Got a good feeling in bad city tonight. Got a good feeling it’s going to be alright…(Detroit, Rancid)
I passed through Detroit a couple times, once during a raucous road trip I took to Niagara as a teenager, two other times when driving to/from Quebec City. Each time, we zipped passed, the skyscrapers tall and strong against a gray winter sky.
This time, I got to experience the city for real, visiting close friends who left Seattle for Detroit. (There’s a giant hole in my heart now and I fill it with reruns of The Office and glasses of cabaret).
I wanted to walk inside blighted buildings, snap trees winding around staircases. I wanted to capture misfortune, the ruins of a cultural hub. Peeling wallpaper. Graffitti. Empty museums. People in big coats bracing against the bitter cold.
But that’s one story of Detroit. It’s not the whole story. Detroit denizens remind me a bit of kids I grew up with in Chicago: Tough. Prideful. All survivors of something. Also, friendly.
I snapped photos of empty, dark mansions that line the streets like abandoned doll houses. I tried to capture the sun filtering through punctured glass of factory windows. I took a photo of a calico stalking prey in a vacant lot.
But there’s fresh paint on Comerica. There’s the jack-hammer buzz of construction. There’s Greek Town and Midtown and they look just like every hip town in America. There’s brunch in the haunted Whitney Mansion—an impossible experience in Seattle. Our brunch places are overcrowded and definitely don’t include bottomless mimosas. In the Detroit Public Library, there’s a whole floor dedicated to illustrated car manuals. Not something I’d ever read, but I loved the vintage car posters on the walls and the ornate details.
I charmed my way inside the Detroit Opera House. I buzzed the door and walked to the box office, fully expecting to get the boot. A guy wearing a hard hat asked what I was doing. I said I just wanted to take a few photos. That’s it. No mention of this blog or my mediocre rise to travel writer stardom or any press of any kind. He let me in and gave me a behind-the-scenes tour.
“Usually they want people to be on the tour. But go ahead. If anyone asks tell them you’re friends with D*, the Head Electrician.”
When I opened the door to the stage, I actually gasped in awe. Hundreds of lush velvet chairs await for the derrieres of fur-clad opera-goers. Intricate suns curve up the dome ceiling. The balcony made me nostalgic for something I never experienced.
The workers were blasting Papa Roach (yes, seriously) and I still felt transported to the 1920s. D* led me to the lobby; chandeliers dazzled from above, candelabras glinting orange and gold. He told me to take a picture of one of the fixtures while lying on the ground with the camera pointed up. “This will be your best shot. It looks just like a doily.”
I don’t know enough to comment on the city’s financial health or whether it will turn around. All I know is that I spent a lovely few days in the city and I saw a glimmer of possibility.
Sometimes to find the beauty of a place, you just have to change your angle.