Detroit: Visions of a Great City

Two thousand years ago, Rome, the center of the Roman Empire, was the largest most advanced city in the world.  Five hundred years later the empire had disintegrated into small kingdoms of competing tribes and city-states that grew up around the ruins of the former great empire.

In the eleventh century, Ankor Watt in Cambodia was the largest city in the world.  Its present-day ruins constitute the world’s largest “world heritage site,” approximately twenty square miles.  Today, its ruins lie largely abandoned, surrounded by small villages and a growing tourist-friendly town a few miles away.

Downtown Detroit: The Renaissance Center

In the middle of the twentieth century, the city of Detroit was the primary automobile production city in the world.    The racial and economic tensions had been held in balance for decades. At its peak, Detroit was a prosperous city of over two million people.  Today, it has shrunk to around seven hundred thousand.  The auto industry abandoned the city as well, leaving empty factory buildings, as GM, Ford, and Chrysler built new factories outside Detroit and in other countries. The automobile industry during boom times drew thousands from the south, both white and black, coming to Detroit in search of jobs.

Detroit has impressive cathedrals and sculptures

Detroit’s current scars stem back to 1967 when race riots resulted in forty-three deaths, almost five hundred injured, over two thousand arrests, and thousands of burned buildings.  The riots led to “white flight,” leaving the inner city populated predominantly by poor African-Americans.  The diminished tax base caused by the white flight left the city without enough tax money to pay for the removal of the burned-out houses.  And so, almost a half century later, some of Detroit still resembles a war zone.  I was told of unscrupulous homebuyers who would buy empty foreclosed properties, insure them, and then set them on fire to collect the insurance payout.  Former Detroit mayor, Kwami Kirkpatrick, was convicted of corruption.

A surviving building from “Old Detroit”

Racism was rampant, as described by Susan who grew up there.  Communities would be growing until the first African-American moved in, at which point property values were diminished and the houses would be sold quickly as white flight escalated.  Detroit was also known for its large Jewish communities. There were quasi-ghettos created where Jews would live among each other, while they were unwelcome in many other areas of the city.   Synagogues would eventually become churches with the changing demographics of white flight.

Just as one wouldn’t blame the ancient Romans or Cambodians collectively for the decline of their civilizations, it’s not all the Detroiters’ fault for the decline of their once-great city.  Those surviving residents who never abandoned their city were not the cause of the decline, but rather were subjected to the aftermath. They didn’t cause the auto industry to fail, but experienced worsening unemployment.  And, the bailout of automobile industry was vital to Detroit’s recovery, as the industry is a lifeline to the whole metropolitan Detroit community.

Present-day Detroit is the proof that out of the ruins comes hope.  Hope takes the form

The People Mover: elevated downtown railway

of redevelopment, urban gardens, a vibrant music scene, proud sports fans, the People-Mover elevated railroad that circles the downtown district, the riverfront, and last but not least, the people who love the city enough to invest their collective energies in rebuilding Detroit.  It will not be necessary for Detroit to expand to two million people for it to be a great city again.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Michigan Opera Theatre, The Detroit Symphony, School of Performing Arts, and Cass Technical High School where Susan studied the harp, along with the Center for Creative Studies, Wayne State University, Medical School, and the Motown Museum…Detroit is rich with culture…world-class music, art, jazz, dance…more than one could see in one visit or in many.  Amidst all of Detroit’s struggles, the arts endure.

The Thinker, original sculpture by Rodin at Detroit Institute of the Arts

Detroit is the only location in the United States where one travels south into Canada.  Across the river to the south, Windsor, Ontario, had casinos for a number of years prior to Detroit’s building them.  Detroit’s casinos have attracted visitors who might otherwise have crossed the international bridge to visit Windsor’s casinos.  Thus the downtown area of Detroit looks prosperous enough, though it is not the same city as before.  Detroit is currently home to the largest Middle-Eastern population outside the Middle East, with especially large Lebanese and Iraqi communities.  Among the Iraqi immigrants are many Chaldeans, who are Arab Christians from Iraq.  Their restaurants are great.

One of Detroit’s many cathedrals

Detroit is one of my favorite cities in the world, along with Stockholm, San Francisco, and Mumbai (Bombay).  All these cities have their attractions and their faults.  But what really makes these cities so attractive is the people, the friends and family that live in them.  In the case of Detroit, that begins with Susan’s 91-year-old stepmother, Dotty Mazer.  Some of Susan’s best friends from her youth have lived in Detroit all their lives.  These include professional artists Linda and Don Mendelson, and harpist Pat Terry-Ross and her husband, retired Highland Park councilman, Frank Ross.  They also include Susan’s college sociology teacher Harriet Saperstein and her husband, retired physics professor, Al.  Last but not least is Susan’s harp teacher, 84-year-old Liz Ilku.  Liz was a member of the Detroit Symphony for over 30 years.  We visited all these people, whom I originally met through Susan, during our most recent visit.

I’ve made some friends of my own in Detroit.  They include my flute mentor, Erv Monroe, who recently retired from the Detroit Symphony after forty years with them.  My newest friend is jazz pianist Cliff Monear.  See/hear him at  Cliff is a great pianist and it’s a great pleasure to play with him.  I try to connect with him musically whenever I’m in Detroit.  On this most recent visit, I had the opportunity to sit in with him and his jazz trio concert at the Steinway Piano Gallery.

Cathedral Door

Having so many good friends in Detroit makes any visit there a great time to connect with these friends.  When we strike up a conversation with someone on the plane to Detroit, we often say, “Yes, we live in the beautiful Reno/Tahoe area, but we vacation in Detroit!”  This statement generally evokes an appropriately ironic laugh, as if they are thinking, “What kind of crazy people would want to vacation in Detroit?”

Hi, I'm Dallas Smith

My blogs offer the vicarious pleasure for my readers to learn of my travels and musical adventures.

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