This is Detroit

Detroit has been working overtime on a public relations campaign to scrub the grime off its tarnished reputation and buff the rentability of its landmark towers. A downtown resurgence is helping to restore the luster of a once-burgeoning city that grew into an industrial and economic juggernaut during the first half of the 20th century, but became a municipal pariah after accruing $20 billion of debt since the 1950s.

In its heyday, Detroit was a magnet of opportunity, attracting new residents from all American sectors with the promise of manufacturing jobs. Consequently, its population swelled to 2 million.

The collapse of the city’s automobile industry was the catalyst for Detroit’s demise. Racial tensions culminated in riots in 1967 that led to a mass exodus, and Detroit shrank to a third of its size. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings became the norm. Ultimately, the city went bankrupt in 2013–the largest debt of its kind for an American city.

Today, Detroit is rebounding, but not without new growing pains. City leaders hope to strike a balance between renewed economic confidence and building a future that is more inclusive of long-term residents who have suffered the most.

As it’s explained by Pete Saunders for Forbes Magazine:

  • …A partnership between city and state government, business leaders and the city’s philanthropic community led an innovative effort to restructure the city’s debt, estimated at $19 billion.

  • Private investment in downtown Detroit, already on the upswing prior to the bankruptcy filing, continued to trend upward.  Last fall’s opening of Little Caesar’s Arena, part of the larger District Detroit business and entertainment area, the construction of a landmark mixed use development on a former iconic department store site, and the recent acquisition by Ford Motor Company of Michigan Central Station all demonstrate the accelerated pace of development in the city.

  • Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.

  • The city’s former warehouse district on the east riverfront is attracting development attention for high-end condos and apartments with downtown and waterfront views.

  • Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.

  • The New Center area, further north of downtown, is beginning to see development activity tick upward as well.  Community anchor Henry Ford Hospital has just broken ground on a new cancer center.  The Detroit Pistons basketball team will build a new office and practice complex in the area as well.  More high-end condos and apartments are being constructed in New Center too, and the Motown Museum is planning for a $50 million expansion.

  • Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last year, the QLine.  The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.

Leah and I took a walk around downtown to see for ourselves. First, we stopped at an Art Deco-styled landmark building celebrating its 90th anniversary.

front desk

Guardian arch

Guardian mural

Guardian entry

A short walk to the Detroit River brought us face to fist with an homage to Joe Louis.

homage to Joe Louis

Nearby, the Spirit of Detroit was undergoing a makeover.

Spirit of Detroit

We crossed E. Jefferson to arrive at Hart Plaza to gaze at Michigan’s Labor Legacy.

Labor's Legacy, Hart Plaza

Walking a short distance to the Detroit River brought us views of Windsor, Canada as once imagined by slaves making their escape through the Underground Railroad.

Windsor CA

In the distance, stands the Ambassador Bridge–the busiest crossing between U.S. and Canada–with 10,000 commercial vehicles making the trip daily.

Ambassador Bridge.jpg

Beyond Dodge Fountain, the GM Renaissance Tower rises from the International Riverfront. 

Dodge Fountain

A walk along the riverwalk delivered us to the GM Wintergarden, where a life-sized model of a Chevy Silverado was made entirely of Legos.

Lego Chevy left.jpg

It took 18 master builders over 2,000 hours and 334,544 “bricks” to complete. At 3,307 lbs., the sculpture stands at half the curb weight of its legitimate counterpart.

Lego Chevy rigft

Equally as impressive, and no less the engineering feat, the Fisher Building has been referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object.” 

Fisher Building

Finished in 1928, the 30-story building was financed by the Fisher family from the sale of Fisher Body Company to General Motors.

1928

Albert Kahn’s opulent 3-story barrel vaulted lobby…

Fisher Building arcade

decorated in paint…

Geza Maroti frescoe

and marble by Géza Maróti is considered a masterpiece.

Black marble

Alfred Kahn also spent time up river on Belle Isle (an island park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s), where he designed America’s first Aquarium and Conservatory in 1904.

Auquarium facade

Belle Isle Aquarium

Marlin mosaic

Belle Isle Conservatory

Conservatory

Another part of Detroit’s revitalization effort included the construction of Ford Field, the domed home of NFL’s Detroit Lions,

Ford Field

conjoined with Comerica Park, home to baseball’s Detroit Tigers.

Comerica Park.jpg

Detroit has been hailed as The Comeback City, emerging from Chapter 9 with a new vibe that seems to be drawing people back to a city that was broke and broken, and considered unliveable only six years ago. With continuing investment and broad community suport, the prospects for Detroit are bright,

lungfish

and turning naysayers into believers.

This is Motown

Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.

Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.

The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.

A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.

“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.

plaque a

“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”

plaque b

“Amen!” I replied.

We shook hand and moved on.

Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.

Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps. 

Hitsville USA

Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”

The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.

I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition. 

MLK

So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…

60 years
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame display

to catch up on nifty artifacts.

artifacts (2)
Stevie Wonder costume/Fan magazine (from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame collection)

“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.

“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”

“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.

“Just like that!?” I laughed.

“You’ll see,” she insisted.

I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.

He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”

Notebook (2)

“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.

“Yup!” declared security.

Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”

“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.

Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”

When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.

We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.

Florence Banard

In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.

Diana Ross

It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…

Marvin Gaye

and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.

Berry Gordy

Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.

Gladys Knight

Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.

Eddie Kendrick

And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.

Stevie Wonder

By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.

The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.

 

One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.

“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.

“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.

(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)

 

 

 

 

Heidelberg Project–Detroit

At first glance, the large number of vacant lots between derelict buildings on Heidelberg Street in Detroit, MI resembles a crooked smile through a handful of broken teeth. The gaps are filled with collections of discarded remnants from everyday life that could easily be mistaken for a flea market on crack. But first impressions are completely unjustified, and there is a purpose to the madness…to be discovered over time.

time to pray

time to grin

time after time

taxi time

kitty time

In 1986, Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood in Detroit’s East Side, only to find a ghetto ravaged by drugs and poverty so severe that it touched his soul and roused his spirit. With encouragement from Grandpa Sam Mackey, he vowed to fight back with a paintbrush and a broom, which would eventually carry him on a celebrated journey–fighting his way through local partisan politics to national prominence.

automower

trucks and grins

shoes

playpen pals

boat of toys

To his credit, Guyton recruited sympathetic volunteers to change the face of their community, and after a massive clean-up, he incorporated the wreckage gathered from vacant lots, converting his neighborhood into an urban sculpture installation that has garnered world-wide attention.

vote-here.jpg

tvs and toy car garage

the rafters

purple transport

carhood ranch

For 30 years, Heidelberg Street has been a grass roots, work-in-progress. The HP (r)evolution continues today through personal donations and strong foundation support–providing funding for transformative paint-overs, and the acquisition of border properties to replace the homes lost to arson.

taxi depot

you

Time is now house

Love Sold house

Numbers House reno

dot house

porch-dots.jpg

During my visit, I crossed paths with several photographers who felt as I did–that we had walked into someone’s wild dream, and we were there to interpret his dream through our cameras.

shrink wrapped doll

TV and Rock

face on a gate

crutch cycle

brick shrine

the kitchen sink

However, should the art critics and cognescenti remain unmoved, or the public dismisses Guyten’s art as junk, there is more to the story at the end of the day. When all the visitors return to their homes, the residents of Heidelberg Street stay behind knowing that their plight has been replaced by pride and opportunity.

sign the house