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Should We Bring Detroit Back?

by Lisa Diggs on Feb 22nd 2012

I had an interesting conversation today in which I found myself attempting to describe the Detroit I know and love, and rarely see depicted. Sadly, for years the media has given us only tales of the city that are riddled with crime, depression, and decay, and hardly anything else. Fortunately, more recently the stories have been laced with optimism and a sense of renewal, yet typically still set against a backdrop of despair.

I long for the day when an equally true, but squalorless picture will be painted on a more regular basis. Maybe one of the reasons we haven't reached that pinnacle yet are all the battle cries that we are "bringing Detroit back." While I applaud the efforts and pride associated, and have even been guilty of that sentiment myself at times, I cannot help but wonder to what time or condition are we trying to return?

How about an era, not long after World War I, when Detroit was referred to by many as the "Paris of the Midwest?" In the 1920s Detroit's skyline changed forever and publicists coined that phrase to herald the city's booming image. Those magical years saw the addition of architectural gems like the Fisher, the Penobscot, the Book Cadillac, the Fox Theatre, and the Guardian Building, among many, many more. Fortunately, Detroit is a city that is typically more likely to preserve than to tear down, so all of those buildings are still here for each of us to enjoy. One need only walk inside the lobby of the Guardian or through the doors of the Fox to experience the glory, not of what WAS Detroit, but what IS.

Could it be that people are dreaming of a time in which Detroit was known as "the city of champions?" For that we go back to 1935-36. That astonishing season, the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings all won their first championships. Meanwhile, a local boxer named Joe Louis, knocked out Max Baer to become the uncrowned champion of the world. Sports lore may never see another year like that for any city, yet you'd still be hard pressed today to find a better sports town anywhere in America, and perhaps the world, than Detroit. From Thunderboats to Grand Prix racing, Stanley Cups to World Series Championships, All-Star Games to Super Bowls, Detroit knows how to appreciate the art of sport as much today, as in any time before.

Perhaps it's the Motown mystique that has people longing for yesteryear. Barry Gordy and the artists at Hitsville USA created music that defined a generation. The 1960s brought new acclaim to Detroit along with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and a ton of other musicians blending together to create what is affectionately known as the Motown sound. It was a glorious time for creativity. Yet, while the music has changed, and the little house on Grand Boulevard is now a museum instead of a recording studio, Detroit's musical ingenuity has never been silenced. We don't need to bring back that time to enjoy what it produced, and we certainly don't need to revisit the racial strife that came along with it. The remnants have stayed for nearly fifty years, and that's quite long enough.

So that might lead us to the 1970s and 80s when this region gave rise to Bob Seger, Madonna, and Anita Baker, not to mention an entirely new artform known as Techno. The hair and clothing styles alone are reason not to want to reclaim those decades. They are, however, a time when I really started discovering the city through the eyes of an adult. By then there had already been a mass exodus to the suburbs and many people stopped coming into downtown. The scars from the aforementioned racial strife of the 1960s left a psychological mark on those who lived through them, and many began to warn their children of the dangers, real and perceived, of city life.

Thankfully my parents did not.  We took Sunday drives around Belle Isle and caught Broadway shows at the Fisher Theater.  My friends and I explored on our own, and became acquainted with Greektown and the riverfront. I had the thrill of watching the Wings skate at the Joe instead of Olympia for the first time in my life.  That excitement all awaits discovery today from the next generation.

For as long as I can remember people have been talking about bringing the city back, or debating whether or not that was even possible. Yet, all those glorious experiences I have described have withstood the test of time. The awe-inspiring frescos of Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts are as remarkable today, as when they first bedecked the walls, yet now an artistic adventure to the D.I.A. can easily be complemented with an exploration of Detroit Artists Market, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, or the Heidelberg Project.  Motown music is alive and well for decades to come, yet so are the sounds of our own Kid Rock, Eminem, and Jack White.

Today I've once again driven through the streets of Detroit and been inspired by the buildings that rise before me as I head up Woodward Avenue. Passing Comerica Park brings excitement about Prince Fielder and a team with so much potential, even as our Red Wings go for a record-extending 24th straight win at home in front of sellout crowds.  Campus Martius, houses more than a famous statue. Now it's a community hub, with ice skating and concerts.  It sits in the shadow of a global technology company called Compuware and is surrounded by lively hangouts like music-centered Hard Rock Cafe and that beacon for Michigan beers, Foran's Grand Trunk Pub.

I checked out what's new at Nest and City Bird, two unique shops among many retailers recently coming into the city. After a meeting at the Green Garage, a totally cool workspace that reinvents creativity and community, while promoting sustainability, I walked across the street to Thistle, a coffee house filled with other entrepreneurs typing away, like me. Amidst laughing college students from Wayne State University, and old neighborhood friends catching up, a film crew has just dropped in unexpectedly too to shoot a scene.

This is Detroit--right now. We have a history that has changed the world, and one that has at times stopped us cold. All of it has shaped us. We are working hard, cheering loudly, making music, creating art, advancing technologically, inspiring innovation, and of course, building cars. We are a city that needs not reach back, for anything. Instead, we are moving forward, with a proud heritage, and a bright future, and we refuse to be defined simply by our economic conditions.      

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Follow Lisa on Twitter: @Lisa_Diggs 


User Comments (1)

This is a VERY thought provoking piece. As I was reading through it I had great memories of times gone by and could actually envision myself LOVING the Detroit(s) that you described. As a long time supporter of our region, I want more!!! I think our shared past is entangled with good and bad. I hope we learn from each and make productive and positive choices that will help us in the future. People used to look at me like I had 2 heads when I would tell them that Detroit will lead the way again. It's amazing just how far we've come in past 14 months. That trend will continue and while no one can say for sure how far we will rise, I know I'm excited for the ride!! Thanks for being such a beacon of light in our community, Lisa. You are appreciated!!!

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