If you’ve ever seen post-apocalyptic movies like Resident Evil or I Am Legend, you can picture exactly what downtown Detroit looks like, without ever having been there.
Windowless, abandoned buildings spy on you as you make your way across empty streets. Trash peppers the sidewalks, and there is barely a living soul in sight. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The one resounding question in your head is, “What the hell happened here?”
Unlike in science fiction stories, there were no zombies, epidemics, or nuclear explosions responsible for the city’s undoing—simply an outdated economy. Detroit was once an industrial hub, a Midwest confluence of rail lines that made it possible for trains to transport goods across the country. The automobile industry thrived—that is, until more and more manufacturing jobs went overseas. Americans fell for European and Japanese cars, soon after abandoning Detroit’s Motor City like a pathetic part-time lover.
It’s hard to believe that Motown (an abbreviation of “Motor Town” that eventually became synonymous with the musical genre) could have ever been born in such a dejected environment. These days, silence permeates the air. In a way, the correlation between zombies and Detroit isn’t so inaccurate; the city’s not quite dead, but it’s not exactly alive either.
I’m riding a bike that I rented for $10 a day from my hostel. At this point, I haven’t heard anything about Detroit’s crime rates or economic drought. All I know is that it’s sunny outside and I want to see whether I can bike to Canada, which is located miles across the water. The only car on the street stops next to me while I’m snapping a photo, and a guy wearing a sideways Tigers cap in the passenger seat yells his phone number at me repeatedly, telling me to call him. I’m neither flattered nor amused.
Sadly, I can’t bike to Canada. I realize that I don’t have my passport with me and give up my dreams of integrating myself into the Canadian public health system (a girl can dream!). Instead, I opt to stake out in front of the water to look longingly across the river. If I can’t go to Canada, I can at least stare at it until it feels uncomfortable.
While I’m trying to enjoy the view, a police car pulls up next to me. Two eyes, a nose, and then an entire face appear above the slowly descending tinted window. “You be careful out here,” the officer says, with ominous cadence. The window rolls back up with a laggard hum, and pebbles crunch beneath the rubber tires as the car rolls away. Odd, I think to myself.
Slightly disturbed by the encounter, I decide to bike back to the hostel, where I’m then warned about the crime rate. Suddenly, the empty streets, fenced-off buildings, and barred windows make perfect sense. Thankfully, nothing had happened to me while I was out. Paranoia successfully peaked.
On my day of departure, I wait for the double-decker bus that will eventually ship me back to Chicago and out of these post-apocalyptic ruins. I’m at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal, newly constructed and surprisingly vacant. My phone is about to die, so I search for an outlet to charge it. After finding one, I sit down on the floor next to my backpack and charging phone. A security guard is standing five feet to my left, so I figure that I’m in a (somewhat) strategically safe position. A woman looks over, approaches me, and iterates (with much sass), “You better put yo’ shit away, girl. They gon’ rob you.” The security guard, who overhears the woman talking to me, glances over at me and gives a conciliatory nod. I stuff everything into my backpack and clutch it against my chest until my bus arrives.
Despite its abandon and otherwise uninspired cityscapes, the poetry of Detroit lies in the optimism of its remaining inhabitants. While most people have opted out of downtown and chased jobs into the suburbs, some hardliners remain true to their city. They hope that Detroit can revive, redevelop and repurpose its downtown area to emulate its heyday. Others stick around because they have nowhere else to go. One wonders, is this level of commitment semblance of sanctimony or proof of parsimony?
Admittedly, my habit of hyperbole might get me into some trouble with Detroit’s tourism department. In Detroit’s defense, I’ve heard that it’s a great place to live if you know where to go and what to do (though, apparently, I neither found these places nor did those things). The optimist in me hopes that Detroit gets back on its feet (or wheels) somehow. Until then, I simply don’t see myself frequenting a town that so quickly triggers the most primal of my survival instincts.