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This American Road

Experience America this summer with Andrew Burmon

Driving Through Detroit

In a part of the public imagination, Detroit is an urban frontier, ripe for the conquering and reimagining, poised for a renaissance, driven by Chrysler ads and noble hipsters volunteering on urban farms. It's also true that Detroit is an abandoned city, dark and desolate, the kind of place where you can drive down Mack Avenue late one night and only see one pedestrian, a woman scratching her arms in a black dress, looking lost and sitting on a curb at an intersection in front of a boarded up building on a Saturday night.

So let's dispense with the romance of the place, the idea that Detroit just needs one good idea to be brought back from the brink of total annihilation. It's a city of systemic problems, even if Eastern Market remains a focal point for the community and suburban kids are moving into downtown and Slows Bar BQ, a barbecue joint that features in pretty much every story written about Detroit these days, is doing brisk business.

Traveling the American Road - Detroit

My expert source on the region, Micki Maynard, an editor with Changing Gears in Chicago, put it this way: "You have people who are trying to lead this region out of this terrible situation and people who's lives have been changed completely because of what's happened here over the last couple of years"

"It's a city that if you drive around it, it looks half-empty, and that's because it never actually filled up," Maynard continues, pointing to plans for three separate business centers that were never fully realized in the wake of World War II. "When people talk about how empty Detroit looks, a little bit is because of the way the city was designed." And of course, she adds, "Recent events have really taken a toll on Detroit."

One afternoon, I went to have lunch at Slows. The pulled pork and ribs and mac and cheese are excellent but I wonder if there isn't another reason so many people stop in: It's just around the corner from Detroit's abandoned train station, the ne plus ultra of the city's ample supply of ruin porn.

After wiping the sauce from my fingers, I went over to see it, fenced in with NO TRESPASSING signs. A couple was taking pictures of the shattered windows as a Salvation Army truck handed water to destitute men dressed in little more than rags who were gathered in the shade nearby. A man with a ponytail carried a spray can, walking the sidewalk, squirting herbicide on weeds, seemingly oblivious to the monument to despair towering behind him.

Other signs of the Detorit diaspora are more subtle. Micki Maynard again: "My dad worked for American Airlines. The airlines back then were important because Detroit was important, so American Airlines had hourly flights to New York. Now they're down to those little regional jets and basically a few frequencies a day."

Crime, too, remains an inescapable part of life here. In 2010, there were 307 murders in Detroit, a city that had roughly 700,000 residents that year. In 2009, more than 50,000 property crimes were reported to police. My hosts at the home in Woodbridge where I stayed talked about using the buddy system when biking in the city to avoid being targeted. One of them had his car stolen recently.

The fact that the Woodbridge Pub, a relatively new addition to the neighborhood, had plate glass windows without steel bars protecting them struck me as either monumentally encouraging or monumentally stupid. I didn't ask the bartender how many times they'd been shattered.

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