True Grit: Detroit

Memphis and Motown have much in common, for better and worse.



"You're the only person I know who takes a weekend vacation to Detroit," a friend said to me last week before I boarded a Delta jet for an 80-minute, hub-to-hub flight to Motown for $420.

Detroit and Memphis have a lot in common — populations around 700,000, white flight, urban blight, the music of Motown and Stax, the riots of the late 1960s, recent federal investigations of corruption, popular mayors trying to clean up the mess, and a belief in the magical power of the words "grit" and "aerotropolis." Detroit's loss of population and auto industry jobs has been Tennessee's gain, even though Memphis missed the party. If you Google "Detroit and Memphis and worst cities," you get 278,000 results.

Detroit is a historical novel that I've been reading for 50 years. I'm from Michigan and hadn't seen Detroit in decades, even though I still follow the pro teams, writers like Mitch Albom and Elmore Leonard, and The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The hook was a new exhibit called "Driving America" at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and a Ford Rouge Factory Tour. The package price was $24. Getting around downtown Detroit on foot isn't that hard and it's cheap. The Tigers were in town. All that and Coney Island hot dogs with chili made from cow hearts. Such a deal.

Besides, reality tours are growing in popularity. People pay good money to take a boat from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz. There are slum-dog tours in India and guided tours of the state prison in Jackson, Michigan. The media bombard us with the word "reality." In Memphis, Jimmy Ogle has found a niche as a tour guide taking people to the Harahan Bridge, underground bayous, and downtown alleys.

"When I did the walk across the bridge, 146 people showed up," Ogle said. "And I had 85 people for my alley tour that twists and turns 17 blocks and lasted three hours. It's not the most scenic view, but you get the real history and fabric of the city."

Exactly. In Detroit, I walked from a friend's office in a specialty food warehouse in the Eastern Market to Zeff's Coney Island Hot Dogs, then hoofed it a couple of miles past vacant lots and abandoned high-rise housing projects to the Music Hall, Comerica Park (home of the Tigers), and Ford Field (home of the Lions). A sign between them marked a long-gone black neighborhood called Paradise Valley. The African-American population of Detroit increased from 5,000 in 1910 to 300,000 in 1950, thanks to the Great Migration and war production, swelling the population of Detroit to 1.8 million. Mississippi and Memphis sent their share.

General Motors now occupies the towering glass-enclosed Renaissance Center on the river that Henry Ford II envisioned in the 1970s as the savior for downtown after the 1967 riot. It was doomed by cars, crime, and suburban flight. The fourth generation of the Ford family has taken up the torch. "Driving America" and the tour of "the Rouge" blew me away. Democracy's arsenal during World War II is an industrial complex that stretches as far as the eye can see from the third-floor observation room. The tours do not airbrush the facts. The Edsel and the Corvair get equal space with the Mustang and Kemmons Wilson's early Holiday Inn. There's documentary footage of labor leader Walter Reuther getting beaten up by Ford's thugs in 1937 and of Detroit's failure to meet the Japanese challenge that would eventually put Nissan's North American headquarters and an assembly plant in Middle Tennessee.

My companion worked in the car factories in Dearborn and Willow Run after college in 1972 and 1973. He joined the United Auto Workers and worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for seven straight weeks one summer. His earnings paid for his first year of law school, just as Michigan's middle-class prosperity made it possible for me to go to college for $500 a year in tuition. The men and women putting together the F-150 trucks in the final assembly plant glanced up at us now and then through the glass ceiling, as robotic arms lifted cabs on to chassis. Everyone ought to see this and punch a time clock some time in their life.

Skylines look best across a body of water such as the Mississippi River or the surprisingly clear Detroit River, which is connected to Lake Huron. Up close, the abandoned buildings stand out like bad teeth. Reality tours. That's the ticket.

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