10pm, Sat 12th November 2011
Never let taxi drivers influence your view of a place! Their livelihood depends on scaring you out of your wits.
I already knew Detroit was a strange place but I was determined to give it a chance. As Jerry Herron, Director of American Studies at Wayne State University puts it “Nowhere else has American modernity so completely had its way with people and place alike”. So much so that some of the basics of civilisation have been removed – the car is so dominant that the only shuttle services from the airport are run by the car rental firms. There is no option but a taxi, and there is a man whose job it is to explain that and open the car door with great courtesy. Massive road-side ads implore the kindly to ‘DONATE YOUR CAR’ to veterans or mothers of toddlers or other needy and deserving folk. My driver explained that the depopulation of Detroit is a good thing because lots of the bad people (‘the welfare’) have left. He said he did not want to sound like a racist, he couldn’t be one because he’s from a minority, but that ‘African-American men have destroyed the city because they don’t care’. Then he told me how bad the crime is, how I shouldn’t go out or walk anywhere and certainly mustn’t catch buses. And then he dropped me off at the Renaissance Centre – a mini-city in a set of futuristic towers, an alien environment that brought home what London’s South Bank would be like if Coin Street Communitybuilders had not fought and won their struggle back in the early 1980s. It’s like a cross between an airport, a car showroom and a shopping mall in a luxury timeshare resort. But my room is on the 65th floor of the hotel tower with floor to ceiling windows looking out at Canada just over the river for the price of a Premier Inn on the Euston Road, so I shouldn’t complain.
I was just grumbling to myself about having to pay for wifi when I realised that the Motown Museum is closed on Mondays as well as Sundays so if I was going to make it I’d have to go right away. I hurried down the 65 floors and was bundled into a taxi by the red-coated doorman who had been told to look after me by my airport taxi-man.
Motown Museum at Hitsville USA, 2648 West Grand Boulevard – the best museum tour imaginable and, until Ben Stiller invites me to a sleepover at the Smithsonian, it’ll be the highlight of my museum experiences. A good video to kick off and the museum is well laid out but it was our guide Antonio who made it special. Incredibly knowledgeable, fast-talking, full of facts about the amazing story of Berry Gordy and the $865 family loan that turned into the mega-wonderful Motown. He also had us all singing along to the songs that punctuated his commentary, clapping our hands into the attic space to hear the echo that made the Motown sound, gasping at the couch where Marvin Gaye would crash out, the Baby Ruth candy bar that was Stevie Wonder’s favourite, the typewriter Martha Reeves used when she was just the secretary, the silver encrusted glove donated by Michael Jackson that was stolen but recovered when MC Hammer offered a $50,000 reward.
By the time we got into Studio A the magic was palpable. This old converted garage was a place of dreams. Antonio made us imagine it in the mid 60s when they only had a two-track so the chain-smoking Funk Brothers musicians, the hand-clappers and the foot-tappers all had to be in the room together with no air-con in case it spoiled the sound. He told us how a few months ago he gave the tour for Sir Paul Macartney who promised to get the old 1887 piano re-tuned and has lent them a brand-new Steinway to take its place in the meantime. For his grand finale Antonio got ‘the ladies’ on one side of the studio being the Supremes, hand on hip singing ‘Stop in the Name of Love’ and then the men doing the Temptations Walk and singing ‘My Guy’. I absolutely HATE singing and would normally squirm with shame. But I loved every second and so did everyone in that room. Maybe you can tell from the pic?! I wish I could have photographed the ladies… We even met Antonio’s mum at the very end!
Then suddenly we had exited through the gift shop, bought the t-shirt, and everyone else was off to their cars. I was faced with dark and scary Detroit where “the crime ain’t just muggings and robbery but murder and rape and all that”. I tried calling my Senegalese taxi driver who had brought me here but there was no answer. I set off walking and was immediately accosted by two separate degenerates. I hurried back to Hitsville USA, thinking I could wait inside but they were closed now. A smart black couple that had been on the tour were still outside so I talked to them. The guy was from Detroit and reassured me I could either get a taxi from outside the Henry Ford Hospital a few blocks away or walk on and go down Woodward which would be safe enough and leads due south all the way to downtown.
Well, reader, I walked… a total of 5.2 miles which took me an hour and a half and included some pretty stressful stretches of desolate roadside. If I hadn’t stopped smoking six weeks ago I’d have finished a pack tonight. The main reason it’s so bad is simply that there aren’t enough people and everyone drives. So the people that are out tend to be scarier, partly for their own protection no doubt. The vast open lots, half-lit underpasses, and the occasional small crowd of men outside a liquor store felt like an endurance test and it didn’t help when some weird scurrying in a rubbish bin turned out to be a large rat making its way between the inner bag and the outer grille. Not that rats are dangerous but they’re not good for the nerves! Anyway, eventually I arrived downtown which is definitely being regenerated with a lot more light and public realm improvements, and was completely taken aback by the sight of several dozen well-dressed white people making their way towards me in little clusters – they were on their way to the Opera House in their lovely dresses and bow-tie tuxes. I got lost for a while because the grid system had disappeared but eventually made my way to Greektown, which my airport taxi had said was ‘nice’. Mmm, it’s lively, bright and human-scale with roads no wider than most English high streets and a rash of neon signs announcing ‘Pegasus’, ‘Parthenon’ and ‘The Golden Fleece’. I ate in the latter, recommended by Rough Guide, and it was good and friendly and the pint of iced water was sublime after my trek.
Then I made my way back to the RenCen, passing a woman crooning to herself at top decibel and street guys cuddling up to the warm air vents (how come they have these NY-style vents when there’s no damn subway?). The alien RenCen environment managed to feel like ‘home’ after my adventures and I shot up to the 65th floor for a shockingly good river view with the lights of Canada’s casinos outshining the moon. On this side a multi-storey carpark is flanked by 1,500 further empty spaces while a small colony of nine cars huddles close to the base of the tower.
Tomorrow I’ll decide between a trip to the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn or heading back 3/5ths of tonight’s walk for the double-bill of the Museum of African American History and the Detroit Institute of Arts. What I’d really like is to talk to some Detroiters, especially Grace Lee Boggs, the 95-year old widow of civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs. I read an interview with her about food farming in Detroit. When asked whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture she said “city government is irrelevant. Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind, do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.” I wish I’d done more to prepare the visit and/or that I was here for longer. But I’m off to Chicago on Monday and she’s probably too busy occupying somewhere…!