Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Final Thoughts on Detroit

I'm writing this in Chicago airport: I was freakishly bumped to an earlier flight (vs my rubbish experience leaving Cincinnati) so I've got a couple of hours to kill.  I thought I'd jot down my final thoughts on Detroit - it's a place of contradictions and variety and I'm sure that I barely scratched the surface.  But hopefully I'm seen a bit more than just the 'usual' downtown areas.  (I don't know when I'll get a chance to post this so some of the timings might be off!). 
I went downtown for the morning the other day - mainly to post some stuff home (both from where I massively overpacked but also from things I've been given or bought along the way.  Top tip to scholars doing this trip in future years is to take less stuff that you think you'll need).  I took the opportuninty to wander around the city centre area.  As per my previouspost the overwhelming impression is one of emptiness - it's clean and feels safe and has all the infrastructure (roads, buildings etc) of a much larger and busier city than it is now but there's simply no-one around!

I stumbled across one of Detroit's 'Urban Gardens' - this one was sponsored by Compuware, one of the local employers and I spoke with the people seconded from the company to staff the garden.  One of them was a long term resident and told me that 15-20 years ago it was even quieter than now - he could have laid down in the road beside us for 15 minutes and nothing would have happened - no-one would be there to either tell him to get up or in his words, "no-one would even be around to try to take my wallet". 

They also filled me in about a couple of names that have consistently come up in coversation - Matty Moroun and Phil Cooley.  The former is a local landowner (he owns Michigan Central Station and also the bridge and tunnel over to Canada - more on him later) and the latter a local businessman and self-promoter.  Both divide opinions, shall we say...  I ate dinner that night at one of Cooley's restaurants - Slows BBQ.  The food was ok, not as great as I'd been led to believe but the place was totally packed to he's obviously doing something right. 

Talking of food, and being a huge Man vs Food fan I couldn't go to Detroit without sampling the delights of a Coney Hot Dog - some info on the backstory here.  I plumped for what's supposed to be the more 'authentic' of the two rival restaurants and can confirm that it was qutie an experience - the mixture of mince, chilli, hotdog and raw onions will stay with me for quite some time...  I shied away from one of Adam's volume challenges on this ocassion - another chance will present itself I'm sure. 

I was due that afternoon back at the offices of the UFCW where their Secretary-Treasurer had promised me that he would show me the political offices of the local Democratic Party.  For a political nerd like me this was obviously very exciting, not least because I'd be able to look at lots of maps of different Congressional Districts...  The office was very much like all the Labour Party committee rooms I've been in: slightly messy, lots of junk-food, assorted literature and posters along with a hardcore of activists phone-banking and stuffing envelopes.  Probably the best part of the visit, apart from the collecting of much literature and bumper stickers (yes, I've got one for you Rory!) was when my host, Rick, took me on a short drive to some of the local neighbourhoods. 

I'd already learned that Detroit's not all decay and disorder and there are some pretty acceptable places but where Rick took me was totally unexpected.  Firstly for Nottingham readers the district of the City rejoices in the name of 'Sherwood Forest' and especially for Jane and Brian if they're reading this it is usually just know as 'Sherwood' and is one of the more desirable places to live in the City.  Some things are the same the world over, eh...

As you can see from the photo below the properties in this neighbourhood are pretty desirable - 5+ bedrooms and lots of big gardens.  Rick told me that places here would typically sell for $150,000 - and an equivalent place outside the stigma of the city's boundaries (but less than a mile away geographically) would be around $400,000!  (This compares with the place I was staying where a three bedroom Victorian semi-detached would set you back about $30,000...). 

I picked up in the campaign office an attack leaflet critisising 'Mad Moron' (sic).  Although it wasn't explained, I assume this was directed at Matt Moroun (as above).  As well as consistently delaying redevelopment proposals for the Michigan Central Station Mr Moran is also the monopoly owner of the bridge and tunnel to and from Canada and also of all the Duty Free Shopping concessions.  When I was given a sample ballot (it's 4 pages) for the upcoming November election I was surprised to see a Referendum (called a 'Proposal' here) essentially designed to make it much more difficult for an additional international crossing to be created.  When I was in the UFCW offices I got the team to explain this.  Essentially it looks like Mr Moran has used his considerable personal wealth to get onto the ballot (and hopes to pass) a proposal to protect his monopoly on the international crossing business.  The fact that the Canadian government would have paid the costs of a proposed new bridge and it would bring additional revenue and business through Detroit doesn't seem to be a factor in his thinking.  An interesting local political dynamic. 

On my last day in Detroit I planned a quick visit to the Henry Ford complex out in Dearborn.  This comprises of several museums and exhibitions but the main focus for me was the Rouge Factory Tour - a chance to go round the actual Ford factory that's currently making the F150 Truck.  The Dearborn complex is vast - a whole town dedicated to Ford and all things car related.  It used to be much bigger and was on a significant decline until the mid-naughties when the current leader of the company, Bill Ford made a bold investment to tranform the plant into a green oriented and future facing operation - investing around $2bn in the site and its future.  The actual tour of the factory was incredible - you walk along a kind of gantry where you can see the trucks being made, production line station by production line station.  Some of the workers acknowledged our presence and gave us a little wave - some others just carried on doing the same repetitive work (as part of a 4 day, 10 hours a day work-week).  There was a real pride in the quality of the work and the combination of sophisticated robots and real people was interesting to see.  I also liked the fact that at various stations the sophisticated manufacturing process was reduced to a bloke picking up a lump of plastic and banging it into place with his fist - percussive maintenance is always a winner!

My final thoughts on Detroit: what I originally read about on my pre-trip research as a concept of 'Planned Shrinkage' came up time and time again here in even the most casual of conversations with people - "the city's too big we need to downside"; "the city needs to grow its tax base we're too big"; "we can't keep the city this size".  All of the people I met were passionate and committed advocates for the City and they all knew that it made sense to shrink and try to grow back.  This wasn't at all what I expect to find so glad to have had my assumptions challenged. 

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