This is not the story of Detroit but this is a story that explains what Detroit looks like, for those who have never been there, for those who assume they know.
Imagine a city, vast and gleaming and packed with grand, intricate skyscrapers as well as humble storefronts, as serious as any city you’ve seen, as heavily chromed and beautifully adorned as anywhere you’ve been. Then imagine swaths of it destroyed, by some uncaring force of nature or cruel villain, and subsequently abandoned. Picture an uneven and incomplete sort of annihilation: sometimes half a neighborhood is gone, while the other half remains. Sometimes just a block or two is blighted, windows boarded up, as if a little attention could bring it all back to life. Sometimes there are long empty avenues, long enough that they would, in other places, constitute whole towns. Now imagine that some of the people who had fled or been driven out returned, because they saw something magical in the remaining beauty and also in the ruins – they saw both sides of the city like something from a mythical past ready to be transformed into something new. And other people saw what they were building and came from elsewhere, and absent the formal strictures of more successful cities, all of them ran free in this half-ravaged metropolis. They painted out-sized colorful fantasies on the walls, they opened dark bars and creative little shops in old brick buildings, their entrances almost invisible from the street. They formed a nearly secret and exclusively hip world behind deceptively empty doorways, and all around them there were, as there always are, the people who had never left, who had kept the dim but necessary lights on in the city through its darkest hours. Together, all these people periodically filled the otherwise desolate streets with music and commerce and abundance, turned feral concrete corridors into grown-up playground wonderlands, and plastered everything with proof of their pride. From a crumbling urban wilderness that in some ways was never as bad as outsiders assumed, and in other ways was worse, a uniquely and distinctly American place reconstituted itself, and rose again. But it had never really fallen, not completely; it was only morphing into a new entity for a new age, less golden than the ones that had shaped it.
Last year, I took my first trip to Detroit. I skimmed the surface of Downtown and Greektown and Corktown, as well as the residential area where my dad grew up long ago. I didn’t know its name, but it was far from the bustle of the business district, a grid of solid brick houses and empty lots bordered by a grim commercial strip. As I walked and drove in different parts of the city, I noticed that almost every business was decorated with eye-catching lettering, retro-vintage cool spilling across the storefronts from the busy central city to the bleak outlying sprawl. I gazed up at the narrow circular track of the people-mover that automatically snakes above the city like an electric ghost. I walked along the waterfront, a cool breeze blowing off the Detroit River, Ontario in the distance. I waited in surprisingly heavy traffic and gazed out at elegant parks and monuments and roundabouts. I knew it was too much to take in on one visit, or five. I knew before I left that I was going back.
And so, on this trip, I decide to limit myself to Eastern Market. This is both a market – one of America’s oldest and biggest – and a neighborhood. It’s also a historic district, an outdoor art gallery, a shopping and dining destination, and, at least on the Saturday in summer when I drive north on the Interstate that curves along Lake Erie, a general celebration of life. Brick-roofed “sheds” that evoke the nation’s earliest market traditions shelter rows upon rows of vendors selling flowers, baked goods, meats, vegetables, coffee, clothing, plants, popcorn, fruit, jewelry, and on and on.
The market and its atmosphere spill out along the streets, into parking lots, across one of those fenced-in walkways above the highway. The large and small shops bordering the market sell groceries – specialties and essentials – as they have for many decades. There are also coffee shops, restaurants, and stores selling so many types of merchandise that I don’t even bother making a list of them, selling anything you might want and many things you wouldn’t even know to want unless you ventured inside. Many of these businesses promote themselves with exuberant murals, old-timey advertisements turned public art.
Colors are everywhere, painted on the sides of buildings in portraits and patterns and explosions of flowers. Words are everywhere, too: Nothing Stops Detroit. Detroit Hustles Harder. Detroit vs. Everyone.
The whole area is packed, in a calm and contented way. Drivers circle the multiple free parking lots and the spaces along the blocks that surround the sheds, scanning for an empty spot and not getting angry when they don’t find one after ten or twenty minutes. People on foot move in a slow mass through the aisles created by vendors’ tables and along the sidewalks, some determined to fill their wagons with their weekly groceries and others, like me, simply wandering, distracted by the people and goods in all directions.
It’s such a worn old cliché to write about how diverse a place is, how filled with “all sorts of people, from all walks of life.” But that is the only accurate description of the population in and around Eastern Market on this Saturday. There are people of every color and every age, dressed in every style or lack thereof. There are tour groups that file out of buses, kids on field trips from camp or school, and elderly travelers with practical hats and expensive cameras, stalking the streets on a mural safari. There are couples, families, individuals, trios of suburban women flipping their expensive hair, and at least one cluster of protestors, themselves a varied group. Several genres of live music drift from corners, and the smell of every type of food wafts from food trucks and restaurants and market stalls. A woman walking in front of me talks on her cellphone, attempting to locate a friend she’s meeting up with in the throng. “So many people come here now,” she says, half-complaining, half-not.
When I leave Eastern Market I am exhausted in the exhilarating way a big new city exhausts you when you’ve gone too long without spending time in a big new city. I am hot, sweaty, limping on feet blistered from trying to cross every street and round every corner. I should be tired but I’m fully awake, inspired, wishing I had more time to stay longer and keep exploring. I drive south on local roads through neighborhoods and suburbs and small towns, because my GPS has developed an aversion to highways that I can’t override. I am daydreaming of a world in which one could live in a different city every day; on Saturdays, I would live in Detroit.