The Most Worst Place
I remember in college being in love with Montana because it had a reputation as "The Last Best Place." With that simple phrase, the whole state just nestled into my consciousness as some kind of national Eden.
Two decades later, I believe one of the things holding Detroit back is the universal perception that we’re "The Most Worst Place." Newspapers talk up how we are dangerous, corrupt, plagued with troubled industry, etc. It’s like we are forever typecast, over and over again, as the down and out kid who can’t tie his own shoes.
In the narrative flow of American history, right now we symbolize the worst than we can do. We are actually serving a purpose, anchoring down one end of the spectrum, if New York is the tops, we are the bottom. I’m not saying if that perception reflects reality, I think to the collective unconscious, reality is largely irrelevant.
Honestly, until someone beats us in last place, it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re stuck. GM’s business model appears to be the best it’s been in years, Chrysler is making bold management moves, and Ford’s quality now rivals Honda and Toyota. These should and could be bright days for Detroit. But we’re stuck in some larger narrative, one that we’re going to have to bust out of if we want to succeed.
So I think it’s time we broke the cycle.
I would like to suggest we all work together, collectively, in an open and cooperative fashion, as a true community, and find another national scapegoat to pick on, some wretched urban center than can signify everything that is wrong with our country. Because once that’s done, once we have a worse national boogieman than Detroit, only then will we be free from the shackles of our nation’s imagination. And only then will be able to symbolize more aspirational things like industry, innovation, hope and excellence. The stuff that made us great to begin with.
Here are the nominees:
Buffalo: I thought I should mention this early, because whenever I bring this subject up, people always say “Yeah, Buffalo!! Let’s make Buffalo the bad guy!!” But I actually don’t think it’s a good choice. It’s really too similar to Detroit. It’s actually just a smaller version of the same town. So, we should leave Buffalo well enough alone. The same goes for any city in Ohio. We’re all in this together.
New Orleans: Now they could easily be a symbol of failure. But, boy, that city has some immense troubles, challenges I hope we never know, and so it doesn’t seem right to kick that town when it’s down. In fact, I might nominate it for sister-city status. In any case, New Orleans is not going to be our scapegoat, so let’s keep looking.
Baltimore: If you were addicted to “The Wire” like I was, you probably see Baltimore as a city facing a lot of similar issues to ours. So, for the same reason we can’t pick on Buffalo or Ohio, we have to give Baltimore a pass. Karmically speaking it’s just not a good choice. Sort of that whole “pluck the splinter out of your own eye before you throw the stone at the glass house” thing.
We’re not making a lot of progress here. So, what’s left? Atlanta, no. Denver, no. Portland, no. Spokane, Sacramento, Fresno, no, no no. But then there’s one city down near the bottom of the map. And it fits the bill pretty nicely.
Albuquerque: Nobody knows much about this town. Can you name one trivia fact about Albuquerque? I can’t. For all we know, it very well could be a whole lot worse than Detroit. It’s just nobody has taken the time to notice it. Last I heard, Bugs Bunny took a wrong turn there, so it can’t be all that good.
I would like to suggest we start trash talking Albuquerque immediately. Maybe we can begin by saying "Well sure Detroit may not be perfect, but at least it isn’t, you know, Albuquerque." Or "Could be worse, we could be in Albuquerque." If anyone asks you what you’re talking about, just roll your eyes and say, "Oh, you know." and then walk away.
Yes, finding another city to disparage isn’t the ideal way to cure Detroit’s woes. But it is a start. And while I’m sure Mitt Romney and the Dalai Lama have a whole host of more noble and enterprising solutions to our problems, frankly last time I checked, they weren’t helping. Not one bit.
How to talk about Detroit
Since I moved here from back east and started living downtown, people from New York always ask (with arched eyebrows and cynical smiles,) “So…how do you like Detroit?” I think they expect me to burst into tears or something, because in their eyes Detroit is a really scary burned out place filled with danger, depression and the distant sound of gunshots.
I’ve discovered a few ways to respond which I thought I’d pass on in case you find yourself in a similar situation. I’m sure you have your own answers, but these seem to work for me:
#1: the Savvy Real Estate answer
"Oh, love it. Detroit’s like New York was in the 70’s, back when it was filled with muggers, Travis Bickle wannabees and the Son of Sam, back when you could buy a townhouse in Park Slope for two hundred thousand dollars. Speaking of which, I got my Mies van der Rhoe in downtown Detroit for just over a hundred thousand. Yeah, that Mies. How much do you think it would go for in Manhattan? Three million? By the way, how much did you pay for this place? Ouch."
#2: the Ecological Prophet’s answer
"Oh, love it. ‘Cause you know, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this climate change thing but you know New York’s at sea level, right? And since the melting glaciers in Greenland and Antartica will be raising the oceans something between 7 to 70 feet in the next twenty years, that’ll going to make your loft here a pretty nice wading pool. Or maybe it’ll be an aquarium, right? Meanwhile, Detroit’s about 600 feet above sea level, so like Bill Murray says, we’ve got that going for us, which is nice."
#3: the "Everything is Relative" answer
"Yeah, well, I love it. I mean, you hear it’s dangerous in Detroit, but I don’t know, depends how you define "dangerous." I tell you what I think is dangerous, all those millions of people living in the middle of the desert, watching as their water tables dry up and their rivers disappear. Phoenix, Tempe, Vegas, those places are actually terrifying. Those cities are living an utterly delusional existence. Vegas gets four inches of rain a year, we get thirty. So, I don’t know about you, but sitting next to a few great lakes makes me feel a whole lot safer. "
#4: the Economist’s answer
"I love it ‘cause you know what they say about New York: walk twenty feet, spend twenty dollars? Well, in Detroit we don’t walk anywhere."
#5: the Wide Eyed Optimist’s answer
"I love it, ‘cause it’s like a blank slate. You want to do something in New York? Good luck, a hundred people had the same idea and already failed at it. You want to do something in Detroit? Go for it, the rent’s practically free, everybody know’s everybody, and they’re all willing to help. It really is the land of dreams."
Now, I’m not saying these answers are particularly effective at changing minds, I haven’t exactly inspired a mass migration to the motor city, but they are, honestly, solid reasons why I think Detroit is an under sung jewel of a city.
(Of course, these all pale beside the best answer, supplied by Detroit native Moodymann when asked by Real Detroit if he looks to New York for influence, "Why look there when I’ve got the baddest city under my feet and the most beautiful black women on the planet?")
Why would you ever take a vacation to the same place you’ve always been? If you already find yourself surrounded by a bunch of Banana Republics and Gaps and Pottery Barns, well, why go anywhere else? Socks, toasters, you’ve got it all right there.
And yet time and again when I’m traveling, I am always shocked to see the same vanilla big box stores and restaurants plopped down in the middle of unique places that once had character. Sure enough, everything gets less interesting. Why travel to Georgetown or Charleston when you can buy buy fancy deodorant at the Body Shop right there in Lansing and Troy?
Which is why as Detroit develops its downtown, it has to stop praying that big box stores will come save it. The Catch 22 is that only way to do lure the stores downtown is to prove there are already shoppers there. And the only way to lure shoppers downtown is by having stores there. So how do you do it? And where will they go?
I’ll never forget the first time I turned the corner and discovered Capitol Park. It felt like someone had stolen a chunk of London and dropped it right down in the middle of South Eastern Michigan. It’s like one tiny corner that a century of lousy city planning didn’t screw up, at least not physically. The area was as desolate as any place else in downtown, with the exception of the people sleeping on the benches of the bus depot, but it was easy to see that this spot was different, it had potiential.
Soon after, I heard how now that the city is moving the bus terminal, it has some kind of master plan for Capitol Park. I have no idea what the plan is or what it involves, but I hope that it goes something like this:
Introducing Toby Barlow’s Slightly Delusional "If I Were King of Detroit This Is What I Would Do With Capitol Park: A Fantasy"
The only way to get shoppers downtown is to cram some corner of downtown with cool, curious, easily accessible shopping experiences.
Capitol Park, right by the Book Cadillac hotel, will offer special city grants on low ten year mortgages for unique boutique stores and shops that have already shown a commitment to the inner city.
So, a visitor finding themselves downtown might swing over to the Capitol Park and stop in at the Mezzanine to look at furniture, the Bureau of Urban Living for some nice wine glasses, Design 99 for some funky design piece, or the John King Annex for a cup of coffee and a book.
Now, these are all businesses that already exist in the city, but you have to drive for twenty minutes around town and find three parking spots to see them. By consolidating them you will offer visitors something they can’t get anywhere else, unique Detroit places with unique Detroit visions.
Get Ryan and Philip Cooley to open a little stand equivalent to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and suddenly the little square is a bonafide unique destination, one people would actually come visit.
Once the nick-nackers, cool hunters andgift shoppers start rolling into town, those Banana Republic, Chipotle Burrito, Pottery Barn conglomerates will come scurrying in too, all set to push the little guy out of the D. Who knows, maybe Detroit will protect the small businesses who helped bring the city back, or maybe the greater forces of evil will prevail.
But that would be a nice problem for the city to have, wouldn’t it?
I began in this town like many newcomers do, wide-eyed and dreaming of possibilities. But Detroit is a tough town. You bring any idea for a brighter, shinier tomorrow and into the room someone is always ready to knock you down.
For instance, when I first showed up, I found myself downtown idly musing about the train station.
"Aw, waddaya gotta bring that up for?" asked the fellow at the next barstool.
I ordered another beer and explained how I worked on a film crew once and when we needed a shot of down-and-out urban grit, guess where we filmed? The train station. When tourists want to see signs of what the rust belt’s ugly decline, where do we take them? Locals like to ignore it’s even there, but for the rest of the world, that the Michigan Central Station’s broken down façade stands out front and center as the pre-eminent symbol of our city’s decline.
Meanwhile, plans for the site seem to be eternally stalled. Matty Moroun appeared on the verge of selling it to the city but as far as I know, nothing has happened. There’s no "Save the Station" organization and no visible plan for what to do next.
This is a tragedy of no small order, after all, the building was designed by the same architects who built Grand Central Station. Ideally, something bold and visionary could be done with the station.
Either that, or it should be razed.
That’s when the guy on the barstool came to life again, "Yeah! Tear it down!" he shouted.
"Wait, wait." I said, "If it were renovated, it would cost something like three or four hundred million dollars. But we shouldn’t stop there, we should spend whatever it takes to make it one of the pre-eminent green buildings in the world."
Now the fellow got all ornery, "Woah, what? Detroit is lucky to get ANY kind of development and now you want to jack up the cost by making it all eco-green? What are you, some kind of communist hippie?" That’s when he took a swing at me.
I ducked his punch and pushed him off the barstool before continuing. "Yes," I say, "Because among other issues, Detroit’s problem is that it’s perceived as a throw back to the industrial age. They think we’re dirty, polluted, and frankly kind of backwards. Having an icon like the train station reborn as a geothermal, solar powered building with wind generators on the top, would turn everyone’s idea of Detroit on its ear. Bill McDonough could do it. He did an amazing job on the River Rouge plant."
At this point the guy pushes himself up from the floor and puts up his dukes in a classic Popeye pose. "Come on!" he mumbled, "Come on!"
"Or, I suppose you’re right, we could raze it." I said, trying to appease him in the hopes he’d settle down, "But in that case I would raise money to make a nice city park on the grounds, one that ran to the river. We could save a few pillars from the station and make the park sort of like classical ruins of old, say like Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. It would be a lot less expensive and the town could probably use a nice park like that. Kind of like what they’re doing with the High Line in New York."
"High Line?! High Line?! I’ll show you a High Line!" I’m not sure what he meant, but at this point the fellow was dancing around, winding up and getting ready to deliver one doozy of a punch. I tried to ignore him.
"I’d prefer keeping it and restoring it." I continue, "The ideal solution, as far as I can tell, is if someone made the renovation part of a bigger notion. Tie it, say, to a large endowment for renewable science studies at Michigan. The building could be filled with labs and classrooms. The tracks below would carry the students to Anne Arbor and back all day, connecting the two cities with the sort of affordable high speed transit you already find in many of the world’s truly modern cities.
It sounds crazy, but if the right people are approached and the right plans are put on the table, it’s eminently doable. In ten years, the station could go from being an abject grotesque ruin to being the home of world’s next big idea. Until then, it’s just standing there, silently looming over us, taunting us, waiting for the rest of the Detroit to sink down into its ruin."
By the time the drunk finally swung at me, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I’d honestly forgotten he was even there. His fist hit my head – ironically enough - with the full force of a freight train and I was down on the floor, knocked out cold.
Which is too bad, really, ‘cause I think he would have really liked my plans for Tiger Stadium.