Detroit's Michigan Central Station

Tourists usually pick a place to visit that’s the best at something. New York and Chicago have their skyscrapers. Orlando has its amusement parks. Detroit has decay. My wife and I stayed there a few days last summer and, honestly it was just sad. Detroit was built for 2 million people but only 700,000 people live there now. It’s a city of 1.3 million missing people. Detroit has this endless supply of buildings–wonderful buildings–that nobody uses. That’s what really gets to me about this city. All the lost potential, wasted effort, abandoned beauty. The world’s biggest ghost town.

I just saw  Detropia, a film that explains the problems of Detroit through a collage of lives, no narrator. It doesn’t get overly nostalgic and it’s not a movie of “ruin porn,” although you can’t tell Detroit’s story without ruins. Detroit’s strategy is to invest in its best places and try to build outward again. Some young people are moving downtown and that’s probably the best way for the city to start over. The problem is, the city can’t really afford to invest in itself anymore. It’s spread out over 140 square miles and it just can’t support its current population with this massive infrastructure footprint. When there’s block after block with one house where there used to be 20, how can you afford to maintain the streets, water and sewer lines, the police and fire departments, or even to plow the snow?

The thing that builds a city, millions of people making individual decisions, has been the undoing of Detroit. It’s become a repository for the state’s poor, and when they’re lucky enough to find more work, they leave. It’s a logical decision. The city is so far gone, so disappeared, that I’m afraid no matter how much the economy recovers, pretty soon it just won’t be a logical place for anyone to live.

Grand Army of the Republic Building, built for Detroit's Union Civil War veterans