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  • Writer's pictureAdam Hlasny

Motoring On (reflections from a Detroit sojourn)

How far away is Detroit from New Hampshire? Technically, just under 600 miles. Culturally? Significantly farther. However, I like to think there is more that unites us than divides us. What I recognized in this formerly beleaguered city was a no-nonsense, forge-ahead-at-any-cost approach that I hope to emulate in my own life, especially when difficult times arise.

In early June 2023 I had the opportunity to attend a conference in the Motor City. I was curious if this much-maligned city deserved such maligning - I had guessed it didn't.

After several days touring the area by car, bus, bike, and foot, I confirmed my hunch to be correct. There is such an intriguing mix of grit, art-deco history, and modern revitalization as to make this a destination unlike other cities I've visited.

(Technically this was not my first visit. In June 2015, Alyse, Julia, and I stopped for perhaps 1-2 hours en route from Niagara Falls to Cincinnati)

I needn't rehash Detroit's precipitous decline in detail. Suffice it to say that for decades, this was not a desirable place to be. A slumping US automotive industry, racial rifts, suburban flight and many other factors contributed to the perception of this city as a portrait of failure. Rock bottom can be a scary place, but then there's nowhere to go but up. Sometimes the most magnificent sunrises come after the darkest nights.

Detroit now possesses an audacious confidence that's palpable to the visitor. It's apparent not only in the award-winning Riverwalk, bold public spaces like Campus Martius Park, and thriving locally-owned businesses. There's also a spring in the step of its 620,000 residents, roughly 1/3 of its peak population of 1.85 million in 1950.

I don't mean to imply that everyone and everything is perfect here; like any other city, far from it. Despite its urban vibrancy there was still a somewhat eerie feeling when I walked through downtown at 8am, easily able to cross streets and wide boulevards without battling omnipresent traffic as in other cities of this size. As I heard someone say during the conference, the infrastructure here was built for a city of 2 million. Even with a fresh start, there will always be a lot of empty streets here.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you'll know by now that I often (intentionally or not) have very limited time in the places I visit. Rather than lamenting this, I aim for authentic takeaways as much as possible. In Detroit I was actually able to spend several consecutive days, longer than I've spent in 90% of the cities I've visited (New Orleans being a notable exception).

I stayed on the 10th story of a hotel that was really more of an apartment, thoroughly enjoying views of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, tallest hotel in the world(!) when it was completed in December 1924. Peering up Washington Boulevard, I was treated to views of this thoroughfare that was, in the 1910s, destined to be the "Fifth Avenue of the West" by ambitious developers. To a small-town boy who has seldom spent more than an hour above the 3rd floor of any building, the urban pastiche at my fingertips was utterly captivating.

Outside of conference hours I gawked, slack-jawed, at the Guardian Building's ostentatiously grand mosaics, ate dinner among locals at Campus Martius Park, and attempted to absorb this monumentally historic downtown.

From certain angles, I had the illusion that I had stepped back into the 1920s, surrounded by such a glut of historic streetscapes as to inspire temporary historic vertigo. I could imagine rubbing shoulders with the titans of industry, clad in stylish suits as they imagined the next automotive game-changer, smokestacks of success spewing in the background.

On my final day I strolled the Riverwalk, 8 years after doing so with Alyse and Julia. I paid a visit to Belle Isle, affording wonderful downtown views from the middle of the Detroit River. There was the absorbing Dossin Great Lakes Museum as well as splashes of fresh flowers in another uncrowded atmosphere.

My final stop was the Ford Rouge Factory. This effeminate sounding name (actually named after the Rouge River) belies an indescribably mighty complex that's home to F-150 truck production. After two short films, one is treated to panoramic views of the astoundingly clean and modern factory floor, line workers busy piecing together America's best-selling vehicle.

Undestandably, photos of the assembly line were prohibited; this shot of the plant's exterior will have to do.

It was genuinely fascinating, and quintessentially Detroit. At the end of the day, the trucks rolling out of the factory represented the product of strength, innovation, and the tenacious human spirit that can rise above whatever failures may befall it. It is only by acknowledging and embracing the past - good, bad, and ugly - that we effectively forge ahead, blemished and imperfect but moving nonetheless. The right road welcomes us if we're humble and inventive enough to find it.

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