I'm a life long New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn. My precious vacation time is usually spent relaxing on a Cape Cod beach, or exploring foreign destinations.
But this year, I responded to a different siren song: I went to Detroit.
Yes. Detroit, Michigan, USA. That Detroit.
I have followed news of Detroit and its trials and tribulations for decades, with the same horrified fascination of many Americans.
With this summers' declaration of bankruptcy, Detroit was once again in the headlines. The city had descended into bankruptcy and an Emergency Manager had been appointed. The mayor of Boston actually suggested blowing up the place. Christie's Auction House was called in to appraise the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) as courts decided if the art could be sold. Commentators said that only billionaires, Russian oligarchs or maybe princes from the United Arab Emirates, could afford these treasures.
If I wanted to see these art works before they were dispersed, I had to visit right away. I wanted to go for other reasons as well. I was searching for the mythical Detroit as much as anything else: the Motor City to the soundtrack of Motown.
I had been raised in the tough and gritty Brooklyn of years back. I had seen the decaying streets my youth restored to sparkling splendor, blue-collar areas transformed into playgrounds for the rich. Years of decay and danger had been no fun but gentrification meant that the poor were driven out of parts of Brooklyn. Detroit's problem was just the opposite: most of the people left there are the poor. The population has gone from a mid-20th century high of nearly two million, to about 700,000 with a median household income of about $25,000 -- half the national average.
While Brooklyn was experiencing rebirth, Detroit was being returned to nature. Detroit's mayor has been trying to demolish some 70,000 abandoned buildings, spread over the 138 square miles. Detroit has been shrinking, replaced by some experiments in urban farming. That also interested me -- I've been involved with urban gardening for years.
So last month, a friend who lives in Ohio picked me up at the Cleveland airport and we headed to Detroit, about a 2.5-hour drive.
We'd been warned that actually staying in the city was dangerous, except for the upscale downtown hotels. I must admit I was tempted by the "tallest hotel in the western hemisphere" -- the 73-story Detroit Marriott. But we are $80 a-night-kind of travelers (two friends traveling together with a need for two beds, a clean room and plenty of towels) and the Marriott would have been over $200. So we stayed in a chain motel with good online reviews in a suburb chosen because it was an easy 15-minute drive from the DIA.
Now please, dear Detroit, let me say at the outset that I totally fell in love with you. I wish only good things for you. My love is pure, but like a mother's love, it comes with some critical feedback. For your own good. You've been knocked around and pushed around. You've been duped by your own elected officials. Now you've lost fundamental political rights to an Emergency Manager. So what's a little critical feedback from a doting tourist?
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