Sunday, February 27, 2011

Detroit: Send a poet, not a reporter

The Michigan Central Station is a sad reminder of  Detroit's former glory.

Detroit — It wasn't so many years ago that Detroiters called their booming town "The Third City." They proudly bragged that when American cities were listed in order of greatness Detroit had a firm hold on third place after New York and Second City (Chicago). And those Detroiters would have been right. Back then Detroit was also known as "the Paris of the Midwest". But that was then and this is now.

It is all too sad. And, for me, it's an eye-opener. As a child I wondered how the Roman Empire, so big and so powerful, could collapse so quickly and so completely. It was unfathomable. From my perspective, so many centuries after the fact, it seemed to have happened almost overnight.

Today I have the answer. The urban fabric is fragile. For proof, I simply look at Detroit. It was the perfect city of my youth. It offered something for everyone. It was, in the words of today's city planners, one big example of placemaking.

An abandoned dental office in Detroit.
What makes Detroit stand out is the utter collapse of its economic underpinnings. Proud buildings were abandoned essentially over night, and with no money to demolish them they were left to slowly decay.

Along with the economic collapse, there was a vast upheaval in the social fabric of Detroit itself. As jobs left, the upper and middle class left. Poverty and the problems associated with poverty became the blight.

Detroit neighborhoods suffering from the blight rotted and died. And the blight was infectious; It spread into adjacent neighbourhoods. Hardly a neighbourhood was spared.

On the 25th anniversary of the Detroit riots, The London Free Press sent a reporter and me to Motown to discover what had changed with the passing of two and half decades. The reporter didn't have a feel for the Detroit of the past. He didn't share my sense of loss. It was an assignment for a poet and not a reporter. He missed the story.

I took this shot back in the mid '60s in Detroit.

Please take a look at the posted pictures from a new book, The Ruins of Detroit. Read about the authors in this The New York Times post. The accompanying NYT slide show is good but it duplicates some of the shots from the first link. Or read Ruin with a View, a NYT review of two books examining the collapse of a Detroit: The Ruins of Detroit and Detroit Disassembled.

Quoting the last paragraph of the NYT review:

"Ruins are a loaded subject, one that puts metaphor within easy reach. Marchand and Meffre show us a flag lying on the floor of a deserted church. The images here constitute a requiem for an American empire in a state of precipitous decline. Both books feature the same clock on a classroom wall, its frozen hands and melted face right out of a Dalí painting — as if time in Detroit had ticked to a halt, distorted, when in fact, with our gridlocked government and blind faith in our own exceptionalism, time is passing us by."
London train station build in1886-7 and demolished in 1937.

Truth be told, most of us don't have to look as far as Detroit to see the fragility of our civilized world. We only have to look at our own cities and towns. Try to recall what has been ripped from your city's fabric over the years. I warn you this can be tricky; We have very short collective memories.

Documenting my own city's disappearing heritage is far harder than documenting Detroit's. In some ways it is even harder than documenting the losses suffered by ancient Rome. In London, Ontario, we tear down and replace and then tear down again. The station pictured above stood at the south-east corner of Clarence and Bathurst Streets and was designed by F. H. Spier, a famous Detroit architect. It was demolished in the '30s.

Waiting room of '37 station
After the loss of this little jewel, CNR built a passenger station nearby in 1937. The new station had "broad landscaped station grounds extending from Clarence to Richmond streets. It has a semi-circular concrete driveway and walkway approach to the main entrance. It has shrub-topped terraces . . . "

This new jewel didn't last three decades. It was replaced by a couple of structures, one being the 10 storey CN Tower Building, which has now also been demolished.

Today London has a new station, and it has already undergone changes since its opening. Few remember the now gone food counter which graced the new station on its opening, even fewer recall the rich history of prior railroad stations. I doubt many passengers realize the underground route to the VIA trains is a last, lingering memory of the long gone '37 station.

On the bright side, the newest London station, although possibly influenced by fast food restaurant design, is a better train station than many found in Canadian cities.

One last note: This post sat queued, forgotten and unposted for many weeks. I have to thank a Montreal reader for jogging my memory. This reader sent me a link to the Quebec blog Ma Revue. Many of the photos of Detroit shown in that Ma Revue post are ones I had linked to earlier. Thank you D.N.

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