We were driving along Cass Avenue in Detroit, with friends who lived just across the nearby border, in Canada.
‘We came here before’, said one of our friends, ‘and turned into this road accidentally and the woman with us, she freaked. She just started screaming. It didn’t help any. But even so. I knew why she was so terrified. Its reputation was that bad. It was… It was frightening. I was scared too. It’s unbelievable driving along it now. I can’t believe it was that bad. And I can’t believe it’s this good’.
He was right. It was good. All of downtown Detroit was good. More than good. It was beautiful. It was one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. The art deco skyscrapers, the broad open streets, the gorgeous food joints and expensive hotels. Nearly all of it clean and gleaming and solid and cared for. It looked like people had put love into it, as well as money.
I’m guessing this isn’t news to you. Most people now have heard about Detroit’s revival. I’m only one of a long line of tourists to have visited the city centre recently and gaze open-mouthed at its marvels. Which was another thing our Canadian friends couldn’t quite believe. They still recalled how surprised everyone had been a few years ago when the story went around that Detroit was reopening its tourist office. Could it even be true? Had it actually been closed in the bad years? How did they know tourists would come now?
Plenty more rumours swirled. There were new tales about billionaire investors and people moving in from New York and buying up whole blocks, alongside all the older legends about the bad old days of shootings, police corruption, the army moving in to restore order on the streets. We were told about the amount of money that still needed to be spent, the number of shootings that still happened there, and then odd little things like the fact that Jack White of the White Stripes had set up a record factory and gift shop right in the middle of the city.
Wait. What? The Seven Nation Army guy? That last one seemed especially unlikely. So, of course, within minutes we were pulling up outside another lovingly restored building with the legend Third Man Records over the door. Jack White had indeed built a vinyl-junkie’s paradise. The store had a viewing area where you could see into the factory where the records were being made. The listening booths were there – and an amazing old juke box with model musicians (‘The Syncopators’) on top, vaguely keeping time with the record. There was also a stage area. T-shirts for sale. And so many beautiful LPs.
Everything was beautiful, as I keep saying. The shop next door was even crazier. This was the Shinola bike and watch store. The stuff in there was all kinds of lovely. But also terrifying. None of it had price tags. Their customers were the kind of people who didn’t have to ask.
As my friends said, it was impossible to believe. And it was equally hard to imagine that it wasn’t so long since this street had felt like a warzone. This just wasn’t the Detroit I’d seen in films like 8-Mileor read about during all those media reports about the crack epidemic, the mayor who was put in prison on Rico conspiracy charges, the poverty, the burned-out family homes. This was a different city. One where the first grocery store to open in years was the upmarket (and absurdly expensive) Wholefoods, and where, yes, tourists like me took admiring daytrips.
But on a daytrip, you only skim the surface. And even then, I came to understand that the gleaming downtown doesn’t tell the whole story. Within a five-minute drive from downtown, you can find yourself among streets almost entirely emptied of houses. In late August, they had their own beauty, with the vacant lots filled with wildflowers and long grasses. But the story they told was tragic. So too the burned-out houses that hadn’t yet been cleared, the abandoned cars, the odd isolated house where people were still hanging on. There was still plenty of poverty. Plenty of work to do.
Our friends took us out to the East Side of Detroit, in the McDouggall Hunt neighbourhood and we found ourselves driving along a street that had been turned into a work of artistic protest. One of the remaining pre-war wooden houses was covered in colourful dots. Another had the word ‘you’ painted all over its walls. Where the houses had gone, the lots were filled with artworks. There were dozens of paintings of clocks, cars half submerged in the grass and painted in bright colours. There was a boat full of stuffed toys. There were shoes everywhere – many of them also painted in pinks and greens and yellows. Phones connected to nothing. More toys, more clocks, more cars. In the middle of it all, a person painting.
It turned out this was Tyree Guyton, the man who has been working on this singular art installation for the past three decades in defiance of the emptying out of his neighbourhood. He was busy preparing for a show in New York and is now quite possibly one of America’s most famous artists. But he was happy to talk to our little group all the same – especially our young daughters. He joked around with them, asked their ages and pointed to the building covered in the word ‘you’ and told them that’s who they could become and that ‘you’ can be anything. Which sounded much more poetic when he said it, his trousers spattered in paint and white and green marks on his face from the picture he’d been working on.
My friend was surprised at how much things had changed since last time he visited. Apparently, several houses had disappeared, as well as a few big artworks. When he asked Tyree about it, the artist gestured to the sky and said, ‘Look at how the clouds move. I’m under them, subject to the weather, just like everyone else. Things change. But I’m okay – I got time’.
He was right about that. Alongside all the paintings of clocks, one of the most beautiful artworks was a huge sundial set into the ground where a house had once been. The hours were marked out by glass bottles concreted into place, while the dial itself had to be provided by a human body, standing in the middle. I went to this centre point just as the sun came out from behind a cloud. The shadow I cast told just the right time: 5:40pm.
It was almost the end of a fine day. But there was one more bit of tourism to come. Before we left, we were called over by an old woman sitting on the porch of her yellow house on the end of the street. ‘You can write your name on the wall for a dollar’, she said. ‘And become part of the art’.
I paid up for my daughter and her friend and the woman asked where I came from. She didn’t seem particularly impressed that I was from Norwich in England, but she was polite all the same. ‘People come here from all over everywhere’, she said. ‘I don’t need to travel. All the world comes to me’.
Just to prove the point, a man from the Czech Republic walked over and gave her $5 to write his own name on the building. Everyone seemed happy with the exchange. There were, I thought, worse ways to earn a buck.