Fantastic American urban landscape

Fantastic American urban landscape

By P. Gregory Springer/For The News-Gazette

Photos by P. Gregory Springer and Mark Feldman

"Find another city," the punk poet Patti Smith told artists fleeing rent-soaring and tourist-clotted New York.

For some, the new cool landscape turns out to be Detroit.

The allure and perceived danger of Detroit today may be reminiscent of the Mayan ruins of Central America, magnificent civilizations and cities overgrown and crumbling, haunted by ghosts of a million stories.

Neither Amazon nor Champaign-Urbana libraries carry a single Fodor's or Lonely Planet guide to Detroit. But the Michigan Tourist centers gladly offer a wide array of free maps and pamphlets, and one is located just a block from the great icon of the dilapidated city, the 1912 Michigan Central Station (2405 West Vernor).

Photographs can barely express how this once great train station — listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places — now appears: desolate, windowless, the great structure towering next to a downtown trying to resurrect itself.

Drive through the streets north of downtown and see block after block, mile after mile, of deserted and abandoned mansions, apartment buildings, schools, libraries and factories.

In the elegant Palmer Park area, streets perpendicular to the John R and Woodward avenues are overgrown with weeds and tree-high flowering vegetation. Wild dogs sit in the middle of streets, not bothering to move out of the way.

I heard a baby cry from one still-inhabited house, flanked by burned and graffiti-covered buildings.

New York artist Mark Feldman and I attempted to track down his mother's ancestral home in the Brush Park area. All that is left is a weeded lot.

A woman in a car passed us and rolled down her window, "May I help you?"

"We don't mean to intrude," I said, knowing our gawking was, at best, rude, but she accepted our explanation.

"Be blessed," she said before driving away, a phrase we heard several times, apparently a common Detroit greeting.

Artists have been moving in and attempting to change the city's dire circumstances, planting community vegetable gardens or getting involved in the water wars.

Poet Jim Perkinson, a long-time Detroit resident, has been arrested twice for blocking trucks attempting the "draconian" measure of shutting off the water of destitute families at the rate of 3,000 a week.

"They can't care for their children without water," he said. "We have had water donated from Canada and West Virginia. The last wars were over oil. The next are going to be over water."

Perkinson's newest book, "Messianism against Christology," begins with pictures from the Heidelberg Project (3600 Heidelberg St.), residences that have been turned into a massive art project. Houses covered with birthday cakes or polka dots, a half-buried Hummer overgrown with AstroTurf, shoe- and clock-covered trees, squashed purple shopping carts. People still live in the houses, while the project has been razed and resurrected several times over the years.

Or, you can spend hours browsing the Picassos, Warhols and Matisses at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (5200 Woodward Ave.), a brilliantly curated collection in a building much like Chicago's Art Institute, with a room of Diego Rivera murals worth the visit alone.

The murals depict the plight of auto workers, stooped and green, covering four walls that are beautiful but unflattering enough that the Fords wanted them destroyed.

Cooler minds prevailed.

The Renaissance Center at the river front was built as an attempt to revive the heart of downtown, where high-rise architecture still reigns.

You can wander through a General Motors showroom, a lovely fountained river walk, past office workers enjoying lunch, or listen to a corner trombonist doing his solo version of "Happy."

A People Mover tram conveniently shuttles you around downtown (75 cents!), and be sure to stop to see the beautiful Art Deco and Mayan revival high-rise Guardian Building (500 Griswold St.).

To the east are Greektown, casinos and the fresh food market, Eastern Market, where you'll also find Detroit's historic Italian restaurant, Roma Cafe (3401 Riopelle St.), where waiters still wear tuxedos.

Of course, Detroit is not only the Motor City, it is the heart of Motown and music of many varieties. Jack White played for his hometown audience at the Masonic Temple last month, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Gogol Bordello also in town.

You can tour the Motown Museum and adjacent Hitsville USA (2648 W. Grand Blvd.) for background on the great artists who got their start in Detroit.

Better still, head up to the street that defines the city limits, 8 Mile, that stretch of fish shacks, gentlemen's clubs and battered auto parts places popularized by Detroit native Eminem.

On the corner, you'll find Baker's Keyboard Jazz Club (20510 Livernois), the little music place known as "the world's oldest jazz club."

Afternoons and evenings, you will be welcomed to a place jumping with enthusiasm, with friendly faces and oversized plates of soul food. Cover charge for the evening: $5.

In three days, we had barely scratched the surface of this fantastic American urban landscape, missing Belle Isle, the River Rouge tour and many other features. But we did see a city not unlike the one poet and playwright Jean Genet predicted at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968.

"I long for the day to see these skyscrapers and streets overrun with wild flowers and weeds," he said, "when green wilderness and the beauty of nature returns to claim it, as it inevitably will."

My memory may have embellished Genet's quote, but the idea was clear. For the time being, as Detroit redefines itself into its next transformation, it remains a city filled with soul and blessedly few tourists.

P. Gregory Springer is a longtime Urbana writer and resident.

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