This past weekend I had the chance to visit a city built on the backs of blue-collared, anchored in American history, and stapled in the 101 textbooks that put me in an HR state of mind. On Friday afternoon when I sat down in that plush seat, powered off my Droid, and relaxed my head against the back of my chair, all I could think about were the stories I read and the images previous visitors had painted for me of the place I was headed. “It couldn’t be that bad,” I thought. The media has a way of sensationalizing everything. People exaggerate their adventures. Statistics can be manipulated. People always see the bad before they see the good.
“The estimated time for today’s flight is one hour and forty-five minutes.”
My journey was underway.
I couldn’t tell you what I did on the flight other than think. One of the things I enjoy most about flying is that my mind can literally be in the clouds. So for just under two hours, it wandered. And when I felt my ears pop, I was back on the ground.
When the plane got reacquainted with the runway, it was clear I wasn’t in New York City anymore. Airplane cabins have a certain way of telling you where you are as soon as the pilots power down the engines. I couldn’t help but find truth in that ridiculous yet well-intentioned song about it being so cold in the D. I was Definitely in Detroit.
The Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) impressed me. It put La Guardia and JFK to shame and gave me a great first impression of the city. DTW was clean. Everything looked new. The people in the airport were friendly. Passengers weren’t scrambling. I felt at ease. See, I knew they were exaggerating with the stories.
Then I got hungry.
The first thing I do when I get to a new city is find food. It has to be something outside of the airport. A weird tradition I guess. I ended up at a mall, where I expected to get a feel for the pace of the city. It was Friday afternoon. Kids should’ve been out of school. People should’ve been out of work. A great formula for people watching. I didn’t expect the mall to be packed, but I thought I’d see a good number of people out and about window shopping at the least. So you can imagine my surprise when I walked in and found it to be dead like the Langoliers were about to eat it.
The food court was quiet. The mall was dashed with black folks going about their business in a fraction of what I expected. I took a look at the mall directory as my stomach rumbled and saw there was a Fuddrucker’s nearby, which — as a burger monster – left me no choice but to go there and grab something I didn’t need.
When I walked in, the proverbial tumbleweed blew by. It felt like I was at a diner just off the curve of a highway in the middle of no where, except I wasn’t worried about being lynched. It was Friday afternoon. Why was it so damn quiet? Was there a blizzard coming that I didn’t know about? Did I miss the tornado siren? Do they even get tornados out here in the middle of winter?
This was just the start of my weekend trip. Little did I know how much it was setting the tone for what was to come.
Over the course of the trip, I got to see a few parts and sites of the city. I didn’t realize Detroit was across the river from Canada. I didn’t know the Pistons played an hour away. I didn’t know the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings (oh my) were situated so close to downtown. I didn’t think the bumps in the road could be any worse than what I endured in Ithaca, NY. I didn’t realize coney island hotdogs were as common as water. I didn’t know a gas station could have better coffee than Dunkin Donuts. I’d forgotten the meaning of negative windchill. I’d forgotten that white people can do sh*t like roast marshmellows in 15 degree weather…in t-shirts…at an event called the Winter Blast.
Detroit taught and reminded me of a lot, but the biggest lessons of the weekend came in my unintentional yet intentional tour of the city. In “Tupac Back,” Meek Millz had a line that said something like “Rollin’ down in Philly this the new Iraq.”
The new Iraq is definitely a collection of neighborhoods in Detroit. This was the first time in my life I went down street after street of vacant homes with inhabited houses sprinkled here and there. And when I say vacant homes, I don’t mean foreclosed houses in decent shape with signs on the lawn. I mean houses and buildings with doors and windows that looked like they were blown out, and the scorched remains of homes that could’ve passed as victims of grenades. The closest thing I’d seen to this was my accidental trip through the hood near Morehouse, where boarded up buildings housed young black men in long white t-shirts circa 2005.
But these homes in Detroit were different. The struggling economy wiped these houses of their dignity. Vandalism looked like a way of life. Abandonment and foreclosure were mischievous brothers that ran amuck throughout the city, leaving a trail of depression behind. It was both eye-opening and disheartening to see the faded memories of those who left the area long ago. The pictures that previous visitors painted for me were crystal clear. And the words I read in newspapers turned into rotting shingles and crumbling brick.
What the hell happened here?
The worst part about it was my trip through the nice neighborhoods with homes that looked like mansions compared to the houses just a few streets over. These $300K+ abodes had guest houses above two-car garages and gates to remind you of affluence. These neighborhoods were coincidentally insulated by the depression around them. The irony. And without saying it, you can guess the predominant demographic of these areas despite the fact that the majority of the city is black. I don’t even need to go any further with this. I want to say we need to do better, but it’s hard to do better when the economy doesn’t support it.
The struggle is real in Detroit. The depreciation of property gave me an appreciation for my often loathed upstate NY hometown. Albany has its issues, but it’s nothing like what I saw this past weekend. Even with the good I viewed from my passenger seat, I can’t help but think about the broken homes.
I’m looking forward to going back to Detroit when the weather is nice though. It’s tough to see everything in two days — particularly when it’s brick sickles outside. But all around, I had an enjoyable trip. The ailing homes were a small part of the visit, but they had a big impact since I’ve never seen anything like that before. I could tell you about the fried chicken I ate, but we’ve all seen, smelled, and tasted that before.
Note to self: I’m bringing my passport next time and heading over to the casino across the river. But before that, I’ll be sure to spend some time at the park that looked like it bustles with pride when it’s not covered with snow. And I’ll do a walking tour of downtown and the historic landmarks spread throughout Detroit. Every city — regardless of it’s economic conditions — has greatness to offer. I’d love to paint you a brighter picture in a few months when the sun let’s me and the city be great. But for now, I’m still in a bit of shock.
Sometimes you just can’t sugar coat,