Writing: Detroit bites but good

By Toby Barlow, 9 November 2010

Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead trailer began its scheduled journey at 2:05 pm on September 25. On the trailer sat a large recreation of Mr. Kelly’s childhood house. It planned to travel down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue and take a right onto Michigan Avenue. Then, after cruising past the strip joints, biker haunts, supermercados and Slows Bar-B-Q, the caravan would arrive at the site of the original home.

But this was just a spark in the greater zeitgeist. So much looms around Detroit now, filling the air with that great whooshing sound you hear as a predatory bird descends. As the trailer started up, David Byrne was just two miles away – one of 3,000 enthusiasts cycling the annual ‘Tour de Troit’. A week later Matthew Barney would stand atop the towers of an abandoned steelworks as a dismembered 1967 Imperial was melted in a burning forge. And just two days after that, Neil Young parked his 1959 Continental Convertible - reincarnated as a turbine powered electric vehicle – on the front lawn of Ford World Headquarters for an unannounced visit. All this creating a sense of some vast collective-unconscious art piece orchestrated by greater powers. Maybe. Maybe not.

It didn't matter. This is the town that eats its own. And the Kelley Kid was in for it, as if the psychic city had put a big red neon target on his back. Destiny’s black angel snipers leaned over the abandoned rooftops, angling for the kill. 

Sure enough, coming around the corner onto Michigan, Mike’s trailer popped up onto the curb, banging a massive hole in the tire. The limping caravan stopped. A truck pulled up outside the Book Cadillac to assess the damage. People mulled about. It was bad. So many metaphors colliding, issues in housing, transportation, and culture - all piling up there on the front stoop of our finest hotel. 

(Zoom in for a moment on the Book Cadillac’s restaurant. It is called Roast. You can see the owner, Michael Symon, on television. Symon had restaurants in Ohio before TV made him famous. Then he opened a restaurant in Detroit. You know who didn’t open a restaurant in Detroit? Mario Fucking Batali and Danny Fucking Meyers. Pussies. The best thing in Roast is the stuffed pepper appetizer. Phenom. Come try it.)

Back at the trailer, the one with the house on it, the tour was unceremoniously canceled and the people wandered back to the museum. The music played on, another band took the stage. 

Detroit once had two million people and, as it boomed and stretched, they schemed for another million. Foresight! Planning! They built a massive train station in the southwest, preparing for a vast megapolis that was expected to explode right along the Kelley trailer’s intended path. Instead, the city lost over a million citizens. There are 40 square miles of abandoned lots that used to be homes. Wherever there used to be a home, there was a fire. This makes Detroit the slowest urban inferno in history; imagine the intensity of Dresden burning, but in slow motion, lasting fifty years. 

Urban gardeners and artists like Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert now work within those neighborhoods. Journalists, architects, and planners stop by (especially the Dutch, tons of Dutch. My theory is that they are participating in some subliminal communal land grab. The glaciers are melting and the water is rising and, for a nation living on a flood plane, this instills an instinctive yearning for a cheap land far, far from the water’s edge.)

I sat in the bar at the Whitney looking across Woodward. Kelley’s piece sat there, juxtaposed to the great mansion. The Whitney was once the home of a lumber baron whose fortune pre-dated Henry Ford’s. Whitney’s name still sits atop an old skyscraper that’s now just a shell. It looms over Comerica Park where the Tigers play baseball. Comerica Bank bought the stadium’s naming rights in 1998 for sixty-six million dollars. Nine years later the bank moved to Texas. So long and so what. The Italian sausage at the stadium is awesome. With onions. 

Living in this border town is like learning to live with a brooding dragon. We have acclimated to the city’s bites. We have come to realize that the most interesting human question is “what do you do when you lose?” There was a flat tire, there was a band playing, the city crumbled. There, that happened. Next?

Toby Barlow is a Detroit based author whose writings have appeared in The New York Times, N+1, and Under the Influence. His novel Sharp Teeth was a winner of the 2009 Alex Award.