TOUR Day 16 - Detroit and Empty Buildings

Detroit won my heart. At the hotel, a woman stopped me by the elevator, took me by the shoulders, and said, "You are beautiful, and you haven't been told that enough today, I can tell." She was wearing a lime green nylon dress and smelled like lavender, and honestly, I needed that so much right then I could've kissed her. The show was upbeat and spirited. And then this morning we drove through the city. It took my breath away.

My friend Alex writes these very compelling, sort-of-funny-sort-of-sad essays about why he loves old, often-falling-apart signs in little towns. My favorite one is this one, about a sign he saw in Ludlow, California. Just an excerpt:

And then I saw this sign. This bold yet simple, sans-serif, grammatically incorrect, sand-weathered, warped and beautiful sign. It was completely unnecessary for this sign maker to make something so appealing or courteous for the tourist masses. Ludlow has a monopoly on all life-giving resources for an hour in either direction - we were going to do whatever the staff wanted us to do. They could have just ripped off the hood of the last 18 wheeler to break down there, nailed it to a palm tree and tagged “biG thinGs pArk OVER THERE!!"

But they didn’t.

Despite the fact that the natural world doesn’t care about the sign-maker, despite the fact that the Universe doesn’t care about anyone, and despite the fact that humans are, in the aggregate, terrible, this sign-maker made art. In that moment this sign wasn’t about parking, it was a sign that people are significant because they give a damn in spite of it all.

Last summer, I drove with Alex through very poor parts of Mississippi on a makeshift tour of the Mississippi Blues Trail. My favorite memory from that trip was stopping outside this long-abandoned fake-flowers-and-random-gifts shop. The store-owner had not cleared the space out; you could see piles of once-yellow-now-brown nylon daisies in the corner. A collapsed wire stand had seemingly exploded into coils and rods in the center of the store, and warped "Best Wishes" cards lay strewn about around it. The window was smashed in several places; the wooden register stand was overturned and rain-damaged. Now real, living vines were growing through the cracks of the walls and into the remnants of carpets. A beehive the size of a carryon suitcase was thriving in the crook between the ceiling and the wall toward the front.

Alex filmed the sign there, while I marveled at the destruction. I wondered about who owned this shop. What was the thought process in opening it? Did the person who owned this store care a great deal about it? What happened on the last day it was open? My favorite bookstore in New Orleans closed a little over a year ago. The general manager threw a sad, low-key party with champagne and triangular hats; he played dreary acoustic music and people thumbed glumly through the remaining Sylvia Plath anthologies. Those of us who came did so to celebrate a space that had mattered to us. We wanted to send its memory into the ether with some pomp and circumstance, as sad as the transition may have been.

I (selfishly) love watching things (that do not belong to me) fall apart. There is something so strangely beautiful about failure. Empty buildings represent a gigantic, long-ago hope -- one that once stretched out to fill an entire edifice. The hope stretched and swelled, and ultimately, it died. When a hope-turned-into-a-building dies, nature swarms in with rapid force. Flowers grow through cracks of cement. Unbothered trees impose themselves right through man-made walls.

Detroit had the most enormous abandoned buildings I'd ever seen. They were hotels and libraries and mechanics and restaurants. They were tall and fat and roomy and plastered in windows. Now that they've emptied out, people have joined forces with nature, and smothered the vacant spaces with gorgeous rainbow graffiti. I have never felt so much that I was among something that was once one thing, and is now totally different. Being able to physically see the change is some kind of small miracle.

At the same time, you can tell that Detroit has been devastated. You can see that the human toll of hopelessness is still around. The news is still talking about the city that came apart at the seams over the course of the recession. And yet, just last month, The New York Times ran an article called "The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit," which evidences the story of a city bouncing back. The hope for a sort of revival there is infectious. As with any revival, there will be controversies. There will be problems. Things will be done the wrong way. 

But I still couldn't help but feel it in my blood a little bit when I walked along the riverfront this morning. A woman biked by us alone and said under her breath to no one at all, "Oh, it's so peaceful!" It was peaceful. A newly-added ground fountain entertained 30 or so kids, who couldn't have been more diverse-looking. People photographed each other along the shiny steel esplanade rails. There were Little Free Libraries lining the green space adjacent to the sidewalk. Maybe I was star-struck, but the atmosphere seemed downright hopeful.

I haven't lived in Detroit. I have lived in New Orleans for seven years and I feel totally unable to talk about what the city is like, because it is not my home. I know that homes are important to people. But I fell in love just the same; as you can when you are traveling. The world is decked out in possibility when you're seeing it through the windows of a van.