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Somebody call Wall-E, Detroit needs a cleanup

When I used to work full time at a Detroit newspaper, I kept a postcard on my desk from a local art gallery. Upside down, it reads, “I love Detroit.” Flip it over, and it reads, “I hate Detroit.”

Isn't that how we all feel about this city from time to time? I adore Detroit yet I am frustrated by its decline, slow recovery, endless scandals and general malaise.

Last week, I decided to show Detroit to a new generation: My two children. We cruised down the highway and exited on Woodward Avenue, home to the world's first mile of paved concrete road built for automobiles (1909 for you history buffs).

My kids have been to big cities before: Chicago and Madison, Wisc., are regular stomping grounds. We have hung out in Detroit before, but we always went straight to our destination. Today, we cruised Woodward.

They seemed genuinely excited to be in Detroit, probably because I told them this is their city. I pointed out the marvelous Victorian homes, classic duplexes and stylish new condos. I showed them where their grandma lived when she ran away from home at 16. We talked about the big skyscrapers and the glittering Renaissance Center. We drove past the ballpark, which I call Tigers Stadium and always will.

My daughter, who is barely tall enough to see out of her window, was thrilled to see the Detroit River and the steam rising from the grates.

My son, 4, asked all the wrong questions. He wanted to know about the graffiti. He fretted over the people waiting miserably for buses. He noticed the burned-out buildings when we turned onto Cass Avenue. The broken windows particularly bothered him.

We had just watched Wall-E, the Pixar film about the robot that helps clean up the Earth after humans destroyed the environment. His response to the movie was that of any impressionable preschooler: Its word is gospel.

He asked: Will Detroit need Wall-E?


No, son. I don't think it will get that bad. We're trying to make it better, I told him. Someone will buy that building, put new glass up in the windows and someone else will live and work there. We will clean it up and recycle it.

He was satisfied. I was not. I love Detroit. I hate Detroit. All over again.

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  • 1

    Why did he think the people waiting for buses were miserable? That's a misconception that should be corrected (does he ride a bus to school or on field trips? does he hate school?).

    There are two things that bother me more than others about the area's appearance because action could be taken to reduce both - fast food trash and plastic grocery bags blowing all over. The empty buildings and broken windows don't bother me as much as this petty bullsh*t "I don't care" "I'm too lazy/arrogant to deal properly with my trash" attitude.

    Ban the plastic grocery bags and find some way to reduce the amount of fast food trash - maybe institute a fee to cover litter clean-up.

    • 1.1

      Anounceofaction, I don't think his opinion was too far off. I almost never see bus shelters in my city. They are always damaged or destroyed all together. I don't think she meant that we are actually miserable people, but under the circumstances, standing outside, exposed to Michigan elements while waiting on the always late DOT...we appear to be.

    • 1.2

      AND...I completely agree with you about clean up. I was on the entrance to 94 from the Lodge and it was littered with so much garbage. I thought out loud that we needed to host another Superbowl if that's what it would take to get things looking good.

    • 1.3

      My read on the people "waiting miserably for the bus" was that it was a chilly, wet, depressing Michigan weekend. I'd be miserable if I was out there w/o a bus shelter too.

      And count me in on the clean up! Can we have a WALL-E or two? The week before the Final Four this spring was incredible. I almost didn't recognize this place.

    • 1.4

      I've often thought have people picking up litter is a great low skill job that could be used to get people working, even if it is restricted to able-bodied public assistance recipients in order to be funded. If you are physically capable of working and want to get a check, go pick up trash. Long ago the city used to have sanitation men with wheeled trash cans going about keeping the place clean.

  • 2

    It seems silly to think that one little gum wrapper from one person is a big deal, but when it's multiplied by a million (ok, 900,000) it adds up to an unsightly mess. If everyone pitched in and at least picked up paper and plastic trash, it would help.
    Not sure about the Wall-E reference ....I only know it is a movie. I drove by Tiger Stadium last week, very sad indeed........also visited the Depot, my favorite building. When I win the lotto I'll buy it and make her look beautiful again (not that she isn't already).

  • 3

    "I adore Detroit yet I am frustrated by its decline, slow recovery, endless scandals and general malaise."

    "Slow recovery?" They've been saying "recovery," (or "renaissance") there on the nightly news, in the papers, and on the radio since the mid 70s -- as if sympathetic magic from good-hearted Detroit residents could will it into being. It doesn't work that way. "Say nice things about Detroit" was a stupid hippie slogan, and it's a stupid urban recovery plan.

    "My son, 4, asked all the wrong questions."

    Sounds like your son might be a better journalist than you, because those are the RIGHT questions. The tone of this post sounds like you're trying to get your kids to share your fuzzy feelings for Detroit, while they are simply observing what they see out the window. I've driven Woodward many, many times, and I know what they saw. It's grim, it's joyless, and it's almost always overcast. I'd prefer to read what your kids had to say, rather than having it filtered.

    I too am a native Detroiter and, like you, I got out. I'm glad that Time is doing this series, as the city is such a great story and a frightening spectre of a possible future America -- so don't sugarcoat it. If there's anything that Detroit needs less than more racism, corporate greed, arson and violent crime ... it's more false hope.

  • 5

    "We cruised down the highway and exited on Woodward Avenue, home to the world's first mile of paved concrete road (1909 for you history buffs)."

    This is incorrect. The first mile of paved concrete road was in New Village, New Jersey in 1908 by Thomas Edison's company. What you're referring to in Wayne County, Michigan is the first mile of paved road specifically built for automobiles. As is written in this blog is untrue and misleading, nice to see you actually know your history.

    I had to sign up for comments just to correct your obvious mistake.

    • 5.2

      Adam, I felt I should share some history with you. Woodward was not built specifically for automobiles. It was championed by Edward Hines, one of Michigan's greatest cycling advocates:

      It was only 18 ft wide, much better suited to bikes than autos at the time. And, furthermore, if Edison did pave the first concrete road, it's NOT a widely known fact. A quick google search turned up nothing on the topic until I added "New Jersey" to the search terms. It's also not listed here:

      The first dozen hits I got were all about Woodward. I'm not saying Edison didn't pave a concrete road in 1908, or that Wikipedia and Google are the end all of historic research. However, what you've called Karen out for doesn't qualify as an "obvious" mistake, at least IMHO.

    • 5.3

      You're both wrong.

      That road was paved by bikes for bikes (okay, so bikes are the only true auto-mobile, but lets not mince words).

      The League of American Wheelmen's "Good Roads Movement" is what got those roads paved. And honestly, does that movement look that much different than the current "Complete Streets Initiative" that's sweeping the nation?

      Here's a story from not 90 days ago highlighting the 100 year anniversary.

      It's a typical result of current automotive hegemony to have folks mince the material of what was put down, only to totally disregard the non-car folks who actually got it put there.

      I guess what I'm saying is don't forget that Henry Ford made the 999 out of bike parts. And provided his employees with attended, covered bike parking.

  • 6

    I've lived in Detroit too (in the Cass Corridor). I've also gotten out and have lived in New York City. I still work in Detroit as a writer in the schools there. I talked to the kids all the time about their city, what they like, don't like, etc. We talk too about whether or not they're going to stay. In a classroom of 30 kids, I'd say four or five raise their hands when asked are they going to stay here in Detroit. Most kids want out. The biggest difference between, say, Detroit and New York, is the lack of a way to "get away." In New York, even if you live in the toughest neighborhood in the Bronx, you get on the subway and within fifteen minutes you're standing in la-la land of Midtown. You see possibility in places like New York. In Detroit you see what you've got. And if you don't got a lot, that becomes your lot. It ain't much but it's what you've got. Kids here want out but to get out is another story.

  • 7

    If he felt empathy for those who had enough money to ride the bus, you should've taken him down MLK and 3rd. Covered in litter, the traffic stirring the endless pot of trash, a pop tent or two, and during the day a whole line of people waiting along a shelter wall. People are everywhere, walking aimlessly.

  • 8

    [...] since we all love a clener Detroit, I want all my fellow LionsDetroit fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

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