The city that cagers built
I spent the latter part of last week at a professional conference in Detroit. It was exactly 40 years since I was last in the downtown area. My family lived in Royal Oak, further down Woodward Avenue by the Zoo, when I was in primary school. My dad was completing his Ph.D. taking night courses at Wayne State University. After he finished it, we all headed back to upstate NY where I was born.
We never looked back. The '67 Riots destroyed much of the community around the university. It almost reached up to our house lying in the shadow of Father Coughlin's Shrine of the Little Flower. But that's another long, ancient story. An impromptu reunion with my youth was much less fascinating than what I saw of Detroit's ongoing struggle to rebuild itself over the last four decades.
It's hard to say if the riots were the beginning or the end of the downtown area as the vibrant heart of Detroit. The huge wave of post-WWII suburban expansion had already left it predominantly poor and black. On the other hand, it was only a few years later that the Oil Crisis along with competition from Japanese automakers began to seriously threaten Detroit's sole economic foundation - cars. Either way, its downtown today is nearly empty, eerily bereft of people, business, AND CARS.
No wonder it became the setting for Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi kitsch series, Robocop. The RenCen, GM's corporate-friendly attempt at urban renewal, dominates the skyline along the Detroit River. This has been followed by equally monstrous corporate piles like the Cadillac Center as well as Cobo and Joe Louis arenas. And each of these tied together with 10 other locations by the People Mover.
Like the L here in Chicago, it's elevated a story or so above street level. Unlike it, this disturbingly automated, Disneyland version of mass transit is ridiculously cheap ($0.50) and weirdly circular; but blessedly short.
Once your on, you can go round and round and round the downtown in less that 10 minutes. It reminded me of the greedy and materialistic souls condemned to Dante's 4th Circle of the Incontinent Upper Hell where they eternally bump into one another as they push big rocks round and round and round...
Metaphysics and allegories aside, the real world sin of the People Mover is that it doesn't move all that many people: just white-collar, 9-to-5 cagers, most of whom commute in from the suburbs, and out-of-town tourists. Then there's those sky bridges connecting parking structures with most of the surrounding office buildings. No one ever really has to go out into the streets; unless of course, you want to cruise the one-block Epcot habitat known as Greektown during your lunch hour or holiday visit.
The whole thing seems designed to keep the toiling middle classes well beyond the reach of the nasty urban reality that Detroit has become. From suburb by car to workplace by sky bridge with a slight detour at lunch time on the People Mover, they are shrink wrapped against the possibility of encountering those pesky poor folks whose biggest sin is having to live in the downtown ... at street level. If there is even a chance that this is the face of things to come in urban America, we're all in deep, deep shit.