Should I be disappointed? There are Starbucks and hipsters and distilleries in Detroit. I went to the convention center, there was a convention happening. Some environmentalists were there. It wasn’t dripping with moss and there were no urban wolves. I went to the waterfront, there was a jazz festival. It wasn’t crumbling into the river and there were no scavengers spear fishing on the rocks. I tried to find parking during a baseball game so I could pee before driving back to the suburbs, the sports bars were packed. I didn’t get mugged. Should I have expected something different? I mean how often do you get a chance to visit the apocalypse?
(This post has a sound track. Scroll to the bottom and listen to the music while you read.)
It seemed everyone I talked to about going to Detroit had some measurement of the decrepitude I would find there. Blight, burned out houses, bridges crumbling… Yes, I saw all of those things. But it wasn’t the quarantine zone I had fantasized about.
Maybe I read too much science fiction. Take a trip back through the annals of time with me. Here are some books I love which have great apocalyptic cities. It’s almost as if these cities are characters too.
The Time Machine
H.G. Wells had to send his protagonist to a city in the year 802,701 A.D. to show us an apocalypse where human kind had evolved (devolved?) into separate species after conquering nature with technology. I wanted to meet the Eloi bumming around in an underground whiskey bar surrounded by decaying buildings. Instead I went to a whiskey bar with excellent BBQ and a craft beer selection to rival any joint in Seattle.
In a book the critics called “emotionally shattering” the city is the worst place to be in the future. You can’t find food there and the food you find is also desired by many bigger, stronger, crazier people than you. A couple blocks from a great brunch spot in Detroit there is a building called Michigan Central Station. It was built in 1913 as a hub of commerce, the tallest rail station in the country. Now it’s 18 stories of broken glass and cement surrounded by a chain link fence. A great place to hole up, I think. But food would be a problem. I didn’t see any squatters. It wasn’t even raining. The sun shone through the few remaining windows and it looked really peaceful. Like it was waiting for a reasonable time to give up the ghost and fall down and be mulched into new cement and steel.
Caves of Steel
Isaac Asimov was agoraphobic. It’s like the opposite of claustrophobic: he was afraid of open spaces and crowds of people. He used to write in a broom closet because he felt comforted by the closeness. It’s no surprise that the mystery novel set in the future New York city is enclosed in a series of interlocked metal domes. Detroit would actually be better if they put a dome over the downtown area. One of the biggest problems I’ve read about here is the city services have to travel too far out to reach residents. It can take a fire truck hours to get to your house even if it already caught the neighbors on fire. Sometimes they don’t come at all. But a dome would be a clear line of delineation where the city could hand service jurisdiction over to private companies. Privately owned firehouses? What a novel idea. Unless you were in the real New York in the 1800s where firehouses were run by business men. Hell, Benjamin Franklin funded one in Philadelphia in 1736!
Daybreak 2250 A.D.
This is a sleeper of a novel. It’s ok if you’ve never heard of it or the author Andre Norton. She (besides writing under a pen name so she could get published in the 40’s) wrote about a future where humans have given up on technology and regressed (or naturalized?) to hunting with spears. But we’ve also developed special senses like talking to animals. Pretty cool huh? I can imagine the Detroit zoo being a great place for an intelligent conversation with some of the locals. But the zoo isn’t even run down and empty. The billboards tell me they can help me with my “Vitamin Z deficiency.” Get it? Z for zoo? Well, no matter… soon enough we’ll be devolved into spear hunting hairless primates with pet panthers who bid us good night as they go prowl for irradiated ground hogs.
Or at least that’s what I’m going to be dreaming about when I fall asleep tonight because the reality of Detroit is not scifi enough. It’s not an apocalypse waiting to be plowed under and reseeded into it’s originally fertile fresh water lowland. It’s just a city on the mend. Give it a break. See it for yourself.
This song is meant to be the soundtrack to the blog post above: