During the waning days of summer, as the perennial war-mongering began, I decided to take a vacation. I didn’t hop on a plane, hellbent on sipping a daiquiri (although I love them) in Cabo. I didn’t stuff myself full of chimichangas at an all-inclusive resort in Mazatlan. No, I wanted something more relaxing, more luxurious. Swim-up bars and evening luaus are all well in good, but they can grow tiring for the initiated. For one as hedonistic as myself, who was desperately searching for a cosmic blast of R&R, I knew I would need to bring in the big guns. I knew that true serenity (and much-needed decadence) could not be found in the 4-star hotels of the Caribbean or in the lush, tropical resorts in Central America. To find this I knew I would need to tour the Rust Belt of America. I knew I would need to go to Detroit.
So, here’s what happened. I went to Detroit with my lovely girlfriend – meaning, of course, my friend who is a girl, I mean a woman. It was one of the first stops on an almost two week long road trip, where we basically did a big loop through: Chicago, Detroit, Niagara, Buffalo, Pittsburgh; up through Ohio, Indiana; down to St. Louis and then back up to where we live in St. Paul. We arrived in the city a few weeks after its unprecedented declaration that the coffers were finally empty. Now, I have done what I feel is an above-average amount of traveling in my incredibly short life. I have paraded about in a number of different countries on several continents. I have ensured the continued ire of the world community for “dumb Americans” who: “Don’t know any other language than English,” in the process. What I’m trying to say here is that I am not completely “green” when it comes to traveling or even visiting cities that do not have a squeaky-clean reputation when it comes to urban safety.
That being said (and said beautifully I might add), as I began my research into the sordid recent history of Detroit, in a vain attempt to gain clarity on what to do in “the D,” I began to despair. All I encountered was hyperbole and heresy on the internet – people commenting that Detroit was as bad as a Fallujah or Mozambique, that stepping across the city line was a death wish, that the best way to see Detroit is to put the pedal to the metal on Interstate 94. Even speaking with people who had spent time in the city was unhelpful. For example I had the entirely unexpected opportunity to talk with a studious young man, who was currently pursuing his Masters in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, little more than a week before my trip. When I mentioned Detroit his eyes widened, almost automatically. A cruel smile twisted across his face, with his voice immediately adopting a sententious tone. “Oh, you’re going to Detroit are you? Why?” he said, his mouth quivering, as if fighting back the formation of a grin.
This smug and patronizing query was symbolic of how a majority of people’s reacting to my desire to go to Detroit. I have never seen so many raised eyebrows, or been subjected to so much haughty scoffing regarding my traveling plans. All of the negativity did eventually begin to wear on me. I started asking myself a number of questions: Was I getting in over my head? Was there any point in going to such a blighted city? It was amazing how the onslaught of disparaging public opinion was almost successful with nullifying my common sense. It almost convinced me not to go. Yet once I finally arrived I learned that, as I originally suspected, the city wasn’t the equivalent of the seventh circle of hell. It was still functional. Battered and scarred perhaps, with disintegrating infrastructure and profound lack of street lamps, but still functional.
So how was it exactly? Well, I am not going to sugar coat anything about the general appearance of the city. This was as close to a post-apocalyptic, Judge Dredd-style urban landscape as I have ever seen. Yet, it was amazingly atmospheric. Skyscrapers, their grey facades defaced by huge swaths of graffiti, windows rendered dark, empty and lifeless, served as a powerful and jarring welcome. These hulking, skeletal structures were like ancient fossils, stripped of their inner vitality by time and circumstance, destined to be reclaimed by nature without exterior intervention. I mean that literally. I was told by some residents about the ubiquitous thievery that goes on in abandoned buildings and homes. The nights were some of the darkest I’ve ever experienced in an urban environment. Large sections of the city existing in a black void, the buildings swallowed by the darkness and the roads lit solely by the dual beams of car headlights. It was disorienting yet electrifying (probably because I was safe, for the most part, in a car), otherworldly even. The light of the city (or lack there of) exacerbated the loneliness of certain streets yet augmented the comfort of places not yet defunct.
One such place was The Green Dot Stables (pictured above – duh), which is where my gal pal and I ate on our first night in town. Standing with stalwart defiance, flanked by barren lots and isolated truck yards, The Stables seemed perfectly named, coming off like a warm retreat in a darkly feral urban frontier. It was immensely welcoming. Outside of the restaurant people milled about – drinking, eating and talking. Kids (in true kid fashion) stumbled about from table to table, without any discernible purpose or provocation, clueless to where their bodies were in any given space or time. Inside, The Stables was similarly lively, although different. The crowd was composed of a singular demographic, a demographic which myself, and the wonderful woman at my side, fit. Led immediately to a table we squeezed and slithered past a number of other patrons who were dressed ironically in form-fitting jeans and whose arms were slathered with deeply meaningful (to them) tattoos.
Settling into our corner booth we turned our attentions away from the restaurant’s bohemian crowd and zeroed in on the menu. Now, The Green Dot Stables specializes in sliders. Yet before you think about White Castle and start popping Pepto-Bismol you must read on. The Green Dot Stables doesn’t serve sliders, they serve Sliders, meaning, simply, that they slide down your gullet really quickly because they are so delicious. From the Quinoa Burger (deeply flavorful), to the Catfish slider (delicious with a lightly fried crust and a creamy dollop of tartar sauce) The Green Dot didn’t drop the ball the central premise of its menu. The most amazing thing about the menu however were the prices. The sliders rang in at an acceptable price (for their size), but the drink menu was the feature of the Green Dot that would even make an Ebenezer Scrooge grin. Everything (bottled beer, draft beer, and cocktails) fell at $3 dollars or lower. So, needless to say we augmented our succulent burgers with some tasty beverages, including: The Summer Soda (refreshing tastes of basil, cucumber, and lemon), and the Mint Julup (sweet and tasty, yet a tad on the watery side).
In many ways The Green Dot set the mold for our culinary experience in Detroit; delicious food at an almost shameful bargain was the standard. In fact, another highly notable eating experience occurred but a day later at a small restaurant named Mudgies Deli. Mudgies had hugely positive notices behind it, boasting a coveted high-ranking on Yelp, and promulgating repeated nods by several Detroit-area publications as one of the best restaurants in the city. Let me be perfectly clear about one thing: I will be continuing this ass kissing, Mudgies is a flat-out wonderful establishment.
Similar to The Green Dot Stables, Mudgies schtick was also sandwiches, delicious sandwiches with veggies so fresh you wonder if they had just been plucked out of Detroit’s fertile soil that very afternoon! My luminous lady friend and I, both being vegetarians (or, I guess technically pescetarians), went immediately for the no-meat options. I got the whimsically named Hippie Dippie Sh*t Man, and she sampled the more conventionally titled Vedgie. Both had an explosive flavor. Here are just a few of the veggies which factor into the Hippie Dippie: avocado (personal favorite food), sunflower sprouts, cucumbers, walnuts, raspberry vinaigrette. As for the Vedgie, well, take a look for yourself. In fact, take a look at all of their great items here. It is also worth mentioning the deli’s beer selection, which features a large variety of beer primarily from Michigan, in addition to wine and even mead.
So that was a preview of what we ate. But where did we lay our heads for the night? Excellent question. Looking around for budget accommodations is never easy. Yet, my extremely significant other and I are intensely savvy when it comes to living check to check (it’s about the only thing we excel at), and finding ways to make money stretch (it’s the basic premise behind our lives as we struggle between paychecks). We managed to find a hostel called Hostel Detroit. Uninspired names aside it turned out to be yet another (semi) hidden gem. The hostel anchors a quiet corner in Corktown, enlivening it with a pastel-colored, geometric design on one side of the building. It certainly is an easy place to spot.
The inside of the hostel wasn’t necessarily as distinctive, yet nearly everything that makes a hostel experience pleasurable was present here. To begin with it was very clean. Our room was also comfortable, with clean linen and towels provided by the hostel. The bathrooms were well-maintained and well-stocked. I don’t know how I can more creatively write about this or how to more effectively communicate why this is important. It seems like it should be a no-brainer. Yet I have stayed in many a hostel and let me tell you the importance of a well-moped bathroom can NOT be overemphasized.
Other areas of the hostel were decked out in a way fairly identical to other well-run places. There were the usual piles of expository information: effective maps charting out places of interest, transit info, a list of local watering holes, upcoming events. A couple of computer terminals, scattered reading material and comfy seating adorned the main common areas on the main floor. There were also kitchens (on both levels) and a washer & dryer (which we did not use and therefore cannot comment on). Probably the most memorable aspect about the hostel however was not what was in it, but what surrounded it, or, to be more specific, what did not surround it.
Standing at the corner of Vermont and Spruce Hostel Detroit was surrounded by open space, vacant lots that were eerily maintained and groomed. Directly across from the hostel the lot was occupied not by a permanent structure but by a mobile home. Two blocks away a long stretch of grass – which ran parallel to the highway – was being carefully preened as a community garden (a common, ubiquitous feature of Detroit apparently, which is returning back to the land). Directly to the west Vermont stops dead, the city disappearing into a tangled maze of resurgent foliage and brush.
Observing all of this I couldn’t help but think of other cities I’ve been to or lived in and how Detroit, although further along on the process of decline in a post-industrial epoch, is hardly unique. I thought about Chicago quite frequently, the south side and west side specifically. Detroit, with the juxtaposition of good food, cultural highlights (we visited Detroit’s really nice, although perhaps self-indulgent, Detroit Historical Museum) and shocking urban blight, felt only like the slightly more battered cousin of the Windy City. Because of this very potent similarity I began to wonder about exactly why Detroit has been the subject of such intense aggression and vitriol in the press. Obviously there is an element of political motivation at work here, with people on both sides of the spectrum looking to capitalize on the city’s torturous disintegration to strengthen their ideologies. I’m sure fear and ignorance are also percolating underneath much of it, with eye-brows being yanked towards hair-lines due to all of the city’s negative press.
The validity of these sentiments is so dubious that doesn’t really need to be discussed, although perhaps in some ways the punitive rhetoric is based in truth. For instance, Detroit politics (based on everything I’ve read) does seem like it has often been defined by corruption and impotence. Additionally, the problems of the city’s underfunded pensions is immense, with lots of articles pointing to pervasive mismanagement. Yet, these again seem like issues hardly confined to Detroit (Chicago again springs to mind), and should be taken into consideration by people before they demonize an entire city with huge generalizations. This isn’t the first major city to declare municipal bankruptcy and it won’t be the last.
But that’s all I will really say on that, because, the true purpose of this post is simply to relate my very brief, very superficial experience with the city. My central point is to say that, although it looks battered and bruised, Detroit is still there and it still has areas deserving of one’s time and money. It’s worth it and it needs it, now more than ever. I don’t want to minimize anything about the city’s suffering, as there is certainly a palpable feeling of pain and disillusionment there (present even in just the few neighborhoods that we went into). I also fully acknowledge that on the surface it doesn’t scream “tourist hot spot,” and possesses probably more derelict structures than any place I’ve ever seen (one resident told me that almost 70,000 buildings are currently defunct).
However, there is still a lot to be experienced. Detroit is in a state of flux. Although it will never be the city it used to be, and in fact will probably continue to contract in the years to come, it is still a city. There are still nearly 750,000 people who call it home. I simply wish that people would take that fact into consideration before promulgating their hubris, engaging in heresy or spewing prejudice. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the sentence: “This is the result of 40 years of black liberalism!” Perhaps with a little less bombast we could begin to think rationally on how Detroit might be stabilized and eventually put on a more sustainable path.
And so that was my very brief encounter with magnificent, horrific, delicious metropolis that is Detroit. I enjoyed it and would love to go there again. I have read a lot about how many people have been urging for others to, “say nice things about Detroit,” especially in recent years as the city has continued to decline and the national conversation has become more dogmatic and hateful. I am more than happy to add my small, insignificant voice to the proponent masses. Detroit isn’t going to go away soon. What it will become is of course anyone’s guess. I’m looking forward in the years to come to finding out the answer. Until that time I will continue to say nice things about the city and plan eagerly for the day when I find myself there again.