By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008
I saw it first by night. A metropolis unveiled in viewfinder snapshots through the smudged windows of an elevated train. Gothic towers crowded close, proud detail etched on gray stone. A beaming stadium full of red-capped baseball fans, its front side left open as if to console the devoted others it couldn't quite hold. A neon neighborhood of revelers, trying their luck with the cards and with each other. A river that bounced fractured glints of the city back toward the heavens.
It was beguilingly authentic -- gritty and romantic -- and it was decided: I would side with Mary.
Mary, the smiling lady of the hotel lobby, not Alexandro, the cab driver who brought me to her.
"Is this your first time in Detroit?" Mary inquired. "You're going to love it! It's just like Paris."
Minutes earlier Alexandro laughed incredulously when I told him what I'd come here to find.
"Happiness?" he scoffed. "I can't really see it. Everybody's just so miserable."
Which is what Forbes magazine said, too; the Most Miserable City in America, it claimed in a report earlier this year. "Imagine living in a city with the country's highest rate for violent crime and the second-highest unemployment rate," the article proposes, by way of introduction.
But after riding the looping downtown train -- slickly named the People Mover -- and stepping into the Greektown section of the city, where I was met by saxophones singing from opposite corners and a scene that looked like the quaint, Hollywood version of a 1940s gambling town, it was over.
Alexandro said he bought his house for $200. Really $1,700, after taxes. He didn't mention the figure as a bragging point, but it started to seem like an enticing investment plan. That was just my price point, and who wouldn't want their own pied-á-terre in this Paris of Lake Erie?
I could be happy here. I already was.
* * *
Dawn broke from the east over the cerulean Detroit River, while my buddy Chris drove in from the west.
I had an itinerary I was sure we couldn't complete, and it began with breakfast at a classic dive in the city's Irish enclave, Corktown.
"It looks like a nuclear bomb went off," Chris assessed, after picking me up from my downtown hotel.
The streets were idle and empty. So many of the buildings that were hauntingly handsome at night were sad in daylight; windowless, hollow and crumbling. Lot after lot laid bare, covered with slabs of broken concrete or half-dead weeds. Warehouses, storefronts, office buildings left to rot, sealed with plywood, disfigured by graffiti.
The restaurant, when we found it, was closed for the day. The nearby coffee shop lauded in our guidebook? Closed. The barbecue place was in business, but not open. An Irish pub up the way would serve us something from the fryer, but it seemed too early to sit in a dingy, smoke-filled room.
My stomach ached, and not with hunger.
Finally, we saw a diner with its fluorescent lights on: the Brooklyn Street Grill.
"Good. I'm getting bacon," Chris sighed as we pulled in.
"Hey, guys," our waitress said, as a garbage-bag-robed dishwasher squeezed past her through the narrow aisle. "Just want to let you know we're out of bacon."
* * *
When Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest, first visited the area now called Detroit with French explorers in 1679, the lush landscape inspired him to write that "Nature alone could not have made, without help of Art, so charming a prospect."
Settlers, led by a man named Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, agreed, turning the region into a French outpost and major fur trading port. In the early 19th century, Detroit's leaders chose to model the city's streets after Pierre L'Enfant's hub-and-spoke design for Washington. By the turn of the century, Henry Ford had built his first automobile, setting in motion a revolution that would alter the lives of people everywhere and turn Detroit into a world-class city with a rocketing economy.
For a while.
In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.84 million; today, fewer than 834,000 people live in the city. The number of autoworkers in the area has been halved in the past 30 years, contributing to its 7.9 percent unemployment rate in April. The comparable national rate that month was 4.8 percent. Along with that violence rate (1,251 crimes annually for every 100,000 citizens), Detroit carries the weight of 135 Superfund sites.
Forbes didn't feign the city's anguish.
* * *
After decent omelets at the Brooklyn Street Grill, we hustled up the city's main artery, Woodward Avenue, toward the Motown Historical Museum.
Which we missed. Which is easy to do, because it's really just a house (okay, a cluster of houses) with a second-story sign declaring the place "Hitsville U.S.A."
It's the right name for the place. The Commodores, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. "My Girl," "Baby Love," "Just My Imagination," "You Can't Hurry Love" and on and on. In less than a decade, so much of that greatness came through these walls, Berry Gordy's factory of singing sensations. Here's the desk where Diana Ross worked as a secretary to support her singing career. The basement recording studio where the Temptations practiced their moves. The square echo chamber cut into a second-story ceiling to generate perfect vocal reverberations.
"Can I get a volunteer?" asked our guide, who led the 50-minute tour with all the panache Gordy would expect of a performer being groomed for the spotlight. And when one brave lady stepped under the hole and belted it out -- " Ain't no mountain high enough . . ." -- the room seemed to quake.
"The teenagers were just ready for it," a disc jockey from the era recalled in a documentary on Motown shown at the end of the tour. The first time she'd heard the music, she walked away with a singular assessment: "This," she said, "was happy singing."
"Come on, people, you look like you're sitting in a library," scolded Esther Gordy Edwards, bursting through the doors of the small screening room in three-inch heels and a giant wig of curls. "Dancing in the Streets" was playing, and Berry's sister, who runs the museum, had a command: "Put your hands together."
When the room emptied, I asked Ms. Gordy where we might find Motown music on a Saturday night in Detroit.
"Well, there's a cafe down the street," she said after a thoughtful pause, "where they play it in the background while you eat."
* * *
Our next two stops, less than a mile apart, swung us to opposite poles of the culture spectrum: the Detroit Institute of Arts, a majestic, marble-encased collection of more than 100 meticulously curated galleries, and the Majestic, a bowling alley.
Actually, it's a bowling alley/bar/pizza place/concert venue/pool hall/swank restaurant. Detroit claims to be home to the most registered bowlers in America, and the Majestic claims to be home to the nation's oldest active bowling center.
At the DIA, which has just had a $158 million renovation, we explored room after room of works provocatively organized by theme, rather than artist or period. Depictions of the sea are placed among depictions of the sea. Same goes for landscapes, myths, deities and children and royals. At the heart of the billion-dollar collection, which includes pieces by van Gogh, Matisse and Rodin, is Diego Rivera's famous "Detroit Industry," two massive murals that simultaneously celebrate manufacturing's power and process and decry its potential to do harm when that power is abused.
Down the street, the Majestic was packed with birthday-party bowlers, so we decamped to its bar to watch Detroiters watch sports. The Tigers and Red Wings were both in action, and our new best friend, Nathan Keeler, was manning the television remotes and pulling beers.
We're here looking for happiness, we explained, and some decent evening entertainment.
Keeler, a scruffy-haired 29-year-old, said the Majestic is hosting a battle of the bands tonight. But, he adds, "Good live music? You're not going to find it here."
So, uh, the talent's not so awesome?
"Awful," he barked, eyes rolling back as he shakes his head.
Okay, what about happiness? Can Forbes's misery assessment really be accurate?
"That's pretty much true," Keeler nodded, moving on to the next customer. A few minutes later he returned with a reassessment.
"It's not so bad here," he said. "We have fun. There's lots to do here -- we've got a lot of hospitals, we've got a lot of schools. . . . "
Those charms aside, Keeler said he eventually wants to leave Detroit. Maybe head somewhere new, like North Carolina.
An hour earlier at the DIA, a boy, maybe 4, stood looking up at a panel of stained-glass windows by John La Farge. The word "Faith" sat at the top of one. "Hope" at another.
"What does hope mean?" the boy asked, staring up toward the massive, illuminated images.
"Mmm, that's complicated," his father whispered, before dropping to a knee.
"Hope is when you think about the future," he explained. "And wish for good things."
* * *
We ate beneath the Greektown Casino that night, at a place called Pegasus Taverna. Every five minutes or so, a plate of cheese was lit on fire and a server matter-of-factly called out "Opa!"
I wish we had ordered more than one. It's called saganaki and it's bliss-by-dairy-product: salty, melted and not nearly enough for two people (assuming I'm one of the two).
Above us, slot machines beeped and flashed, inviting what city officials had hoped would be a new engine of economic growth. There are three casinos now, plus a fourth just across the river in Windsor, Ontario. So as gambling-on-a-budget destinations go, Detroit should rank right up there.
Hard to say, though, if casinos are the force that will bring collective happiness back to the city. They don't do too much for me, so we hopped a cab over to Nancy Whiskey's, a Corktown dive known for its blues.
All around it was overgrown grass, streetlights blinking on and off and an eerie absence of movement, sound or structure.
Inside, Nancy Whiskey's was hopping. People were jammed wall-to-wall in the wood-paneled tavern, ordering cans of Miller Lite and dancing between tables as the raucous five-piece band played Van Morrison and "Mustang Sally" from the stage.
If there was sadness in the city, it wasn't at Nancy Whiskey's that night.
* * *
Knowing it would at least be open for business, we swung by the MGM Grand, Detroit's newest casino, for breakfast the next day.
Just outside the downtown nucleus, the upscale casino was a quarter-full by midmorning, its smoke ventilators humming in the background while the employees of glitzy boutiques unlocked their doors.
Our next stop was Hamtramck, a city within the city recommended by the guidebooks and our man Nathan from the Majestic. ("It's got the most bars per capita in the country -- or something like that," he'd offered.) And my grandmother had lived in the area during college and had told stories, later, about its cosmopolitan verve.
Hamtramck was historically a Polish enclave and is now an immigrant melting pot. It is also a neighborhood, like so many others, in decline. Closed department stores, seedy corner shops, run-down fast-food huts. In the place my grandmother found thrilling, we couldn't find a reason to stop.
For the couple of hours that remained before my return flight, we headed to Belle Isle, a storied city park that covers the length of a 982-acre island in the middle of the river. Designed by the same landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York, the isle is gorgeous: dotted with elegant fountains, a domed conservatory and aquarium, a stately yacht club and picnic areas that were being well used as we passed through its drivable loop.
Then we stopped driving and started watching other people do it. In the center of this serene patch of earth is a racetrack, and on it cars were lined up by the dozen, waiting for timed runs through an intricate, cone-lined course. Tires screeched as mesmerized kids hung their elbows over the fence, necks craning with every hot rod's turn.
We pulled ourselves away to walk to the edge of the island facing the city's skyline. From a distance, Detroit looked as it had in the dark: beautiful.
Happiness here was the intention and, in truth, it was met. For two days we had great times in Detroit. But the misery gurgling through the metropolis was undeniable.
I learned later that the city's seal comprises two Latin phrases, "Speramus Meliora" and "Resurget Cineribus." The lines were chosen after a fire ravaged the city in 1805. Together they mean: "We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes."
There's a lot to be said for that kind of hope -- for thinking about the future, wishing for good things.