“Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet”
City without people
“The metropolis of the world,” “the commercial heart of the world,” I read these descriptions in “Master of Shadows,” a book by New Yorker Mark Lamster. It’s not his own city he’s talking about, but 16th-century Antwerp, about the time that Peter Paul Rubens’s parents were married. Some time later, the couple, with four children in tow, fled the city, like thousands of other Antwerpers escaping the Spanish army’s jihad.
By 1620 the city had lost half its population. Lamster quotes an English diplomat observing that “Antwerp was a city without people,” while Amsterdam, bursting at the seams, was “a people without a city.” People die and are gone forever. Cities one must not ever declare dead. Antwerp, Amsterdam, New York: these are just a few of the many cities with fascinating cycles of decline and rebirth.
Half a century of problems
In January, I was in Detroit. In her glory days around 1950, over two million people lived there. “Detroit’s problems have been going on for half a century,” said mayor Dave Bing at a press conference. “In the last year, tens of thousands more inhabitants have left.” He estimated the current population at 850,000. In the Cobo Center, the International Auto Show had just opened. “The time of the monoculture of the automobile in Detroit is over,” Bing said. “We need to diversify.” Later that morning, I walked by some of America’s most gorgeous skyscrapers, some of them brilliantly restored. Others have been empty for years. Plenty of room for new ideas. That night, Tom and Shirley, two local artist friends, took me out for dinner at Mario’s, in the Cass Corridor.
Mario’s has been here since 1948. Almost every table was taken. “Thisarea is doing better now,” said Tom who used to teach painting at nearby Wayne State University. Real estate in the Cass Corridor has become so cheap it draws adventurous people wanting to test daring new ideas.
For dessert my friends took me on a tour of the new acquisitions. “Street lights were shut off for years, as a cost-saving measure,” Tom said, “but now the city has switched them on again.” We passed the Burton Theater, a movie theater in an old school building that shows foreign films, and Curl Up and Dye, a retrostyle hair salon. “It’s doing very well,” Shirley remarked, “even kids from the suburbs come here.” A little down the road was Good Girls Go to Paris, a new crêpes place next to Leopold’s, a bookstore. “And that’s Breezecab,” Shirley said. “They have two rickshaws doing city tours.”
Call me naïve, but if cities once declared dead, like Antwerp and New York, managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps again and again, I dare hope that Detroit can, too. Some day...