I had my final few days of freedom last week before beginning work in Toronto, so I decided to book a getaway to the US on the Greyhound. My ultimate destination was Chicago but I was also very curious to stop over in the city of Detroit, Michigan, for one night. With 2,137 cases of violent crime reported per 100,000 people in 2012, Detroit is famous for being the second most dangerous city in the States – second only to the city of Flint, merely 70 miles north-east. Not only that, but the city filed for bankruptcy earlier this year with around $18 billion dollars in debt, making it the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in United States history. With these two statistics in mind, I wished to experience its seemingly bleak atmosphere for myself.
During the 20 hours I spent in town, I came to see first-hand how it maintained such a notorious reputation. Amongst the abandoned buildings, ramshackle neighbourhoods and suspicious-looking individuals I passed on the street, I couldn’t begin to imagine how the recent economic woes have further affected a city that’s already suffered so much hardship over the years. Yet despite its tribulations, I was surprised to witness many pockets of joy within its streets – from a beautiful community garden sponsored by the downtown Compuware headquarters, to an entire street in an eastern ghetto dedicated to community art and peace.
In all my years of travels I’ve never felt more uncomfortable than walking through the suburban streets of Detroit – but that ambience of constantly being on edge is what I loved so much about my visit. Here are a handful of stories telling of the crazy characters I met and the beautiful places I saw during my day in Detroit.
The Bus (a.k.a. Kentucky vs Customs)
It had been a long afternoon on the bus.
We were late leaving Toronto by half an hour, but we managed to gain time due to some shorter-than-planned stopovers in the Ontarian towns of London and Windsor along the way. With 10 minutes to spare until our scheduled arrival into Detroit at 8:40pm, the bus hastily pulled into customs on the Canadian/US border.
The clearance process remained largely uneventful from my point of view. I did think the questions fired at me from the immigration officer were slightly more demanding than normal, but I eventually got the ok for entry and was back on the bus in no time. There were nine people on board and it took around 15 minutes for us all to clear.
Or so we thought…
As the bus pulled away, we’d just about reached the point of no return when a customs officer came racing towards us, yelling to the driver that there were still people inside who hadn’t cleared. Indeed, upon counting the heads on the bus, there were only six of us! Three still remained within the building. Embarrassed and annoyed, the driver reversed to the carpark and we patiently waited for the remaining passengers to complete their clearance. There is a very strict rule that the bus isn’t allowed to leave until all passengers have cleared – up until that point, we were all prisoners of the Greyhound in no-man’s-land.
I started chatting with a guy from Kentucky sitting opposite me, who had been staying with a friend in London, Ontario. He was on his way back home and had a connecting Greyhound from Detroit at 9:15pm. With 20 minutes to go until its departure, it was a frustrating setback for him to still not be on US grounds. Once he found out I was Australian and about to spend a day in Detroit he took pride in telling me everything he knew about the local gang culture and street crime, placing a bet that I wasn’t going to make it out alive. Unnervingly, two other people on the bus who had overheard our conversation agreed wholeheartedly with him. An old guy up the back chimed in as well: “Don’t listen to them, Detroit ain’t that bad. Just stick around the downtown area and don’t venture into the neighbourhoods or you’ll end up with a cap in yo ass.”
Mid-conversation, Kentucky checked the time once more and completely out of the blue he snapped! In a split second his face turned from a look of slight frustration to one of sheer hatred as he erupted: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE THESE FUCKING CUSTOMS COCKSUCKERS DOING?!! I NEED TO BE ON MY CONNECTING BUS IN 12 MINUTES!” He stormed off the bus, yelled at the driver as if it was his fault and paced around the carpark trying to figure out how to make his escape.
Customs saw what was happening and quickly made their way outside, presumably with handcuffs at bay. The rest of us on the bus watched and listened in disbelief as Kentucky tried to hold up an argument.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS SHIT, WHY WON’T YOU JUST LET US GO THROUGH? I’M GOING TO MISS MY FUCKING CONNECTION”
“Sir, you need to get back on the bus right now.”
“THIS IS BULLSHIT MOTHERFUCKERS YOU JUST WANT TO MAKE ME MISS MY BUS”
“Sir, please hand me over your passpo…”
“FUCK YOU I JUST WANT TO CATCH…”
“NOW LISTEN HERE MO’FUCKER. YOU CAN EITHER HAND ME OVER YOUR PASSPORT AND WE LOCK YOUR SORRY ASS IN THE CELL OR YOU CAN CALM DOWN, SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET BACK ON THE BUS”
And with that, he raged back up the stairs of the bus, proclaiming “I HOPE AMERICA GETS INVADED TOMORROW” and “I CAN’T WAIT TIL SOME ASSHOLE DROPS A NUKE ON WASHINGTON DC”
Shortly afterwards, a customs official came onboard and offered to walk anyone through the building if they didn’t want to wait on the bus any longer. Except for Kentucky. He was told to stay right where he was.
I chose to remain on the bus because we were still quite some distance from my hotel. Kentucky apologised to us for his outrageous behaviour. Eventually customs gave the bus driver the ok to continue – apparently the three passengers we were waiting for had issues and weren’t going to clear any time soon. We didn’t end up making it into the terminal until nearly 10pm, and Kentucky had to hang around Detroit until the following afternoon for his next connection.
Welcome to America 🙂
After my tumultuous hour spent on the border and a night at a very shady hotel (1. a couple in the queue in front of me booked a room for two hours; 2. the infused stench of marijuana wafted freely through the corridors; 3. there was a vending machine in the foyer that sold panties and lingerie), I set foot on Detroit streets in the morning with potent curiosity.
I’d barely walked for 15 minutes when I stumbled across a surprisingly lovely community garden called Lafayette Greens. Sponsored by Compuware (a billion-dollar IT services company based in Detroit) and built on the site of an abandoned building that had since been demolished, the garden offered a very welcome and refreshing change from the landscape of desolation I’d been expecting to encounter. It was designed first and foremost to beautify downtown Detroit, but it also aims to encourage urban gardening and acts to spread the word on how derelict surrounds have potential to be transformed into areas of enchantment. This is a theme I would revisit later in the day upon visiting the Heidelberg Project.
With half an acre of space on which to grow, the garden consists not only of artsy robot-like installations but also scores of raised beds full of flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and ornamental plants. The large number of volunteers who help keep the garden at bay kindly donate the edible produce cultivated on site to local food banks, which is a productive and invaluable means of community involvement. I highly enjoyed my time strolling around Lafayette Greens and I was heartened to see how well it succeeds at its mission.
The Heidelberg Project
I left the garden and had a late breakfast at American Coney Island (one of the two famous Coney Island hot dog diners in Detroit – the other being the much-rivalled Lafayette Coney Island next door). I browsed the web over my hot dog for a few touristy things to do in town, and I was particularly intrigued to discover an attraction called The Heidelberg Project. It was located 4 km away in one of the eastern suburbs. Completely ignoring the advice of the old man on the bus who suggested not to walk through the ‘hood for fear of “a cap in yo ass”, I set upon the 45 minute stroll along Gratiot Avenue up to Heidelberg Street.
For somebody not used to the image of municipal neglect, this stretch of highway leading out of downtown Detroit sure was an eye-opener. I passed cars parked on the side of the road with smashed windows and missing tyres. There were countless buildings and construction sites that had clearly been abandoned and left for squatters to inhabit. I saw at least three houses that had burnt to a crisp, with nothing left but a charred outer shell. I trampled through drastically overgrown sidewalks, came across numerous public phone boxes minus the phone, marvelled at the sheer amount of graffiti sprayed over every available wall/door/window, and wondered about the lives of the locals congregated in parks and on street corners.
And then I reached Heidelberg Street.
In 1986, a resident of Heidelberg Street, Tyree Guyton decided to react against the ever-increasing poverty and neglect within his community – a trend he was all too familiar with ever since the riots of 1967 which burnt the city to the ground and claimed the lives of 43 victims. He began creating colourful and enticing works of art out of discarded household items and put them on display in vacant blocks and abandoned buildings along the street. With help over the years from his likeminded neighbours, Guyton has succeeded in constructing the ultimate oasis within the ghetto. It’s a symbol of hope for a community in need, having won multiple awards and drawn enthusiastic visitors from around the globe to dwell upon the urban plight faced by locals for so long.
Walking around the Heidelberg Project after just having experienced the forsaken streets of suburban Detroit proved to be the ultimate contrast. I genuinely felt like I was wrapped in a safe, peaceful blanket as I explored the incredible art installations. The further I made it along the street the more it surprised me with its charming eccentricity – I swear I had a permanent what the fuck?! look upon my face all afternoon!
The Heidelberg Project is a must-see for any visitor to Detroit.
Saved by Jesus
I must have spent three hours hanging around the very uplifting Heidelberg Street. By this stage, having refreshed myself and knowing I survived the journey east to Heidelberg, I felt street-hardened enough to confidently return to the city the same way I came.
There were so many photo opportunities along the walk in but I didn’t feel safe enough to take my camera out for fear of being a robbery target. Not far into my journey back, I took my chances and stopped briefly to take a photo of this very cool graffitied wall:
Just as I was packing my camera away into its bag, I was approached by two middle-aged ladies who had quite possibly consumed some kind of narcotic concoction within the last hour or two.
“Man, y’all shouldn’t be stayin’ in one place too long lookin’ like that or yo gon’ get yo-self done for.”
Thanks for the welcoming advice, I thought.
“Do y’all think yo could spare a couple o’ dollars?”
Here we go. “What do you need a couple of dollars for?” I enquired.
“Oh Lord Jesus, you not from around here! Where y’all from? You know, we just tryin’ to survive these streets an’ we need to find us somethin’ to eat so we just wonderin’ if a kind young gentleman like yo-self could spare us a couple o’ dollars.”
I gave them a couple o’ dollars just to keep the peace and explained that I was from Australia. With dollar signs presumably in their eyes they decided they’d keep walking along the road with me. They were friendly enough and we chatted for a while about Crocodile Dundee, koalas and kangaroos. And all was going great until I noticed up ahead a gang of around 15 murderous-looking guys all hanging out on the street, smoking, drinking and acting extremely suspiciously.
They saw me. Here I was, the idiot foreign white guy walking along the footpath towards a gang of crooks with two girls tagging along behind who were probably from a rival gang for all I knew. And the guys all stopped what they were doing and stared right at me as if I’d just committed cardinal sin. You know the feeling when you’re in somebody’s territory and you know you’re not welcome? Multiply that by about 100 and that’s precisely how I felt.
I kept calm, not looking at any of them and continued on walking & chatting with the girls as if everything was just dandy, despite each member of the gang turning their head toward me, eyeing my every move as I edged past them.
Then the girls started again, “Hey my man do y’all think you could spare us a couple more dollars? We just need a little spare change, y’all know?”
Shut the fuck up! Not now! I wanted to snap back at them. This is bullshit, how am I going to get out of this without being shot?
We cleared the gang. Phew.
“Our car’s run outa gas and we need a bit o’ spare change so as we can fill it back up again, y’ know what I mean? We gonna walk y’all to our car up the road that’s run outa gas so you can see we ain’t tellin’ you no lie, we just need a bit o’ money so we can buy us some gas to put into our car up the road that’s run outa gas” and on and on they went.
I was fed up with them by now and politely reminded them I’d already given them some money up the road.
Then one of the girls stopped, pointed at the sky and looked me square in the eye. “Look up there,” she said before shifting her glance toward the heavens. “Ya’ll know what’s up there?”
Here we bloody go again. What now? I was half expecting her to draw a knife or a gun or call upon the gang for some homicidal assistance.
“That’s Jesus Christ and he’s our lord, he’s our saviour and he’s gon’ pay you back for being such a kind gentleman for sparing us some money! Praise be to our lord Jesus Christ!”
And with that we said our amens & goodbyes and they went on their merry way.
Thanks be to Jesus, I survived my first and hopefully last suspicious human encounter in the Detroit ghetto.
I spent much of the remaining afternoon in the safe confines of the downtown loop, checking out the Detroit Public Library, Campus Martius Park, the very impressive Compuware building and devouring a delicious late lunch at the Detroit Beer Co that included a side of beer and cheese soup. Yes: beer and cheese soup. It was as incredible as it sounds.
My bus out of Detroit was scheduled for 6:45pm, and with an hour and a half to spare I decided to pass the time by searching for inspiring photo opportunities along the inner-city streets. I passed through Grand Circus Park and was heading along one of its off-shooting southbound lanes, when I noticed a fence had been installed around an upcoming footpath. I say installed with an emphasis on the past tense… it had since been ripped down and was lying on the path horizontally. I saw no reason to walk around it so I just walked over it.
“Hey man, what the hell are you doing? Do you think that’s safe?” I heard from behind me. “They must have put that fence up for a reason, I’m not game to walk through it like you are!”
I turned around to find a tall, well-built but friendly looking guy with a blonde crew cut and slight hobble to his step. “Hey man, would you know where the Greyhound terminal is?” he asked as he approached. “I’ve gotta get up to Ann Arbor.” As it happened, I was headed toward the Greyhound terminal so I took out my map, figured out which route to take and invited him along for the walk. He told me his story along the way.
His name was Rick and he served as a marine in the US Armed Forces, including a stint in Iraq before being discharged due to injuries. He suffered some major trauma to one of his wrists, extending up along his arm, which has left him in constant pain today. Although he lives in Ann Arbor, a small city to the west of Detroit, he had to visit the big smoke today for an MRI at the hospital to check on some of his injuries. There was just a slight problem upon exiting the hospital: he couldn’t find his car. After some investigation it turned out he’d parked for too long in an illegal spot, and the authorities had towed his car away.
He managed to track down the grounds where his car was held, but they weren’t able to release it because he didn’t have any credentials on him let alone the money to pay the fine. He tried the police, thinking they might be able to intervene because he was an ex-marine, but they were powerless to help him, explaining how the company that had towed and held his car was well within their rights to do so. His only way out of the situation was to take the bus to his home in Ann Arbor, collect his credentials and the money to pay the fine, return on the bus to Detroit and complete the deal.
But right now, he was thirsty, hungry, and needed to get on the bus, which he was pretty sure departed around 7pm. He hinted that he didn’t have enough cash on him to pay for his ticket; I figured it was good karma and he was a friendly guy after all so I gave him the $5 he needed to cover his ticket plus a few extra bucks for a drink. I hadn’t quite figured out yet how legit he was, but if he turned out to be a bullshit artist he was at least a bloody good one and deserved the $ for his effort.
There was still some time before the bus so we went into a nearby diner where he decided the drinks were too expensive and chugged down three massive cups full of tap water instead. He didn’t like the look of this particular fast food joint so we continued up the road back to American Coney Island, where I went for breakfast earlier in the morning. Part of the petty cash I gave him was put toward some chilli fries… and then he counted his cash and decided he still didn’t quite have enough. He borrowed my phone and called a guy named Bo, also an ex-marine, and asked if he could meet outside American Coney Island in 10 minutes. Apparently Bo was a good mate who looks out for Rick whenever he’s in town and would be able to lend him some cash.
We went outside to meet Bo, who arrived on a bicycle looking as sinister and suspicious as the members of the street gang I walked past earlier in the day. We were introduced but he acknowledged me with only a nod of his head. Bo and Rick huddled together and walked a fair way up the street where a transaction was made outside the view of the passing public. Bo scooted off on his bike as quickly as he appeared and Rick returned with his newly acquired cash, a.k.a. *insert whatever you believe he acquired here*
Intrigued and beguiled by the turn of events since I met my new friend, I suggested to Rick it was about time we made our way to catch the Greyhound. He told me to carry on ahead without him – he needed to stop by a restroom to freshen up first, and he’d meet me at the terminal in 10 minutes.
Upon arrival and with 20 minutes to spare, I found that my bus at 6:45pm was the same bus that Rick would need to catch to Ann Arbor. I figured that if he made it to the station and caught the bus, there may have been some legitimacy to his story; if he didn’t make it, then I’d clearly witnessed first-hand the lengths a poverty-stricken local would go to in order to score.
I never saw him again.
A final few photos
Here are a final few photos I took throughout the sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-impoverished, always-enigmatic city that is Detroit, Michigan.
It’s worth a visit – but maybe pack a bulletproof vest just in case 😉