in the 1950’s, the American manufacturing industries began their steady decline which continues to this day.  As blue collar jobs were automated and outsourced, no city was hit harder than Detroit.  Today, much of the land between Downtown and the suburbs lies barren and abandoned, a relic of Detroit’s former industrial hegemony.  This image shows the area known as Midtown, with Downtown in the background.
A quick drive up Woodward Avenue into Midtown provides a stark contrast to Downtown, with much of the landscape consisting of abandoned buildings and parking lots.
Midtown is showing signs of some gentrification, especially along Woodward where a new light rail is being built, but much of the housing stock remains out-of-date and dilapidated, such as this old church(?) which had a sign advertising cheap rooms for rent.
and then across the street…not sure exactly what’s being sold here
Near Midtown is also Detroit’s former Chinatown, which is also abandoned.  (This is especially telling considering that the US is currently experiencing its largest wave ever of Chinese immigration, and most other American Chinatowns are overflowing with new arrivals.)  Located in the “Cass Corridor,” this small Chinatown persisted through the 70’s and 80’s with its last restaurant closing in 2004.  Today all that remains is this sign, and a mall of abandoned storefronts with the Chinese signs still hanging over the doors.  Interestingly, there is still a functioning Chinatown across the river in the much smaller city of Windsor, Ontario (see bottom).
Detroit’s most famous abandoned structure is the Michigan Central Rail Depot. Built in 1913, the Depot served as the region’s primarily passenger rail center until the final train departed in 1988.
Located in the Corktown district, west of Downtown, the Depot is visible from miles away and remains stagnant as another symbol of Detroit’s decline.
Though it’s illegal to go inside, the Depot is a popular site for urban spelunking.  Trespassers who can sneak in without being picked up by police can climb all 18 floors, and even reach the roof.
Future plans for the Depot are up in the air, with some brass campaigning for its demolition and others for a possible renovation.  Ideas include a casino and a police center.  As the Depot’s future, like the city’s, remains uncertain, it has taken on the status as a symbol of both Detroit’s decline and potential.  It’s difficult to see from this picture, but the large white letters graffitied horizontally across the building read “Save the Depot.”
The Detroit metro area’s most blighted areas are located in the ring of neighborhoods located between Downtown and the suburbs.  With the job market dried up, and no signs of recovery, Detroit’s precipitous population decline has also led to a corresponding drop in property values.  Rather than pay property taxes on housing which will likely remain uninhabited, many residents and landlords have simply vacated their premises.
If I had to estimate, I’d say the typical Detroit neighborhood is about 1/3 occupied houses, 1/3 vacant houses, and 1/3 vacant lots and vegetation.  Many of the vacant houses, such as this one, show sign of fire damage.
With decades of neglect, many of the vacant lots have sprouted trees and vegetation and reverted almost completely back to nature.
In some parts of the city, expanses of land where neighborhoods once existed now show no signs of civilization except for the occasional electrical wire and a crumbly sidewalk.
But between the blight, Detroit is still home to three quarter of a million people.  With the job market dry, some residents take up their own cottage industries such as in-house eateries.
There are some areas, such as this strip along Michigan Avenue, where commercial activity has remained buoyant.
But these areas of commercial activity are often islands in a sea of blight. This picture was taken only a few blocks West of the previous one.  Even commercial strips which remain occupied are usually surrounded by others which are vacant.
Like the housing stock, much of Detroit’s commercial real estate has been abandoned, and left to decay.
It should be pointed out that the previous 4 pictures were all taken along Michigan Avenue, one of Detroit’s main commercial arteries, and less than 10 minutes from Downtown.
Along with the Michigan Central Depot, the old Packard Plant is one of Detroit’s most famous abandoned structures.  Built in 1903, the Packard plant was the most modern automobile manufacturing plant in the world when it opened.  It closed in 1958, and today remains standing, vacated, along East Grand Boulevard.
Unlike the Michigan Rail Depot, which involves some ingenuity and the potential risk of arrest in order to enter, the Packard plant is easily accessible.  While technically illegal to enter, many of the facilities’ doors are no longer functioning leaving numerous entry points at ground level.  The Rail Depot, in contrast, is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and the various ways in include sneaking through an abandoned underground tunnel and wading through waste deep water.
I have never experienced anything quite like the Packard Plant.  Measuring over 3.5 million square feet, it would take hours, or perhaps days, to explore the entire premises.
With its easy accessibility, the Packard plant has become a haven for graffiti artists, squatters, urban explorers, and even paintball enthusiasts.
I even encountered a two men in a pickup truck, driving around inside the plant, collecting scrap.
Here’s a view from outside.
…and another from within.
an old office inside the plant
and a view from outside, looking in
In few places is the effect of deindustrialization as apparent as in the neighborhood surrounding the Packard plant.  While there still remain some occupied houses, much of the neighborhood looks like this.
Among all the hardships and social problems, the urban decay of Detroit does provide for unique opportunities which require cheap, bountiful, (and in many cases uninhabitable) housing.  In the early 1980’s, this section of Heidelberg Street was almost entirely blighted out.  Most houses were abandoned and showing signs of fire damage, and their primarily use was as a venue for crack dealing.  In 1986, an artist named Tyree Guyton decided to start painting the vacant houses, and the Heidelberg Project was born.
Today the Heidelberg has evolved into a block-wide outdoor museum, built with salvaged items collected around the city.
The Heidelberg Project is a constantly changing work of art, and on two occasions has even been bulldozed by the city.
Today it has become one of Detroit’s premiere tourist attractions, for locals and travelers alike.
Each house has its own theme, with corresponding items affixed throughout.
Vacant lots in the Heidelberg are also covered in artsy displays.
A central tenant of the Heidelberg Project has been to engage the local neighborhood kids, here seen working the information booth.
The various exhibits are all unique and quirky, such as this pile of salvaged shoes.
…and this boat covered in stuffed animals
With so many vacant properties, in many of which the owners are unknown, Detroit is one of the few places where this kind of unchecked urban artistic expression can happen.
Detroiters refer to these expressions as “urban art project,” or simply “projects.” Here’s another one, the “Disneyland of Hamtramck,” Hamtramck being an independent city surrounded by Detroit, and being the traditional center of the region’s Polish community.
After two days in Detroit, I spent an afternoon in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.
As a city whose economy is based around education rather than industry Ann Arbor’s has followed an economic path different from Detroit and Michigan as a whole.
Thus it bears little of the blight and decay which characterize so much of Detroit and other smaller cities in Michigan.
Also, in Detroit’s vicinity is the small town of Windsor, Ontario, located just across the Detroit River in Canada.
The Windsor-Detroit border is the busiest crossing along the Canada-US border, and is unique in that it’s the only crossing where you travel south to Canada and north to the US.
Windsor isn’t the most exciting town, but there are a few scattered historical sites, such as this old pumping station.  It’s also the best vantage point from which to photograph the Detroit skyline.  The picture at the very top of this post was taken from the shore in Windsor.
But my most interesting discovery in Windsor (thanks to the help of my local friend Fai), is that Windsor, unlike the city of Detroit, still has a functioning Chinatown.
As Detroit’s Chinatown dissolved, Windsor increasingly became the spot where Chinese in Detroit would go to eat out, purchase groceries, and procure any of the other goods and services commonly provided by Chinatowns.  To my knowledge, this is the only Chinatown in the world which is located in a different country than the regional anchor city which it serves. (If anybody knows anywhere else where this is the case, please mention so in the comment section).
For a city of just over 200,000 people, Windsor’s Chinatown is surprisingly big, and I would posit this due to it being the de facto Detroit Chinatown. By in large the majority of spoken Chinese I heard was Cantonese/Taishanese, hinting that this is primarily an older, long-established immigrant community.
Although still home to many Chinese businesses, Windsor’s Chinatown does appear to be in decline.  According to Fai, this is due to the appreciation of the Canadian dollar against the USD.  As Canada has become increasingly expensive, fewer Chinese from the American side have been shopping and eating in Windsor, instead patronizing Chinese establishments in the Detroit suburbs.
There is possibly no American city whose future is in question as much as the Motor City.  Detroit’s economy is never going to return to the robustness of the first half of the 20th Century, and filling the vacuum left behind has become an unrealistic fantasy.  But Detroit’s precarious situation has presented unique opportunities artists, tech companies, and other creative industries which require space, but not necessarily location. (Houses can be purchased for around 10k).  And ironically, Detroit’s vacant buildings and neighborhoods are increasingly providing a niche for tourism based on industrial history and urban decay.

Yet the plan for the city as a whole remains in the air.  One idea is to downsize the city by bulldozing vacated and semi-vacated neighborhoods and replacing them with agricultural land.  Scattered residents would then be relocated into more concentrated neighborhoods with fewer vacancies.  This would enable the city to cut service expenses, while also providing agricultural jobs for residents.  But as it stands, Detroit is simply too big for its shrinking population.

While many of these pictures (as well as media reports) present Detroit as a modern-day ghost town, it is important to remember that the city still has 750,000 residents, mostly poor, mostly African-American, and mostly with nowhere else to go.  Although the city proper is struggling, the metropolitan region is still home to 4.5 million people, with many of the suburban communities still thriving and economically viable.  But with 2010 census estimates already predicting the greater region’s first decade of negative population growth, it may not be long before the blight of the city radiates out towards surrounding suburbs.

Detroit is a fascinating city to visit, and serves as living evidence of both the perks and drawbacks of rapid industrialization.  As an American, it’s difficult to ignore Detroit’s place in our country’s history.  It serves to remind us how bright ideas are not always sustainable in the long run.  And in the future, it will hopefully provide us with new solutions to the problems of post-industrial urban America.  In the meantime, Detroit is well worth the trip. If anything, increasing tourism dollars will provide the city with some sustenance in these hard times.  And hopefully as the world economy continues to evolve, Detroit will not be completely left behind.




Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (book review)

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:11 pm by Benjamin Ross

No play dates, no television, no complaining about no play dates or no television, no grades under an “A,” 5 hour violin practice sessions, you’ve probably heard it all by now.  I was a latecomer, having only picked up Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother this past week.  But being “that guy who lived in China” to many of the people I know, I’ve been bombarded for my take since Tiger Mother was released earlier this year. For starters, I agree with a part of what Chua is saying.  American parents are too concerned with their children’s self-esteem and too hesitant to point out their faults. This is all the more apparent within the education system. Even at the graduate level, American professors sugar-coat rebuttals with statements like “Well, that’s not exactly right, but I see where you’re coming from,” as opposed to telling students they are wrong.  When I was an English teacher in China, my students actually complained to me that I wasn’t straight with them when they were incorrect.  It was awkward at first, but once I acclimated, it was both refreshing and surprisingly effective to be able to denounce my students without being afraid they would wilt over and die.  When I would tell a student, “Your pronunciation is completely wrong.  Practice it over again and come back tomorrow,” this usually produced positive results.  There was no confusion.  Nobody lost face.  And the following day, I would see marked improvements.  Ms. Chua argues, and I would agree on this, that children need to be taught to accept criticism and harsh critique, rather than being shielded from reality for fear that it might cause some psychological disorder which didn’t exist 30 years ago.

That being said, I still think Ms. Chua is a self-centered, insecure, control-freak who exploits her “Chinese values” to bask in the fruit of her children’s success.  Throughout  her accounts of grueling practices and shouting matches, she never quite explains how her daughters’ musical triumphs were beneficial to them.  At several points, she questions whether her toils were not for herself rather than her children, but then fails to provide convincing reasons why this was not the case.  I could go on for pages taking pot shots at Ms. Chua’s neurotic disposition, but that’s already been done.  Just ask Google.

But aside from Ms. Chua’s character, I have two beefs with this book that I want to discuss.  Firstly, Amy Chua is not Chinese…well, not Chinese in the sense that she grew up in China.  She was born in Illinois.  And her “Chinese” parents didn’t grow up in China either.  They grew up in the Philippines. Chinese or not, Ms. Chua’s parenting skills, while embodying many Chinese values, are taken to an extreme which would be out of place, even in China.  Throughout the book, she continually refers to “Chinese parenting” as if it’s simply a matter of following a short instruction manual which comes with every Chinese kid.  Ream out your ten-year-old for a sub-par birthday card?  Insist your kid to practice violin 6 hours a day?  Force your kid to take violin lessons in a city 2 hours drive away?  I’ve never even met a kid in China who played the violin at all, let alone 6 hours a day.  Sure, most Chinese parents push their kids harder than most average Americans do.  But the whole bit on dominating international circuits of piano and violin before puberty (probably 75% of the book), that’s an American Chinese tendency.

This brings up my next critique, one that probably isn’t fair to Ms. Chua, but which constantly irked me as I read her memoir.  As Americans, we like to think of the Chinese as the “model minority.”  They win violin competitions, attend Ivy League Schools, and grow up to become engineers and nuclear physicists.  But in our conception of “the Chinese,” we tend to ignore the fact that the Chinese living in the United States are not a representative sample of the Chinese people as a whole…far from it indeed.  The competition in China to emigrate to the United States is fierce, and only the cream of the crop make the cut.*  Qinghua and Beijing University are China’s top two universities, and I have met more of their graduates in Chicago than I ever did over the 4 years I lived in China.  Additionally, the desire to immigrate itself is a selective process, as it takes only the most driven people to leave their home in search of fortunes in unfamiliar lands.  Ms. Chua is not just another kid who happened to have Chinese parents.  She’s the daughter of hyper-educated immigrant parents (her mother graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemical engineering and her father has a PhD from MIT), who themselves had immigrant parents.

Ms. Chua, like many other Chinese Americans, is the product of the self-selective process which ensures a large percentage of the Chinese who come to America will be among the most intelligent, goal driven, and overachieving members of the population.  It’s stereotypes like these which lead many Americans to believe Chinese are more intelligent, have a better education system, and some day will “overtake America,” whatever that’s supposed to mean…Never mind that their higher education system doesn’t teach practical skills, teen suicide rates are high, and most children don’t know how to swim.

This is not meant as an attack on China.  I could take similar cheap shots at the US.  But rather, my point is that when we start generalizing about “Western” or “Chinese” parenting, and constructing monolithic caricatures about entire hemispheres, it’s easy to let hyperbolic accounts, such as Ms. Chua’s, define our conceptions of an entire culture.  And since we’re on the topic of generalizing, Ms. Chua’s husband, subject of most of her harangue against “soft” Western parenting, is Jewish.  In China, they write books of praise about the Jewish people, extolling Chinese to be more like them!  See how ridiculous this conversation can become?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is well-written, funny, and captures the essence of Amy Chua’s sadistic personality.  It’s good for a laugh, perspectives on parenting, and even some surface-level cultural education. But it’s crucial to remember that this is an extreme account of a woman whose background is anything but typical, for a Chinese or for an American.  For entertainment value and basic insight into the mind of the Chinese parent, I have no complaints.  But for a fair analysis on the merits of “Chinese” vs. “Western” parenting, Tiger Mother probably poses more questions than it answers.

*To be fair, there are also many undocumented immigrants, mostly from more humble origins, and who bypass the official selection process.  Generally, they are less visible in society, and not the ones upon which most of our stereotypes are constructed.

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