He stands alone with a mammoth building looming behind him. There are puddles at his feet. The sky has a quickened pace with beams of sun breaking through, dancing on the building. His dark sunglasses, well-kept mustache and military-grade buzzcut are a part of the uniform. His nametag reads “J. Dubois” and he is the sole police officer on patrol at the Michigan Central Station, a relic of Detroit’s storied past, closed to the public in ’88. Day in and day out, he protects the relinquished building with zeal. And he is damn proud of his job, and his city.

We just returned from a vacation in Detroit—only a few days after the once-booming city declared bankruptcy. And it was one of the most interesting, hopeful cities I’ve visited in recent memory. (Story continues after the jump.)

Now, there are endless arguments that intelligently outline the various, intertwined reasons for Detroit’s current happenstance. You have weighty arguments about deep corruption (former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick brought Detroit to its knees), systemic racism and “White Flight,” a major shift in the motor industry and The Big 3 being left behind still counting with their fingers, and rampant crime. I’m not going to purport to be an expert in any of this, so I’m simply going to show what we saw in Detroit  firsthand.

The best time to rebuild is when you hit rock bottom. And albeit Detroit did file for bankruptcy to the tune of $18.5 billion a week ago, Detroit has been on the mend for a little while. We’re talking about Detroit Rock City, the origins of Motown, Motor City here; this is the bloody birthplace of the car, and oddly enough, the typewriter!

But good god, it’s going to take some time.

Detroit is empty. Not just countless abandoned buildings that riddle the city—literally, there are post-apocalyptic buildings around every corner (see the “Zombieland” photo)—but people-wise. In a city that once had 1.8 million strong in the downtown core is now floating around the 700,000 mark. Many of the traffic lights just blink absentmindedly, as a reported 40% aren’t working. The roads are in pretty rough shape, making driving akin to playing Mario Kart. And when you enter a neighbourhood you shouldn’t be in, you get the drift pretty quickly.

But I absolutely loved Detroit. There’s an air of resilience that blankets the city. The people are in it together. And it’s palpable. Walking down the street everyone is outright gregarious, nodding to one another or ready to chat. And its residents are proud of Detroit, and for good reason. But for it to come back (and to be realistic, I don’t think we’re talking Detroit in the ‘50s heyday), it’s going to need to make areas safe first. Emergency response time is over an hour for serious emergencies. That won’t do. And when arson hits, there’s no hope for those buildings, many of them historic.

When we were first entering Detroit last week, the border guard looked at us incredulously when we said we were going to Detroit for a vacation. She then told us to be safe and to get the ribs at Slows BBQ, a Detroit trademark. We did both.

And we’ll be back to do it again. We’re all rooting for you, Detroit.

RYAN BOLTON

Written by Ryan Bolton

Ryan is a Toronto-based writer and photographer that likes to break the rules. His work has taken him around the world to do what he truly loves—storytelling. And drinking cold beer.

11 comments

  1. Thank you for this post Ryan. This is a part of Detroit I don’t remember seeing. The pictured tell a story all on their own. My nephew just went to Detroit for a two year mission for our church so in a way, this made me feel closer to him by seeing what he sees.

  2. Detroit is a city where the American dream was actualized in the 50’s and 60’s. Lots of artists and young families are seeing Detroit as a desirable place to live. The cost of living and real estate being two pull factors. Obviously not all people will buy into the idea of going to Detroit, or in some cases back. Detroit to me always reminded me of Hamilton, Ontario. It’s a tough place to live.

    Detroit may never become the city it once was, but it can always be better than what it is.

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