Detroit was founded in 1701, which makes it older than Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Cleveland, and a slew of other midwestern cities. It has a strong French history, which is noticeable right away when you drive downtown. The architecture that has come to this great city is a testament to its history and still has a loud voice within these streets. Some of my most favorite buildings and neighborhoods are still standing, which I think is miraculous given the history of other iconic buildings in the U.S. (i.e. Pennsylvania Station). Buildings such as the Fisher Building, Michigan Central Station, and the now gutted Michigan Theatre may not be as they were during the gilded age of 1920s Detroit, but they are part of what people are referring to as “the new Detroit” and I think that’s even better. The United States in the 1920s was defined by excess and the desire to prove that we were the best industrialized city of the time. Millionaires had no concept or belief that there could be a ceiling on their (or Detroit’s) success. So, they built and spent without a care in the world. The major fault in covering 500 ft of ceiling with gold leaf and frescoes, however, is that it is incredibly expensive and impractical to maintain (think about what 70 years of indoor smoking can do to a building). When I visited all three landmarks this summer, I marveled at their “before” and “after” images. I was at the same time overcome with feelings of nostalgia for something that I never even had. Central Station had stopped running when I was in preschool and the Michigan Theatre’s last show was almost a decade before I was born. Still, I missed knowing them.
I grew up in a very different Detroit. One that was more reminiscent of a “day after” apocalypse movie. Luckily, I had parents that ignored the grime, noise, and threatening new stories. We went to Tigers games, sat on 98 degree concrete downwind of the Detroit river to see culture shows at Hart Plaza, and road the People Mover just to have fun. These were not pretty, iconic places. They were (and still are) ugly. Yet, I loved them and still love them because they’re honest. They don’t wear any pretentious facades. Like the people of Detroit, they are who they are and they do not apologize for it. People no longer come from all over the world or country to marvel at our architectural greatness. They more so visit Detroit like they do Pompeii or Palenque — to gawk and wonder at a city that came to be frozen in a state of decay. While Detroit goes through a kind of new renaissance period, I hope it finds a way to honor that decay in its new construction projects. I would love to see Detroit create something new and special in an organic way that is true to the city’s spirit, much like how Wynwood Miami has done. It is always an interesting time in the D and I am so looking forward to being part of it.