Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Detroit CBD blog.

It’s instructive that, when I Googled “Downtown Detroit,” the top site was that of a business organization, Downtown Detroit Inc., whose goal is to “create a clean, safe, beautiful, inviting downtown,” while the second site was a “Downtown Detroit Ruins Map,” which is part of a site run by a Detroit enthusiast who’s clearly infatuated with the area’s many dilapidated buildings, while also deploring their neglect. Downtown Detroit is that kind of place, a work-in-progress of a small number of boosters who have never given up on it, despite pervasive decay.

Which isn’t to say that downtown is a ruin. It’s alive. But even the most casual of walks there, combined with everything I’ve read or heard about the place, left me with the feeling that it’s a pale shadow of the great Northern city center that it used to be, even as recently as the 1950s. People still work there, evidenced by a steady trickle of pedestrians; some shops are still open; and there are a number of handsome older buildings, and even a few newer ones, such as the Renaissance Center, built at downtown’s nadir, in 1977, and which is now GM’s headquarters. But not far away, only a few blocks in some cases, downtown gives way to vacant, boarded-up buildings, empty lots, loose trash, graffiti, and all the other hallmarks of urban blight. Downtown feels like it’s just barely fending off the creep of urban decay.

I’ve visited greater Detroit many times, but I’ve only gotten close to downtown twice. Once when I flew by and crossed over to Canada via the Ambassador Bridge, and again last year, when I drove to the CBD, and then drove out again. This time, I wanted to get out of the car and put my feet on the sidewalk, the proper way to see a city. So after my duties were done last Tuesday, I drove from Dearborn to downtown, parked in a garage, and did a short walkabout.

If I’d had a little more time, I would have looked more closely at Woodward Ave., which is also called Michigan 1, dividing Detroit in two and extending all the way to far-suburban Pontiac, Michigan. Not far from downtown on that street are some well-known sites, such as the renovated Fox and State theaters. But I did get to walk along the avenue right at its beginning, and a few blocks in either direction.

Not far off Woodward is a jewel of a 1920s building, the Penobscot Building, still alive with office workers and retail activity. “For half a century, the Penobscot Building -- at 47 stories high -- was Detroit's tallest skyscraper,” says the Detroit Area Art Deco Society. “Ornamenting the building are American Indian figures and motifs, which are also in the entrance archway and metalwork. Comparable to those of New York and Chicago, it really brought the city into the 20th century world of skyscrapers.” I was especially taken with its interior, which had all the ‘20s detail you could want, including impressive mail boxes with proud brass eagles perched atop. (A relic of the old U.S. Post Office, when the Post Office meant something – the days when bags of letters to Santa Claus would prove his existence in court.)

A couple of other gems clustered nearby, including the Ford Building, a Daniel Burnham design from 1909 with some excellent terra-cotta work, and the Guardian Building, a colorful art deco marvel. From the vantage of Jefferson Ave., a major road paralleling the Detroit River, I got a good look at the glassy Renaissance Center, which looks isolated from the rest of downtown. Then I walked over to the old Mariners’ Church, more about which tomorrow.


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