All That Glitters Is Not Gold: A Look At Detroit’s Lackluster Renaissance

I’ve always found it strange that the melting pot is go to metaphor for those politicians and public figures looking to expound upon the merits of America’s diverse populous, when all a melting pot does is mix ingredients about until they’re all indistinguishable from one another. Actually, it’s not so much that they’re all indistinguishable from one another so much as they’re indistinguishable from the most potent and prodigious ingredient in the pot. If you’re making a big batch of beef stew and you start off with two pounds of stew beef and a quart of beef broth, the final product is going to taste like beef, regardless of what else you throw in with it. You can add chopped carrots and potatoes and onions to your heart’s content and all you’ll end up with is a lot of steak flavored vegetables. It doesn’t matter what you throw in that pot, it’s always going to end up tasting like beef rather than the other way around.

In the early portion of the 20th century, Henry Ford established a number of different tools to facilitate the “Americanization” of his largely Mediterranean and Eastern European workforce, one of which was the Ford English School, a place where foreign workers could be divested of their own customs and inculcated in American language and culture. In these schools, immigrant workers not only learned the English language, but were forced to adopt dominant, white cultural mores in every aspect of their lives from table manners to spending habits. Upon completion of the program, all of the workers were included in what amounted to a graduation pageant, where all of the immigrants walked off of a “boat” on one side of a stage wearing their native dress, down a gangplank and into an actual, giant melting pot, which was being pantomime stirred by the school’s faculty with giant oars. After all of the workers were in the pot and the teachers had mock-stirred its contents enough, they all walked out the other side, dressed in traditional American garb and waving Old Glory back and forth like their life depended on it. They had been reborn in the image of their bosses and, more perhaps more importantly, their money. E Plurbus Unum – Out of Many, One.

With this as prologue, it is doubly ironic that the modernist monstrosity that was hailed by Detroit’s automakers and politicians as the city’s saving grace, would be called The Renaissance Center. The word renaissance comes from the Latin renasci, which translates literally as “to be born again.” It was The Renaissance Center’s grand ambition to be the hub of The Motor City’s rebirth. Just as Henry Ford had refashioned culturally distinct immigrants as white bread Americans and transformed the city of Detroit from a mid-sized shipping town into the very hub of the American Dream, the Renaissance Center would rejuvenate Motown and lure back all of the middle-class whites who had abandoned ship for the seclusion and safety of the suburbs. In fact, they would out-suburb the suburbs, building a massive, futuristic office park on the banks of the Detroit River, with a majestic central tower of reflective blue glass and enough shopping and security guards to bring even the most negrophobic housewife and her kids into the city.

130702_0048The Gleaming Facade of The Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit

None of that happened. There was no renaissance; there was no rebirth. What the city of Detroit got was a continuation of the slow, inexorable rot that has been eating away at them for the past 50 years, and a gargantuan glass phallus in the heart of their city as an ever present reminder of their grandiose failure. Standing more than 100 feet taller than any of Detroit’s other skyscrapers, The Renaissance Center sticks out like a sore thumb in the city’s skyline, only it doesn’t look so much like a thumb as it does a massive modernist dick reaching up towards the heavens. In addition to the central tower, the Renaissance Center is comprised of six other smaller towers, all of which are interconnected and intended to create the feel of a city within a city, a concept that serves only to undercut the notion that this complex could resurrect The Motor City or, at the very least, stave off its inexorable collapse.

When I went to downtown Detroit last summer to see the Renaissance Center for myself , I was amazed at how cartoonish it looked in person. Walking along the south side of Jefferson Ave and staring at its gaudy, modernist exterior, I felt as if I was looking at the architectural representation of America’s mid-life crisis, with all its sparkle and all its flash designed to distract the world from the city’s ever-increasing litany of faults. In the end, it’s little more than a last gasp misdirection play to try and keep the outside world from looking at the uninhibited blight that has been slowly suffocating Detroit since the 1960s. The only problem is, it’s kind of hard to revitalize a dying city when both government and business leaders think that building a waterfront fortress you never have to leave is the best way to foster widespread economic growth.

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Any hope I had that the interior of The Renaissance Center would be less heavy-handed and maladroit than its exterior were dashed within 15 seconds of my entry into the central tower. Everything inside looked as if it had been taken chapter and verse from some exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, showing what interior design would look like in The World of Tomorrow after our benevolent overlords had outlawed all shapes with right angles in them. The entire building is nothing but a series of circles and ovals that link together in a labyrinthine configuration with no practical application outside of making visitors think they’ve walked onto the set of Logan’s Run. Almost everything there is made of concrete or glass and nothing is inviting—something that might be a problem considering that the main function of The Renaissance Center’s central tower is as a swanky Marriott hotel.

Apparently, the designers of The Renaissance Center were big fans of The Jetsons

When it was completed in 1977, The Renaissance Center was the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the world.(1) A public-private venture funded predominantly by Henry Ford II and championed by Mayor Coleman Young, The Renaissance Center was, at the time, the latest in a series of last great hopes to restore Detroit to its former prominence. During a ceremony celebrating the opening of the Renaissance Center, Ford sounded an optimistic note, saying that he, “personally feel[s] Detroit has reached the bottom and is on the way up” and expressing his belief that the Motor City could once again return to the salad days of the 1940s. What Mr. Ford failed to realize, and what any alcoholic or drug addict can attest to, is that when you hit rock bottom there’s normally a pneumatic jackhammer and a shovel on the ground waiting for you when you get there.

At the time of Ford’s self-proclaimed bottom in the mid 1970s, Detroit had just lost about half a million residents over the preceding quarter century and was sporting a population of around 1.3 million, while the number of manufacturing jobs in the city had been slashed in half over the same period to a then anemic 153,300 workers.On the day I walked into The GM Renaissance Center, Detroit’s population was a hair over 700,000 and the city held a mere 27,000 manufacturing jobs.  The last time Detroit’s population was this low, Woodrow Wilson was in office, the assembly line was a newfangled invention and The Chrysler Corporation didn’t even exist yet. To say that Henry Ford II’s prediction concerning Detroit’s future was wrong would be to do a disservice to just how wrong he was. Ford was the anti-Cassandra: a man descended from the gods of his time who didn’t know a damn thing about what the future would bring, but who had the ear of everyone around him.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, a sentiment that he may or may not have actually agreed with, but one which has certainly lived on in the popular imagination if only for the purpose of using it whenever someone proves the axiom wrong. Whether it’s a politician who fell from grace for having improper relations with a staffer in a Burger King bathroom and is now running again for office or an athlete returning to the field after being suspended a season for injecting himself with a cocktail of performance enhancing chemicals, the quote is always brought up when discussing a second act on the upswing. There is nothing the American people like more than being the arbiter of a celebrity’s fitness to re-enter the public forum, to be able to absolve the rich and the famous for their misdeeds and take their rightful place as the better man or woman in an imagined relationship, their personal integrity sitting in their back pocket as a trump card if they should relapse and shuffle off their newly won good graces for a return to sin.

If you have wealth, connections and the capacity to be desirable, there is no limit to the number of acts your American life can have. However, if you’re born into poverty and blight, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t even get a first act. In Detroit, the metaphorical theater you would have performed in was probably bulldozed back in the 70s to make way for an 8-lane interstate highway or set ablaze on Devils Night, the holiday on Halloween Eve where arson-enthusiasts from Detroit and the surrounding area come together to torch abandoned buildings. According to a US Census survey conducted from 2008 to 2013, 38.1% of all Detroit residents were living below the federal poverty level, a fairly arbitrary cutoff point used by government organizations to determine which citizens are broke enough to warrant certain benefits. In 2013, the federal poverty level for a family of four was $23,550, a number I imagine the Department of Health and Human Services came up with using a game of Yahtzee and about half a kilo of Moroccan Hash that they took from the DEA’s rainy-day supply because only a profoundly drug-addled brain would think that a family of four living on $24,000 a year should be classified as living above the poverty line.

Despite these absurdly low poverty thresholds, the numbers coming out of Detroit are stunning, especially in relation to the rest of America.From 2008 to 2012, about 10.9% of families in the United States were living below the poverty level. In Detroit, over the same period of time, that number was 33%. Put another way, a family living in Detroit is 3 times as likely to be living in poverty as another family picked at random from the entire United States. Of course not everyone in the Greater Detroit area is struggling. Head a dozen or so miles north to the predominantly white suburbs of Oakland County(2) and you’ll find most families living quite comfortably with a median family income of over $84,186 and only 7.2% of families living in poverty. If you’re ever walking through the city of Detroit wondering to yourself, “where did all the money go?” Well, there’s your answer.

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After walking through the garish interior of The Renaissance Center, I made my way down one of the complex’s many interlocking hallways to the entrance for The Detroit People Mover, the city’s largest and most literally named mode of public transportation. Completed in 1987, it is a monument to the inefficacy and myopia of Detroit’s leadership over the past 50 years. Essentially, The Detroit People Mover is a less sophisticated cousin of the monorail—an elevated, automated transit system that, you know, moves people. Consisting of a half dozen two car pairs that run a 2.9 mile loop through downtown Detroit, the People Mover was obsolete from the moment it was built. With an average distance of less than a quarter mile between the track’s 13 stops, it’s often quicker to walk to where you’re headed rather than spend 75 cents on a glorified trolley car. Outside of its use as a tourist attraction, there is very little reason for anyone to use it as a legitimate mode of everyday transportation. By most measures, the Detroit People Mover’s 26-year existence has been a spectacular failure.

Detroit’s People Mover: About as inefficient as public transit gets

Like many of the misfortunes that have befallen Detroit during their decline, the botched execution of the People Mover was the product of political opportunism and a complete absence of forethought by city leadership. In 1964, President Johnson pushed through legislation creating the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA)(3), which was then given the task of developing new forms of urban transportation that would, “carry people and goods within metropolitan areas speedily, safely, without polluting the air, and in a manner that will contribute to sound city planning.”(4) Naturally, this being the federal government, a full decade went by without any major progress towards this end, so the UMTA created the Downtown People Mover Program in 1975 and sponsored a nationwide contest offering federal funding to cities that could design and implement suitable plans for People Movers in their respective downtowns. Detroit was one of nine cities included in the Downtown People Mover Program during the late 1970s, but with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, much of the program’s funding was slashed.

By the time it opened in 1987—two years late and $60 million over budget—the lack of funding and simmering racial tensions between the city and the suburbs had limited construction of the Detroit People Mover from a more ambitious plan connecting the downtown loop with a regional feeder system extending out into the suburbs to the 2.9 mile track it operates on today. Without any lines extending out of downtown, the People Mover was essentially rendered useless as anything more than a tourist attraction. On an average day, roughly 7,600 people will ride the People Mover, a number well shy of the 50,000 daily passengers the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority had originally predicted. And, adding insult to injury is the fact that the Detroit People Mover is so cost ineffective that the city spends $3.50 for every 50 cents paid by a passenger. As a result, the People Mover is almost wholly dependent on city and state subsidies, taking in about $12 million annually to keep everything running. So, to recap, the People Mover is a) hemorrhaging cash, b) underutilized by city residents, and c) doesn’t directly serve any of the urgent needs of the city’s residents. Welcome to Detroit.

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Rush hour on the Detroit People Mover is fairly devoid of any rush. When I paid my 75 cent fare and boarded one of the People Mover’s cars at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday, I was greeted with a sea of vacant blue plastic benches. The bulk of the passenger load consisted of a family of five who had come into the city for a day of sightseeing and a brief respite from whatever rural hamlet they hail from in Michigan’s militia country. The three kids refused to sit down and spent the entire ride rushing from one end of the car to the other as part of a game I’m not even sure they know the rules to. The mother holding the far off stare of someone who is well past the point of caring, never so much as glanced at her children as they caromed off the walls and smacked into the poles of the fast-moving tram car, opting instead to slink back into a catatonic state while her husband shoved a quarter can of long cut wintergreen Skoal in his bottom lip.

Watching the kids muck about made me think back to earlier in the day when I stopped by The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to speak to two docents about essentially anything besides how Kevyn Orr, the city’s newly appointed Emergency Manager, had expressed an intent to sell off parts of the museum’s 60,000 piece collection to help pay off Detroit’s 18 billion dollar debt and unfunded pension liabilities after becoming the largest city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in US history. The DIA is one of the few living testaments to The Motor City’s former glory. As you walk up the steps past a casting of Rodin’s The Thinker and enter the DIA’s main hall, it’s as if you’ve wandered through a wormhole from Detroit to Florence. All of the sudden you’re surrounded by ornate vaulted ceilings adorned with gorgeous frescoes and walls lined with suits of medieval armor. One room will be filled with Gaugains and Van Goghs, the next with Rembrandts and Rubens. But it all pales in comparison to the massive series of murals painted on the very walls of the museum by Diego Rivera. Known collectively as The Detroit Industry Murals, this cycle of frescoes is the DIA’s primary attraction today and is responsible for bringing thousands of people from all over the world to Detroit. It depicts laborers at the old Ford River Rouge Plant working on the assembly line in a sort of rhythmic cohesion. Each man has his job in the assembly line to do, but he can’t do it unless the man next to him does his. In the murals, Rivera has many of the men balletically working unison, groups of workers all leaning and pushing and pulling as one.

Both of the docents I meet with are retired white women in their early 60s. The first woman to introduce herself is June, a former high school French teacher who has been volunteering at the DIA for 16 years, which is almost as long as she’s lived in the city.  Soft-spoken and sporting close cropped, tousled gray hair, June has the air of a kindly ex-flower child turned philanthropist. Laura, the other docent, is some unidentifiable strain of corporate—a pantsuited warrior with the blonde businesswoman’s bob and enough jewelry on her person to buy a small island nation. She was originally from Detroit and left as soon as time and circumstance permitted, but was dragged back when her company transferred her here 8 years ago.

Part of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals at The Detroit Institute of Arts

Both women are here for different reasons. For Laura, volunteering at the DIA was the easiest way to reintegrate into Detroit high society after three decades as an ex pat. Despite sitting in the heart of Mid-Town and often being hailed as the crown jewel of the city, the DIA long ago ceased to belong to Detroit. It now belongs to those who fled the city. It belongs to Oakland and Macomb Counties. It belongs to Grosse Pointe. It belongs to the hundreds of thousands of white families that began fleeing the city en masse in the 1960s and it also belongs to upper and middle class black families who started leaving a generation later. These are the people who make up DIA’s staff and board of directors. They are the donors and the patrons. If you wanted to find your way into the good graces of a city’s well-to-do, cozying up to the local art museum is always a sound move. For June, being a docent is more philanthropic than it is social. I have the feeling that if you moved June from Midtown Detroit to the Mississippi Delta, where being high society means sitting in the front row at church on Sundays, she’d find somewhere to volunteer her time.

I wasn’t keeping count, but I’d wager a guess that June described the DIA as “the heart of the city” at least a dozen times. She describes her involvement with the Institute’s educational outreach program in great deal and tells me a number of teacherly anecdotes. There’s the child who normally never says a word during class asking her a billion questions about art and the student who draws out the dysfunction and abuse he sees at home during an exercise. They are the types of stories that crop up over and over again when fine arts programs visit poorly funded public and charter schools that were forced to eliminate programs that weren’t testable. Both women are rightfully proud and heartened by the outreach they do, but ultimately they’re just putting a band aid on a bullet wound because art education is pretty far down Maslow’s hierarchy for most of the kids they meet. The majority of the city’s students live in poverty, with almost 4 out of every 5 kids in the Detroit Public School system qualifying for the free lunch programs at their schools(5). Meanwhile, due to pressure from state, local and federal government to increase performance on standardized testing, most public schools in Detroit have taken to focusing almost exclusively on Math & Reading comprehension at the expense of not just fine arts programming, but core subjects like science and social studies(6). In 2012, fewer than 4% of students in the Detroit City School District passed the state’s proficiency exam for science, while less than 10% of students were able to make a passing grade in social studies. All test scores aside, only 65% of students in Detroit will graduate high school And, regardless of whether they graduate high school, complete college or get their GED, all of these students will be entering the work force in a city with a 27.5% unemployment rate. Taking a walk around the Detroit Institute of Arts with your classmates is a wonderful, culturally enriching experience, but isn’t going to change any of that.

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After about 10 minutes on the People Mover I decided to get off at the Greektown station. Greektown, a neighborhood that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was considered to be one of the cultural hubs of Detroit for the first half of the 20th century, is now about as Greek as a gyro from Pita Pit. Naturally, city officials and business leaders decided that convenient parking was more vital to the city’s health than street corners teeming with coffee, conversation and old world charm, so they razed virtually every damn building in the neighborhood and effectively reduced Greektown to one block. Although the Greek community in Detroit rallied to save what was left of the neighborhood, the exodus of many Greeks from the city itself and the homogenization of American culture have taken their toll. What was once a bustling community filled with Greek restaurants and businesses is now a over-commercialized shell of its former self. There are only three truly Greek restaurants left in Greektown, and a massive casino—one of three built in the city over the past two decades—is now its defining characteristic.

I had thought that the People Mover might drop me off at Greektown Casino. What I didn’t consider is that the People Mover would actually drop me off in Greektown Casino. As I walked down the short pathway between the People Mover itself and the exit, I expected the double doors to open and reveal a small station where I might have to walk through a turnstile or two before heading out into society proper, as this is what had happened to me every time I had ridden mass transit in my life prior to this. But this was Detroit and I should have known not to take for granted even the most rudimentary details of city life, because when I walked through those doors, I suddenly found myself in the 3rd floor lobby of a casino. Now, I realize that public-private partnerships are all the rage these days and that Detroit is desperate to generate tax revenue any way that it can, but making patrons of public transportation walk through a casino to get to the street below seems like a bit much.

Let’s be clear: this wasn’t some frou-frou Las Vegas casino where you can watch guys from Cirque Du Soleil fold themselves into spandex-clad pretzels while your kids go off and play in a three story tall indoor water park. No, this casino is the place that hope forgot. Row after row of slots chiming out their staccato ka-ching-a-ling-ing in streams of metallic reverbary as chain smoking blue hairs play their retirements away a nickel at a time and men with graveled voices and graying hair stand around the craps table watching each roll of the dice like the key to salvation lay somewhere inside. In casinos like Greektown the lights never seem fully on and no one seems all that happy to be there. These casinos are the mark of the damned. They are signposts of inequity—scratch offs writ large where people go to block out life for a while and try to make a little luck for themselves. Casinos are our bread and circuses. Greektown Casino won’t bring about Detroit’s end. Rather, like turkey vultures circling a wounded deer by the edge of the highway, it will serve to illuminate Detroit’s decline.

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(1) In 1986, the Renaissance Center was overtaken by the Swissôtel The Stamford in Singapore for the title of World’s Tallest All-Hotel Skyscraper

(2) Oakland County’s population is about 78% white and 13% black, while Detroit’s is around 82% black and 11% white. This is by design, not by accident.

(3) In 1991, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration changed its name to the Federal Transit Administration.

(4) LBJ at the signing of The Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1966: “In the next 40 years, we must completely renew our cities. The alternative is disaster. Gaping needs must be met in health, in education, in job opportunities, in housing. And not a single one of those needs can be fully met until we rebuild our mass transportation systems.”

(5) In order to qualify for the federal free lunch program, a child’s family must live below 130% of the poverty level, which was less than $29,665 during the 2012-13 school year.

(6) So far, the strategy hasn’t exactly been a resounding success. When the results came in for the Fall 2012 Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the Detroit City School District didn’t have a single grade break 46% proficiency for reading comprehension and failed to reach 18% proficiency in math.

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Categories: Book Excerpts/News, Social Justice

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