National Geographic: Rise and Shine, Detroit

Photo: Man in Guardian Building
The vaulted artistry of the Guardian Building impresses doorman Christopher Roddy—and is just one of the reasons Detroit is looking up.
Photograph by Melissa Farlow
From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Andrew Nelson

It's not called a “tug” of memory for nothing: I’m outside Detroit’s railroad station, and I instantly recall my mother’s gloved hand pulling mine as we rushed through the vast atrium that was inspired by the imperial baths of ancient Rome. We are in a hurry to get somewhere, and Detroit is, too. Even a little boy in the mid-1960s notices the tempo. The Motor City is in motion. We build America’s cars. Thanks to Berry Gordy’s Motown, the world hums our songs. The city, fifth largest in the U.S. by population, is at the top of its game.

Today, Michigan Central Station still looks Roman, but it’s a Roman ruin. Closed since 1988 and stripped of valuables by vandals, or “scrappers,” the empty hulk symbolizes my old hometown’s decline, buckling beneath crime, corruption, and events such as the 1967 riots, the 1970s gas shortages, and the rise of Asian auto imports. My family, like others, moved away. A city of almost two million residents in 1950 shrank to 713,777 in 2010.

To visitors, Detroit’s attractions verged on the desperate: Three new casinos corralled gamblers inside windowless rooms; a desultory monorail circled downtown. The city’s collapse actually created a new business in “ruin porn,” as locals escorted tourists eager to experience the postapocalyptic atmosphere of decaying factories and abandoned offices.

But Detroit has been down so long, any change would be up. And “up” is why I’ve returned. Something’s happening in Michigan’s southeast corner. Call it a rising, a revival, a new dawn—there’s undeniable energy emanating from Detroit. America noticed it first at the 2011 Super Bowl. Chrysler debuted a TV commercial with rapper Eminem, star of the film 8 Mile (named after the road that serves as Detroit’s northern border). The ad crystallized the city’s spiky, muscular pride and won an Emmy, but Detroit was the real winner.

“This is the Motor City,” Eminem declared, “and this is what we do.”

And, increasingly, Detroiters are doing:
Working-class Latinos in Southwest, recent college grads in Midtown and New Center, and African-American professionals in Boston Edison are improving their neighborhoods. An expanding Detroit RiverWalk edges downtown, where corporations like DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, and Blue Cross Blue Shield have moved in thousands of workers. A favorite 1960s-era restaurant, the London Chop House, has announced its reopening. And that badge of gentrification, Whole Foods, plans to build a store in the inner city.

Even outsiders have started arriving, drawn by a sense of adventure. A new resident had told me: “If you visit Detroit, you’re an explorer. Be prepared for a rich, very soulful experience.”

A flashing red light jolts me back to the train station’s razor wire and rubble. A fire engine pulls up alongside me.

“Anything wrong, officer?” I ask, nervously. Maybe they think I’m a scrapper.

“Naaah,” says Ladder 28’s Capt. Robert Distelrath, with the backslapping, broad a’s of the Midwest. “Just checking things out. What are you doing?”

 I tell him I’m here because I hear Detroit is coming back.

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