The Association of Alternative Newsmedia held its annual convention in Detroit last week. We stayed at the beautifully restored Book Cadillac Westin Hotel in downtown. I hadn't been to Detroit in many years and was curious about the city, since I often hear comparisons between the Motor City and Memphis.
I'm here to tell you it's an apples to oranges comparison, maybe more like apples to kumquats. Memphis' downtown is thriving, bustling — Manhattan-esque — compared to downtown Detroit. Oh, Detroit has us beaten handily when it comes to statuary, fountains, impressive public art, and glorious early-20th-century architecture. The boulevards are wide, split by medians planted with flowers and blooming trees. The city lives up to its former moniker as the "Paris of the West" in those respects.
But it's a ghost town, a movie set. In three days of walking, I found not a single retail shopping outlet downtown. I saw maybe two coffee shops, few restaurants of note beyond a coney shop or two, a great ballpark, and three casinos. Memphis has the empty Sterick Building haunting its skyline. Detroit must have 20 such gray ghosts downtown — big empties that are a testament to the city's glorious industrial past, now gathering pigeons.
The city's population has dropped from two million to around 700,000. That's a huge exodus. Most of the people have scattered to the surrounding areas of Wayne County, leaving a shell of a downtown. Do I think the city will ever come back? Yes. There are signs of life here and there, low real estate prices, and the city has great bones, great history, and solid major league sports teams. But Memphis is decades ahead in reclaiming its downtown and anchoring its core.
I have a friend who lives in nearby Grosse Pointe. He picked me up at 5 last Friday night for a round of golf. We drove through miles of desolation — empty, weeded blocks dotted with vacant shells of houses and buildings — before arriving at a local municipal course. It was a modest place but an oasis of well-kept harmony and green landscaping in the midst of its weedy Mad Max surroundings. Most of the golfers were African American. We played until dusk. In the course of our round, we saw deer, foxes, great blue herons, hawks, geese, squirrels, groundhogs, even a pheasant.
In Detroit, what humans have abandoned, nature is taking back. There's probably a lesson there somewhere.