After Cedar Rapids our path ahead was more open than it had ever been. Faced with dozens of different roads north, we mixed it up by heading east. Magda had been in discussions with a client about photographing a project about the Great Lakes. Whether or not the project was going forward, the idea of detouring through the Lakes was appealing. We’d been to Chicago and Detroit before but never up the ‘Michigan Mitten’ through what we guessed was some beautiful rugged landscape. Our path decided, we left the wide open skies of the plains and drove into the rust belt.
The first stop was Milwaukee, where we negotiated its long bridges spanning a network of rivers entering Lake Michigan and found ourselves in the city’s surprisingly lively core. We celebrated Milwaukee’s storied history of beer by parking ourselves at a micro-brewery. It was successful in making us rethink the capital of the traditional weak American Pilsners. In the morning Magda made a point of stopping by the Milwaukee Art Museum to document the opening of its inspired roof design, emulating both wings and sails as it begins its daily stretch.
We left Milwaukee and made our way south towards Chicago, pulling into Evanston after dark. We were taken in by more Ex-New Yorkers (there is a theme developing in which our friends are fleeing NYC). Dawn, Stirling and their kids easily tripled their apartment size and now claim to live in a city with more open space, better schools and just as much to do. My rebuttal was, ‘Oh Yeah?’ Neither convincing or articulate, but pretty much what any New Yorker would argue when defending their city – minus the colorful expletives.
As we drove from place to place I thought having a car in the Windy City would be an improvement over our last visit there a year ago, but instead of walking blocks from the bus, we ended up walking blocks from distant parking places. The car did allow us to pay a visit to a camera repair shop that fixed Magda’s medium format camera before we left. The Mamiya 6 had started acting up again on the road, freezing up and forcing her to abandon half-shot rolls of film. Unfortunately, as the world migrates to digital, it becomes harder and harder to find competent repairmen for old cameras. Precision Camera Works diagnosed the problem and put half of his projects on hold in order to fix it before we had to leave. The next day he handed Magda her newly working camera and a pile of mangled parts.
Our next stop was Detroit.
If you have never been to Detroit, you should. It is both a portrait of the worst that American urbanism has to offer and the best of innovative redevelopment. Our first visit to Detroit was ten years ago, followed by a brief visit a few years later. We liked it then if only because it was far more shocking than we expected. If anything, the rumors of a metropolitan wasteland in the heart of America had been downplayed, not over-exaggerated. We remember driving from façade to burnt out façade. Downtown was mostly a ghost-town complete with tree-roots twisting into the masonry of the once proud temples to industrial capitalism. We never felt unsafe because there was no one threatening around — maybe because there was no one around. We remembered gazing up at one haunted hotel in particular, staring in awe at its exquisite architecture and wondering how it could ever have gotten so bad. Now that hotel is a brand new Westin.
In fact, much of the ruination of the city is slowly being reversed. Investors like Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans are betting big on Detroit’s comeback. After driving around the city again we could start to see why. It still holds a strategic position as far as shipping and commerce are concerned and because of the absolute vacuum created by the collapse of the inner-city neighborhoods, savvy investors are snapping up gorgeous early 20th century homes for a song. There are rumors of whole buildings for sale for $1, some of them are not worth even that, but others places make a person want to bring a stack of $20’s and become a Detroit real-estate mogul overnight.
Our friends (still more ex-New Yorkers. Brain drain alert New York City: you’re losing your best and brightest) Sandi and Andrew had moved into an absolutely beautiful home for only slightly more than a song. One might say, two songs. A harmony. It needed a lot of work but they put in the time and energy. They’ve been rewarded with a handsome home on a brick paved treelined street, the only one in the city closed off to car traffic. As well as scoring their home, they saw a market for a cute, Brooklyn style coffee house, serving Portland style coffee. They opened their first spot, The Red Hook, a year ago and have met with much success. So much success that their second location is currently under construction. Now, these cafe moguls are living comfortably with their son and two dogs, drinking bourbon by a roaring fire while the politicians of the city wrangle over its economic future.
To be fair: Detroit still has crime. We did a complex dance with our cars at night, repositioning them into the garage so they wouldn’t be burgled like so many of their neighbors have been. There are still no-go neighborhoods that you really do not want to go to. But these do not include the rough looking neighborhoods in the center, where burned out houses sometimes dominate for blocks. These blocks are in comparison, safe. Sandi and Andrew live in one of these safe-ish, central neighborhoods, but it still helps their peace of mind that by all appearances their dogs are beastly monsters. They are beastly monsters, but only because they drool so much while having their heads scratched.
Magda and I debated the extent of urban exploration we should do. I was not interested in arrest, death by collapsing building or by annoyed squatter. Magda as usual was interested in getting the best shot and was itching to get inside some of the most sinister looking ruins. Short of breaking and entering, she sweet talked her way into the Michigan Building’s parking garage, the infamous repurposing of a lovely old theater.
In an attempt to get a shot of the ruins of Michigan Central Station, we accidentally trespassed on Canada Pacific Railway land, triggering an armed response by a railroad bull. With his light bar flashing red and blue, the bull informed us that he was letting us off with a warning, but should we ever trespass on Canada Pacific Railway land again, we’d risk arrest. He finished by noting that they had property in New York State as well.
For the rest of our time in Detroit, we kept expecting the CP police to jump out from behind a tree and arrest us for standing on the wrong lawn.
As the weather grew chillier we took a break from exploring and stepped into a Moosejaw outdoor store to look for some gloves. When we walked in it must have looked like we were there to film a commercial, as I had Magda’s big tripod bag slung over my shoulder and she her usual collection of cameras clacking around her neck. A young employee approached and asked what the production was all about. This started a conversation that ended with him offering to give us a tour of his city on his day off.
Ernest and generous with his time and knowledge, Jeff was an architecture student and Detroit booster. We debated wether we should take his time, but realized that in any other country we’d have jumped at the chance to get a tour from an eager young local. We met up the next day and he walked us around town. We chatted gamely about the history of the more interesting buildings while Magda ran across busy streets shooting in the fleeting rays of sun.
On our last day in Detroit we went with Sandi, Andrew and Henry to Dearborn, near the Ford factory and the site of the Henry Ford Museum. The museum is a mind boggling collection of artifacts from the history of American industry. Ford was a genius, and as we learned in Fordlandia, a bit mad. His collection of Americana was ambitious and moving. From the bus on which Rosa Parks made history to the limousine in which JFK was shot, the Ford foundation seemed to have scoured the country for the most iconic vehicles possible and brought them to Dearborn. But his most audacious collection was just across the street, in Greenfield Village.
Ford created Greenfield only a few miles from the house where he was born. Along with his own home, he transplanted dozens of the buildings in which influential Americans had lived or worked from all over the country. A walk around Greenfield is a walk around early American history, staged as an Pitimkin-like homage to the great thinkers of the United States. We were looking for one home in particular, the house in which my distant relative Noah Webster, author of the first American dictionary, worked and raised his family. On the eve of its planned destruction in New Haven, Connecticut, Ford had arranged for it to be moved here, to sit amongst other distinguished buildings, a retirement community for stately homes. While touring the house we stared at the old man’s portrait and remarked on the obvious resemblance between Noah and myself — not to mention our shared taste in colonial furniture.
The next morning with the forecast calling for snow we repacked the car and said goodbye to our hosts and their warm home and started driving north once more. The rings of Detroit’s outer reaches fell behind, the rest of Michigan stretched before us just as the first flakes started to fall.