My original plan was to write a post after this one-month road trip had ended. So I would have plenty of stories to tell, lessons learnt and even a GoPro video I have been working on. But, I couldn’t not write about Detroit. I was so in awe of the city and felt that it deserved its own separate post. That and I just needed to share my experience in Detroit right away.
First I will give a little bit of context which will explain why I have been quiet for the past few weeks. Back in mid-June I left New York to meet up with a Danish guy I had met down in Colombia back in January, we happened to be in the same city at roughly the same time, he offered me a spot on his road trip and I jumped at the chance. He brought another friend from Denmark and we have been traveling through the United States and Canada ever since. We’ve had a lot of fun and there is still a lot more to do and a lot more distance to cover but I will talk about that in the weeks to come. This is all about Detroit. Now, since we left New York and played with the idea of stopping into Detroit, we had heard nothing but bad things and warnings.
“Stay away from Detroit.”
“If you go in, you won’t get out alive.”
“It is the city with the highest murder rate in the states.”
“There is nothing good left in Detroit.” We heard it all, every fact, every story, every reason why going to Detroit was a bad idea. Naturally, I just had to go and check it out, and my friends were crazy enough to agree. Besides what we actually noticed from all the people telling us not to go is that none of them had actually been there before.
I have to admit when we crossed the Canadian border and arrived at our hostel we were sceptical to say the least. Ok we were shitting ourselves! We started to think maybe everything we were told was true. Burned down buildings, abandoned houses, empty lots we took a left and arrived at one of the only houses till standing in the neighbourhood with Detroit Hostel scribbled on the side.
We walked up to the door, we decided to at least check prices. We must have been standing there for 10 minutes or so debating over whether to knock. Before we could chicken out the owner opened the door to go for a smoke, after a conversation about the neighbourhood and this being the only hostel in Detroit, we decided to stay.
Immediately the owner ran through all the rules and tips for staying safe in Detroit, “keep smiling, don’t walk on the footpaths and if you feel uncomfortable get out,” he said. “Apart from that, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about and you can go anywhere you want during the day.” Great first impression. We packed all our valuables in the safe and headed into downtown. We took the car and drove on roads that looked like they hadn’t been serviced since the boom in the 50’s with almost no asphalt left on the surface. It was an interesting experience for us and the car.
We passed by Michigan Central Station, a giant abandoned rail station that would have looked magnificent in its day, is now boarded up and patrolled by the police during the day and people you do not want to run into at night. It is so surreal to see buildings like this empty and run down. Detroit, at times, can feel like a post-apocalyptic America. There are abandoned skyscrapers, run down unit blocks, and burnt down buildings and that’s just the downtown. One of the things you immediately notice when you enter the city centre is that there is no-one freaking there. The city’s population peaked in the 50’s and 60’s to over 1.8 million people, since then it’s dropped to below 700 thousand. It is just eerie.
We walked around exploring the seemingly empty city, we met some people scattered throughout the city; police officers, restraint owners, a few homeless people, everyone was really friendly.
We walked and walked and walked, we saw the baseball stadium and the casinos. We saw graffiti and some truly amazing abandoned buildings. We went to the river, looked over at Canada and checked out the monuments. We went to the centre and watched a free concert, and took in the strange art installations put up through the city. We had dinner in Greek town and took in the bizarre beauty of this former giant. It seemed we were in an alternative version of New York, where there was almost no prosperity and instead of people flocking to it they were leaving. We walked for so long, we lost track of time before we knew it was 9PM and the sun was almost set, instead of frightened we all just looked at each other with grins on our faces. We couldn’t believe how many times this place had made us smile. The quirky people and surroundings made it a truly unique city and we were in love with Detroit.
The next day we spent checking out the Heidelberg project, an independent art installation on a street in the suburbs made almost exclusively from junk. It was a crazy place with even crazier people but everyone was unbelievably friendly.
Next we went to some of the more affected areas to experience the Detroit the media shows, the burn out buildings and the abandoned warehouses. It was pretty surreal – you can feel what it used to be, a prosperous city. Despite all the poverty and heartache, the people of Detroit are strong and they’re happy. Everyone has a smile on their face. We had breakfast and lunch at a local Café called Astro, an amazing place and best coffee we got on the trip so far. One of the employees found out I was Australian from my accent and even gave us three ANZAC biscuits (An Australian treat).
Detroit surprised me and for all the right reasons. We were sad to leave and I am definitely going to be back, there is still a lot I need to see.
“Tough times never last, but tough people do.” – Robert H. Schuller
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