Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who's driving my car now?

9:50 a.m. on a Tuesday, downtown Detroit

Driving with the windows open past the blinking yellow lights and 42-wheel tractor-trailers of Detroit’s morning rush hour, gaping at muscular stepped-back Art Deco skyscrapers decorated with multicolored brickwork and grandiose iconography (cadeuci, swastikas, treasure chests and shrieking cherubs) - and seriously bush-league graffiti - I hear a guy hollering out for the bus. Hold up for him, man – I bet it gets pretty lonely down here waiting for the next one to come.

It’s 9:14 AM in downtown Detroit.

"SERIOUSLY bush-league graffiti"

A stinking homeless man brushes past me – six lanes of street and a sidewalk twenty feet wide, why are you so close to me? - mumbling, “Have a blessed one,” and the only reason I don’t snap back, “Have a pestilent one – you and your little god too!” (I'm also having trouble finding coffee) is because I’m pretty sure we’re headed for the same place. The public library.

Sure enough. The Skillman Branch of the DPL is high-ceilinged, built-in bookcased, under-librarianed and seemingly (but probably not) over-security-guarded, and they have hot and cold running wi-fi, electrical outlets, and excellent old-fashioned oak case tables and chairs. Their graphic novel collection, however, labeled “Manga,” is filed by title, and has color-coded age labels that are alarmingly inaccurate. Sure, Bone is for everyone, but Emiko Superstar is definitely Young Adult.

Pretty, vacant

Back on the street, driving, 11 AM, I veer impulsively down a side street. Too late – aagh – One Way! I pull over and freeze, trying to figure out what to do, as a man on the sidewalk bats not even one eye. Slowly I realize that nobody’s coming, there are no other cars as far as the eye can see, and none on the cross street. People here make no-look mid-block U-turns like basketball stars showing off their passing, and they treat red lights with a nonchalance bordering on contempt.

Maybe, despite all indications to the contrary, they really do need to get somewhere in a hurry – there are clocks just above street level on the corners of half the buildings here, and half of those even work.

Eastern Wig & Hair Co., 1400 Woodward

Once you get where you’re going in Detroit, everyone wants you to park. Parking is big here. Valet parking is offered in front of the merest deli and pharmacy, and giant signs and arrows advertise enormous garages and lots. Parking. Let me say this: parking is the last thing you have to worry about in Detroit. Hell yeah there’s parking – it’s a fucking steppe out here. Half the buildings are completely empty, a quarter have a wig shop at street level and are otherwise empty, and the rest? I think the owners let the tenants stay there for free.

Transept, Fisher Building, Detroit

The Fisher Building, for example – one of the most ornate secular buildings I’ve ever seen, with gilt and mosaics and seventy kinds of marble and twelve-foot-tall hanging light fixtures and painted groined vaulted ceilings, ahhh! - is tenanted entirely by nonprofits and government agencies. None of those people actually pay rent, I bet. It’s all got to be subsidized, I’m sure by the city, so that such a landmark doesn’t go empty and fall into disrepair.

Taking pictures in the nave of that building, people who work in it kept pausing to look up with me. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” “It sure is.” “No building like it in the world, is there?” “No ma’am. You’re fortunate to work here.”

It’s actually Fisher that’s fortunate. It may be the most fabulous building in Detroit, but it’s by no means the only one. Many of those empty skyscrapers (some easily 40 stories), built in the 1920’s, when money floated around like puffy white clouds here, would in any other city be considered jewels of the built landscape. Detroit is where decorative architecture spewed its last, explosive jets of tile insets and stained glass and cathedral-quality stonework... and then crawled off to slump in the corner and convert to strict functionalism out of sheer exhaustion.

Cass Ave entrance, Detroit Public Library

The central branch of the library, another shining temple of a building, doesn't open until noon on weekdays. They've had a freeze on hiring professionals for two years and there are rumors of corruption at the management level; the vinyl chairs in the business section are twenty years old and cracked, but the murals on the third floor are fifty years old and glowing. Ok, that's Detroit. The average age of a librarian is 56.

But while every other big building I've been in here echoes like a marble tomb, this place is buzzing with people - lots and lots of people flowing in and out, using the computers, checking out books, attending programs. The librarians smile. Damn it. In an economically depressed area, library services are the last thing that should be underfunded.

We are the hollow men

The library is the anomaly, though. Everywhere else it's the same: an environment built for armies – armies of auto workers stamping and bending metal to make Mercury Sables and Ford Tauri, armies of suits marshalling their comings and their goings, and circling them, armies of prosperous, sharp, no-reason-not-to-be-optimistic feeders on this industry: admen, commodities brokers, labor brokers, hell, even parking brokers - has been simply left behind. There was not enough residual energy to demolish it before they left, or even to board it up. The Packard plant (above), where cars were built from 1907 until the 1950's, consists of 74 linked buildings on 80 acres. Nobody even bothers to break the glass anymore.

This had to have been a place that hummed. Danced. Harmonized. I would like to have seen it, but I have to admit, I love it empty. I took a lot of pictures.