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Detroit (Part 2)

Day 3 — Detroit

Today we go to a ballgame at old Tiger Stadium, in Detroit. Life is good, real, real good. And, MOTOWN, baby, Barry Gordy’s home — Hitsville, USA. The MOTOWN sound, its museum.

Bob Evans is our living food museum, another one close by our Ramada. There’s a Denny’s but we’re going to the hoe of MOTOWN. Denny’s mistreats African-Americans on a national scale.

Bob Evans is bustling busy. So is our mammoth breakfast as we half plan the day. First we’ll do the Renaissance Center. Do we have to? Yes, there’s a lift that will take us to the top. Maybe get a view of a great lake. From there we’ll find our way to MOTOWN, to Barry Gordy’s home.

We’re as giddy as schoolboys.

The day is glorious, cool, big lazy white clouds floating across the sunny blue sky.

In the light of day it’s not good, right away, everything w whole lot shabby, a bit sore, a bit under worked, a bit of America left to rot.

Rot, everywhere, as we are directly downtown, an East Berlin of it, people scattered about, newspapers and trash too, crumbling brick and peeling paint, Joe Buck and Ratso Rizo the Romulus & Remus of this.

This. I, we’ve never beheld before — a city that seems to be abandoned while people, US citizens are still in it. There’s a bright red artist’s rendering of some metro line of some sort. It looks like a fresh wound in the dying carcass. And I’m not exaggerating. If anything I can’t exaggerate it. There’s no point of reference to enhance from. I’ve seen Watts and the South Bronx and East Palo Alto, but those are sections of cities. This is the city, all the gloom and doom I was never told about in the horror tales of Detroit, the gloom and doom stretching on and on, block after bombed out block, here in the United States of my America, more boards on the windows than curtains.

There’s a giant wall mural of Detroit Lions’ running back Barry Sanders painted on the back of another doomed building. The silver & blue of it are the only colors for blocks. And now Barry Sanders is gone too. Oh, Detroit, what will you do? What can you do about all of this?

I guess you can have a parade because there’s one scratching its way down a main boulevard, all the side streets closed off, so we are constantly being diverted into blight, blight and then some more blight, the only sight to see is the not yet fully formed skeleton shell of the new baseball stadium, Comerica Park, and across some tattered streets to a tall, slick, neon, art deco marquee for a Phantom of the Opera theatre.

Of course you can’t miss the Renaissance Center down by the Detroit River, filling in as a city’s skyline like a couple of silo-sized silver gas pumps or two silo-sized thermos jugs. It’s awful even from here, former mayor Coleman Younger’s dream become Terminator nightmare. But when in an urban nightmare.

That thin parade is following us down the boulevard alongside us a few blocks over, all of us making our way towards the Detroit River.

We park in a pay for empty lot. Empty lots seem to be the front lawns of downtown Detroit. Standing there in the parking lot, looking up at the Autumn-like sky, deserted devastation all around, it finally strikes me, what Detroit feels like. Like a tornado has ripped the roof off your home, after it has ripped away your shingles and your aluminum siding. There you are, outside yet still inside your remaining shell.

The stupendous silver Shell service station of the Renaissance Center. I’ve been to Bilbao in Spain to see Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. This shining silver pile is a Bizzaro Frank O. Gehry. But here we are so let’s go into the mountain of silver gleaming atop the tailings heap that is Detroit.

Black Southern Baptist convention or so it seems inside the vast main event, African-Americans to the nines.

That’s an ethnic pride parade outside. Tim’s ethnicity and mine stand out like, well, two white guys at the Tuskegee Institute. But it ain’t no bother to nobody in particular.

It’s a bit of a bother around here because some big interior renovations are under way, under cover of some low-hanging canvas canopies, wooden walls for hallways — a construction site for guests.

We guess not, not the observation deck on this visit.

We guess yes. We’ve found directions to Barry Gordy’s MOTOWN home from a very dignified security guard inside his lobby — central pod. “It’s up on the boulevard,” casual as you please, like any damn fools like us would certainly know where the “boulevard” was. He’s kind enough to show us on a tourist brochure map. We ask him if we can have the map. He looks at us like two damned fools. We eventually find one at the front desk, that too partly under construction. MOTOWN. HITSVILLE USA. 26 48 WEST GRAND BOULEVARD. We’ve made the start of a great day!

As beautiful a blue and cloud white day as you’d ever want sent from the coast of Massachusetts. The days amplifies the squalor, and we do mean squalor, on this grand Pasadena wide boulevard, almost all the old Brooklyn, Manhattanese brick brownstones all boarded up, boards across their windows, across their eyes like men in iron masks — on both sides of the once grand boulevard.

But like two proud and permanent survivors, like two homes hanging on against Donald Trump’s advancing casinos, HITSVILLE USA. MOTOWN, two brownstones still standing side by side, the ancient city, the ancient fortress alive among the ruins, four long tall tour buses parked along the curb unloading their all African-American pilgrims, young, middle and old and me and Tim about as white as this paper in between.

We park. We are trippin’ with it, our Causasianness first an foremost, our pride in being the minority, finally, here, a very close secondmost.

We are soul brothers for a day. Don’t snicker. We feel that, right into our L.L. Bean footwear.

We take pictures of ourselves all over the front lawn. If you grew up back east, or wherever, and went to visit your aunts and uncles and cousins, these two homes are the adequate brick homes they’d live in, except these two adequate brick homes are museums, the home of MOTOWN. More buses, more folks making us the minority.

History. In we go, but not so fast, standing on the front porch for a moment, the day absolutely radiant, both of us radiating, realizing who ran up these steps behind us, before us. And we know that we did, too, beside Mary and Flo and Diana and Marvin Gaye.

Inside and down a narrow corridor to a well-packed little theatre where all tours in all the world begin. We’ve got a ballgame to get to. We pay our $6 and ask the young man at the desk if we can by ourselves. Of course, “take the elevator behind you to one.” We do and we step off into a Cooperstown of it, enough framed memorabilia to have its own Antiques Road Show, showin’ off the gold and the platinum, songs so famous and familiar they’re almost part of your own name. William “Better Shop Around” Hughes. Tim “Goin’ To A Go, Go” Davis.

Wall to wall photos of you all know who: the “temptin’ Temptations,” the “Supremes,” the “Miracles,” the “Four Tops.” We’d run out of quotation marks if I tried to include the whole cast. But this is MOTOWN so you already know.

And here comes a large African-American tour group so Tim and I squeeze by around the corners of the crowd as a young tour guide works the tour as good as a preacher, pointing out an historic echo box above our heads.

In these museum rooms they used to work the songs. The echo box overhead gave them some feedback. Of course the tour guide gets a young woman to sing some “Supremes” song. Everyone applauds her. That’s why you want a tour group and why you don’t.

Why do they have Michael Jackson’s dark hat and pearly glove? But ours is to only reason why as we move out of the clustered memorabilia and into the usual history, neither one of us with a guide map, so totally by a pleasant surprise we find ourselves in Barry Gordy’s home, 1961, literally, part of the upstairs preserved to still be 1961. Tim and I are Vietnam era Woodstockians. This is our apartment, plastic ornaments and hard knuckle wooden furniture, television and hi-fi — those rudimentary deco electronics. If you put my mother in this kitchen, all cozy and efficient, I wouldn’t think. If you put the two of us in the child’s playroom, with its rudimentary deco toys, I wouldn’t blink either. I’ve been in the museum and park service business. This apartment is one fine interpretive space.

And now self-directing tour route takes us across and into the other house and down into the recording studio itself, all the standing microphones beside the piano standing quietly in the early 1960’s, waiting for all those names who are going to be coming up those brownstone front steps. “What can make me feel this way…? My girl, my girl, talkin’ about my girl…” MOTOWN STUDIO A, now and still ready for use, simple and efficient, advanced and improvised, necessities without any frills, the actual sound consoles as gray and as ordinary as any science fiction movie. But there ain’t no word as “primitive.” State of the art belongs to the past as well as the present.

Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin & Eddie Kendricks — present. The Four Tops — present. Stevie Wonder — present. Smokey — present. Aretha — present. And on and on as we just stand transfixed on the hardwood floor. Even the time clock and the time card rack from that time are present and accounted for.

The tour leads back into the little theatre. We have made a good account of ourselves, and now for some of the music itself, in CD or cassette, from the very soul of the songs.

The small front room gift shop doesn’t have what I’m looking for: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going ON,” or “Getting Ready” by the Temptations or “Going To A Go Go” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

The young man who rings up our postcards is mist helpful. “White’s Records down on Grand River Boulevard.” His directions are simple enough.

We haven’t had enough of it yet, standing again out on the front lawn taking pictures of each other.

Tim did his Vietnam era VISTA Volunteer time deep inside Georgia. I’ve been to the real Vietnam in the Vietnam era and also to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee in the not so distant past. The Lorraine Motel, the National Civil Rights Museum motel, where Dr. King… I sat at a Woolworth’s counter recreation inside. For the two of us, here, pride.

Neither one of us wants to leave, so we hang out on the front lawn for a bit, still the only sanctified Caucasian soul brothers for miles.

“Music, ahh, music. Send them back without me, Thomas. I’ll stay here in Motown and make music…” Henry VIII to Thomas Moore, with a twist.

Twisting in the wind, this end of Detroit, where we hunt up “White’s Music,” all of it here left to rot, deeper, more determined rot here along Grand River Boulevard.

And grand it must have been, wide and proud, sick now with devastating disease where nothing seems to live, except, well, there it is, “White’s Music,” bright as a Fillmore poster. Life among the rubble.

We pull over, not a soul or a soul man around. I mean nobody, East Berlin at early curfew. We are inside the “Hood,” suburbanites like all get out. But there ain’t nobody in this “Hood” to bother us. Tim waits in the car anyway.

Two young brothers inside the shop of not much more tan racks and posters are somewhat amazed to see me. It’s just me and them. They’re glad to see me, their amazement wearing off, especially when I tell them that I’ve come from the Motown Museum and that the staff steered me here. They liked that.

I tell them what I’m looking for, what I couldn’t find at the museum. They liked that too. I had to settle for “Best of the Miracles,” Best of the Temptations, and the prize, Marvin Gaye’s Detroit masterpiece, “What’s Going On.” I’m quite satisfied.

I wanted to stay awhile, three guys getting into some sports talk once I told them about Tiger Stadium being the reason for the visit. I tell them quite openly, quite frankly that Detroit is “fucked.” They openly and frankly agree.

Now, back in the car. Can you dig it? Can you? Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On” on the tape deck, in the “Hood,” in Detroit. Like being there at Creation. I do know about Tim. We’re both weeping tears of joy a bit.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. The neighborhood just got a lot worse. We didn’t think it was possible. “Picket lines and picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality…” Around here, wherever in the hell we are, is total, like that impossible 110% of sports effort. Rust and grime and rotting worthy of Bosch. Ghostly, empty, worthy of tumbleweed, everyone having run away.

Our only compass is the obvious city skyline ahead of us. There’s nothing to block the view because everything has tumbled down.

“Ah, mercy, mercy me… Oh, things ain’t what they used to be…” in the exact place that used to be. We need some good old American pastime to cheer us up.

It takes some doing around here because outside the ballpark we park on the abandoned front lawns of the once beautiful abandoned brownstones of some unnamed neighborhood. But still, somebody’s there to take $10 from us.

Across the freeway below on a battered footbridge overpass. Well, brother, there she is, Tiger Stadium, white Roman round, soon for the wrecking ball. Play ball! Foul ball again because everywhere you look makes your eyes sore.

Back down the freeway towards the bridge to Canada stands a tall, wide box of a building, all its eyes, all its windows punched out, as empty of life as a skeleton. Starkly, above all else it stands out like a hellish Parachute Jump at Coney Island. It’s George Babbit and the “Day After” in Zenith.

Oh, well. We know the grass will be greener inside the ballpark. And they’ll have beer. Now we can play ball!

Tiger Stadium
Tiger Stadium

A big crowd is streaming in. Where did they all come from because there ain’t no from to come from around here. Very predominantly white. Suburbs, there must be suburbs.

We take our time in the mostly white throng, savoring every single not so solitary moment.

The stadium’s structure is an old railroad station, an old shipyard left to rust away. It’s leading the league in that statistic. It’s reflective of the city we’ve seen, almost as if it wasn’t going to come down, just a sorry reflection of all the infection that surrounds it.

“Beer! Hey, beer!” What rust? There really aren’t any concession stands, more like individual gypsy wagons like a company picnic or a barbeque. It’s difficult to call it quaint in here among the rot but we’ve got our first beers and our first dogs so so what.

Got to roam around a bit before we find our seats, catching a sunlit glimpse of the green stands through the open entrance ramps. An open air outside café promenade outside just doesn’t work. It’s like having a Starbucks beside a steel mill.

But all is forgotten and forgiven because the diamond on the emerald bed works the same magic whether it’s the South Bronx of Yankee Stadium or the East Bay of Oakland. The playing field within the walls is a Faberge egg — a diamond on an emerald bed.

The park’s dimensions are disorderly and odd like a cardboard box your infant has handled — still in its form but a bit out of whack. It’s a bit bandbox and a bit wide open spaces. We recognize it but here we are in person. Pinch, pinch.

We stand around soaking it all in as the crowd begins to leak out of the stadium. Tim has a seven-year old son. He has to get soaked for some souvenir hats and shirts at the main shop before we leave it all behind us.

Sun-setting daylight still left over from the beautiful day, that tall, squared, empty office building on the horizon still staring Jack O’Lantern-like back at us.

What’s left? Fairlane, the Ford estate over in Dearborn. Now that I’ve got to see, the mansion above the mill town.

Tim knows a way to Dearborn. His way is sort of half getting lost and half knowing so we unknowingly get a different Detroit, still East Berlin but beginning to show some signs of nearing the border over into West Berlin, auto dealerships actually open, some fast food (Bob’s Big Boy the big deal around here) actually open. Some street lights are actually on. Some shrubbery, some greenery, some computer industry, trees and forests, parks. Dearborn. Fairlane.

It’s a joke of course, in the gathering dusk, an American castle set on grounds that want to rival Henry VIII’s Hampton Court in “merry old…” But of course it’s not a joke. It’s here, Henry Ford and what it all has wrought and still wrings.

It’s getting dark and there is a wedding reception going on in the now commoner’s castle so we have to hustle around before night closes shop.

Out back of the castle is Ford’s Rogue River, brown and turbulent. The Rogue River assembly plant? A river of blood? Union strikers getting clubbed? Yes on all counts I think.

Very odd and a lot unsettling being here. Abe Lincoln from what seems like way back in Kentucky set the slaves free. Ford tries to enslave his workers. Let’s get out of here.

Tomorrow we go home. Tonight to finish up we are having dinner in the world’s first Bob’s Big Boy, Big Boy Bob himself outside holding up that Big Boy Bob’s burger like Lady Liberty with her torch. We think we are still somewhere in Dearborn.

In the morning we know we’ll do Belle Isle in the city before we leave. Frederick Law Olmsted’s Belle Isle. That’s why.

Back to our Ramada in the dark is Elizabeth N.J. to Manhattan along the Jersey turnpike, hard as nails, hammered in sideways and crooked.


Day 4 — Leaving

A Hudson’s Bay day. A gift from our neighbor to the north, autumn on the August air, chilled to perfection, blue as only the sky can be, fleets of white formations as only the clouds can be. Belle Isle, we hope, will be well named.

Back right downtown right up beside the Detroit River. Frederick Law Olmsted, architect.

We are lifted across the waters on his turn of the century. Teddy Roosevelt, lamp-posted bridge. Carriages could appear, so could fifes & drums, suffragettes, presidents or residents.

That was it because the rest of it needs a major facelift. We can’t tell if the remains of the Detroit Grand Prix, as abandoned as a broken-down circus, are remnants or permanent, everything required for a race, from bleachers to TV cables to infields to retaining walls are all, as the parent city, missing some parts, rusting in others and all together a ghost town Grand Prix atmosphere.

It’s weird because here we are in our rental racing along at 25mph alongside the broken, peeling red & white striped concrete retaining wall. Talk about midget racers.

Out off the racecourse and beyond the drooping chain link fences and the discarded black tier barriers and down alongside the Detroit River. Lots of trash spread out at the curb and on the grass. We stop and get out.

Canada across the wide, gleaming river, a tall casino staring back across at us from Canada. What’s good for the… and you know the rest as a squadron of Canada geese come coasting in, landing in behind us in worn out pond beneath a worn out monument tower. A little hard getting hold of your boyhood and your fur trappers in their bark canoes in this setting. But…no, this just won’t do.

The entire little isle is due for a paint job, peeling green concession stands, peeling brown bathrooms, each and every one of them all boarded up. There’s a peeling sign for a zoo. We don’t even want to imagine. Was there a carousel? Yes, I think there was. I can’t remember any colored lights or brassy music.

There was a small golf course, seeming to have been more hacked out than scooped out of the ground. There was a short stretch of forested ground. That was lovely but only a funnel back out onto that desolate Grand Prix track. Finally, Olmsted’s beautiful ornate bridge carries us away.

Up, up, up, up and away. We’ve decided to take the elevator up to the observation deck of the Ren Cen. Little did we realize that the elevator is on the outside of the thermos bottle towers. I don’t think we would have if we knew, this being the Detroit I’ve described, and this being the Ren Cen, its lousy reputation intact. But OK, OK, a little jittery on up the 72 floors.

The most unusual observation deck either one of us has ever seen. The usual wrap-around windows but the view has been divvied up into separate, disco lounge meets Star Ship Enterprise viewing pods.

There’s a restaurant by the same, uh, visionary, set in the center. Each pod feels like a little disco bar with a view to our immediate northwest across Lake St. Clair. Can’t crane your neck around enough to see north across to Lake Huron or southeast enough to Lake Erie.

And the view out across the city of course. We can see old Tiger Stadium and new Comerica Park below us. That’s enough of that.

Not quite enough yet. We’re down on the ground in a public plaza nearby alongside the river front. The plaza has a Noguchi fountain. Not one of his stone beauties but one of Noguchi’s metallic, space craft, donut on legs where the water seems to be pouring upwards from it. Add to that a plaza that is all cement and you have sterility where naturally is most needed.

The “ethnic pride” day from yesterday has set up a market, a carnival day in the plaza. The cement setting requires all the color it can get.

That’s it, out to the airport, stopping at a White Castle hamburger, eerily immaculate after all the rust.

Of course the airport could use a touch up. Up and out of Detroit. Wipe away the dust, the rot and the rust and you’ll find a wonderful trip.

The “ethnic pride” day from yesterday has set up a market, a carnival day in the plaza. The cement setting requires all the color it can get.

That’s it, out to the airport, stopping at a White Castle hamburger, eerily immaculate after all the rust.

Of course the airport could use a touch up. Up and out of Detroit. Wipe away the dust, the rot and the rust and you’ll find a wonderful trip.

The “ethnic pride” day from yesterday has set up a market, a carnival day in the plaza. The cement setting requires all the color it can get.

That’s it, out to the airport, stopping at a White Castle hamburger, eerily immaculate after all the rust.

Of course the airport could use a touch up. Up and out of Detroit. Wipe away the dust, the rot and the rust and you’ll find a wonderful trip.

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