Hearing what locals of the city and metro area have to say about this has further solidified the multi-faceted nature of Detroit’s narrative to me. An Uber driver of mine told me that Detroiters have mixed views of Quicken Loans’ influence on Downtown; some commended Dan Gilbert for all of his investments while others despised it, believing it has driven away the people that stayed with the city throughout the toughest times. Near Eastern Market, a friendly man told a couple of us that the area we were standing in used to be known as Black Bottom, home to a vibrant African American community. But the neighborhood was torn up by freeway construction, displacing the residents. Though it didn’t appear so on the surface, I could tell there was an undertone of animosity.
My own observations at work have further solidified my belief that neither of those one-sided views accurately represent Detroit. Siyi and I work in Downtown, which is teeming with well-to-do professionals and interns that no doubt come from privileged backgrounds taking advantage of this newfound prosperity amidst tall, modern office buildings and a plethora of upscale shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Hearing the stories of my cohort-mates at ProsperUS has shown me a different side of the picture, where they often interact with locals who have grown up in disadvantaged communities which have not received the same private investment as Downtown. Certain places in the Detroit may be “coming back”, but the effects of historical inequality are still readily apparent in the city today.
My work at MoGo has exposed me to the transportation inequalities existing in the city today that have their historical roots in the dominance of the automotive industry. Due to the overwhelming dependency of cars in the Detroit metro area, those who cannot afford a car are put at a severe disadvantage, unable to adequately access groceries and work among many other basic needs. I recall from our DXF tour an important fact about the Renaissance Center, originally financed by Ford and now home to the headquarters of General Motors: the polished, futuristic complex was designed as a secure interior space (essentially a fortress-like city within a city) specifically for the ease of cars, allowing employees to enter without a problem in their steel-clad vehicles and keeping out those who are unable to afford one. When I first came to Detroit, I thought the Center was a towering symbol of the city’s progress and rebirth (as the name itself suggests). I still think it’s a beautiful set of buildings, but learning the darker side of its history gave me a fuller, more authentic picture of the complex.
This week I decided to take a stroll to the Ren Cen during my lunch break to see this for myself. Our tour guide was totally right; It was quite a difficult feat for me to enter the complex as a pedestrian. I got inside only after crossing an incredibly wide road with lots of traffic. I couldn’t even make it in one cross. However, I noticed that there was an abundance of parking lots surrounding the area. When I went inside (the interior of the Center is extremely nice by the way), I observed that there were many “motor entrances” compared to only two pedestrian entrances.
It was only after learning more about the Renaissance Center that I was able to notice these things on my walk (or even decide to walk there in the first place). I found it personally rewarding to witness with my own eyes these factors I wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise that are in fact deeply tied to the city's history of transportation. These episodes of learning followed by firsthand observation are when I feel closest to Detroit, simply because I am getting a more authentic representation of the city and the car culture that runs deep through its streets. In general, once you start noticing historical intricacies in a place that are still at play today and looking from a multi-dimensional lens through listening to the differing views of the locals along with self-observation, that’s when you are truly becoming immersed. I’m excited to continue experiencing these episodes and developing an even more complete view of this city.