Your Urban Geographer is in travel mode.
Heading west – I’m taking the train across America from Chicago to San Francisco, with a stop in Detroit on the way. A massive city weathering an economic storm, Detroit’s blighted urbanity forces you to confront social equity, racial justice and the tragedies of neoliberalism. The following is a short summary of absurd thoughts I had while visiting Detroit that don’t attempt to address the aforementioned conditions of the city. However, as an outspoken writer with a blog, I needed to get them out.
On comparisons with Toronto
I must inevitably compare cities with the one I know best. As Great Lakes cities, the cities have lots in common: they are in the same forest, their residential neighbourhoods are comprised of detached houses with similar architectural styles. Their histories, of course, have been quite divergent. Detroit is infamous for relying on an industrial monoculture that eventually collapsed. Toronto is an industrial chameleon, adapting to global economic trends and relying on its centrality to the Canadian economy.
I did notice two quirky comparisons that might be stretching things but I have to share.
Detroit’s highway system, most prominently a north-south U transected by an east-west cross highway looks remarkably like Toronto’s Line 1 subway (Yonge-University-Spadina Line). It even has the same northwest jog around Eglinton West station. It’s even got a Line 4 (Sheppard) equivalent. The comparison is poignant as it highlights Detroit’s reliance on cars in the place of Toronto’s not-perfect-but-better-than-nothing subway system. But for all its car-dependency, Detroit’s system one up’s Toronto’s in one way: it has a Downtown Relief Line.
On another transit related note, Detroit’s People Mover, built with the same technology as Toronto’s Line 3 (Scarborough RT), sounds the same chime as the TTC when the doors open and close.
I went to Buddy’s Pizzeria and it was delicious.
Detroit is massive. It’s often sited that Paris, London and Manhattan could fit within its borders, and there would still be space left. The population of Detroit peaked at 2 million, but today it’s more like 700 000 – 700 000 people spread through a humungous city. Detroit is too big.
Reasons for Detroit’s rampant abandonment and blight are complicated and systemic. They have effected every part life in the city, most prominently enormous skyscrapers with hollowed out windows that are completely empty. Thousands of houses are shuttered, partially demolished, caving in, charred or completely burnt down. The house in its classic form, two stories, with a pointed roof and porch, is a symbol of safety, domesticity, humanity. Seeing so many muted and destroyed by economic and social catastrophe is particularly poignant.