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A Room with a View

I had an occasion this past weekend to see Detroit from a different perspective: 11 stories above the street.

And the view was spectacular.

I've visited other big cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C. Their skylines are regal. But there is something about Detroit that pleases my eye. It is a combination of things: the familiarity, the balance of buildings and architectural styles -- all outlined against the Detroit River.

From my room with a view, you could see the mighty Renaissance Center, Art Deco skyscrapers, church spires, tiny water towers. I stood by the window for several quiet minutes. The woman standing next to me finally offered this comment: “Despite what people think, Detroit is a real city.” Amen, sister.

Paul Hitz

The above pix is by Royal Oak photographer Paul Hitz, who has shot the Detroit skyline many, many times. In fact, nearly every photographer I talked to for this post says it is one of the favorite backdrops, especially for automotive shoots.

"When I look at the Detroit skyline I can see its rich history and culture, its people and their success and struggle, most of all I see hope and determination in its diversity and I know that Detroit is a great place," Hitz said.

Photog John F. Martin added: "Whether it's from across the river or from the Fisher building, you can always see the variety of styles that went into building the Motor City."

Other views are just as grand, especially those at night. Some argue the best views are from Belle Isle, atop the Cobo Center roof or from across the River via our Canadian neighbors in Windsor. There, you can see it all: the Guardian, Penobscot, One Detroit Center, the David Stott Building, the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

“It's sad that the true beauty of Detroit can't be seen from Detroit, it can't even be seen from the United States. You have to go to Canada to see it,” notes local photographer Fred Levine.

We've always had great bones as a city. Some history via the brilliant Pat Zacharias of The Detroit News:

After the end of the First World War, Detroit's skyline underwent a dramatic facelift. The huge 1920s building program attracted the attention of architects throughout the country. Detroit ranked third in the nation, after New York and Chicago, in the number of major buildings erected during the Roaring Twenties. The boom proved dramatic and lasting.

The Penobscot Building, begun in 1928, the tallest in the city for nearly 50 years, highlighted the downtown skyline along with the new Buhl Building in 1925. The Book brothers transformed Washington Boulevard into a replica of New York's Fifth Avenue. The Book Cadillac Hotel at Michigan and Washington became the showstopper of the fashionably chic district. In 1928, the beautiful Fisher Building, across the street from the General Motors Building, complemented its business partner. The Masonic Temple, also completed that year, added ambiance to the bustling area.

Oddly, we don't get a lot of credit for our skyline. A simple Google search came up with a few comments here and there from people saying, “I don't even remember what Detroit's looks like. I wouldn't put it in my top 10.” I would.

Another quotable scribe (and I won't name names) chimed in: “The RenCen is the only skyline that flips the bird to the whole world. I stole that line from a magazine I read years ago but it's still accurate as hell.”

Rather than leave you on that note, I'll add this song lyric from Superchunk:

There was no architect designed this view
He could not have known about you
Mouse homes, catacombs
Detroit has a skyline, too
Detroit has a skyline, too

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  • 1

    "I don't even remember what Detroit's looks like. I wouldn't put it in my top 10." This remark should come as no surprise, since Detroit's skyline is never shown by the national media. When have any of us picked up a national publication with Detroit's skyline as viewed from Windsor or Belle Isle? In fact, nothing of Detroit's beauty is ever published. The only exposure of Detroit that the rest of our nation ever sees are pictures of our slums, our decay, our neglect. TIME magazine, Oct. 5, 2009 issue, The Tragedy of Detroit, the very issue that began this blog, is a perfect example.

    Do I sound annoyed? Yea. This has been a burr under my blanket for a long time. I have a personal theory about the reasons why Detroit is constantly subjected to this negative publicity but I would be labeled as a paranoid conspiracist since I can't back it up with facts.

  • 2

    Jeff, I feel the same way, I sort of went off the handle after reading an article about the Hummer going out of production because the author said something as simple as 'bad for Detroit'. But we get publicly bashed constantly, and so many of us are working hard to give the city the Renaissance it deserves. Writers are so quick to describe anything bad as being "like Detroit", or using umbrella statements that make it seem like all Detroiters are ignorant, slummy, downtrodden or hopeless. We aren't of course, we're extremely diverse and creative and hard working. We aren't all tied directly to the auto industry and it's failings. I wish there was a way for someone as non-influential as I am to get that point across to media across the country.

  • 3

    Yes, Detroit has a beautiful skyline. It also used to have one of the nation's premeire retail centers amongst the skyscrapers when Hudson's and the smaller, but architecturally superior and more beautiful Crowley's Dept. Store anchored the CBD(Central Business District).
    Read about Corktown in the Free Press this morning, such a wonderful, well-preserved, densely populated old neighborhood from the mid 1800's. Most other old neighborhoods in the D died, faded into oblivion. Many othes are in disappearing today too. A beautiful skyline needs complimentary thriving neighborhoods, neighborhoods linked with good public transit(that was the norm in Detroir many years ago). Is it not possible for anyone in the Mayor's office to put forth ideas for revitializing and repopulating Detroit. The infrastructure exists for neighborhoods, not farms. And many abandoned neighborhoods already have parks, some with dilapidated tennis courts, baseball diamnonds, playgrounds, etc...
    As a lifelong Detroiter, I have witnessed first-hand the demise of the city. A beautiful skyline is nice. But so is neighborhood quality of life.

  • 4

    I don't know what "beauty" you were seeing??? Beyond downtown, did you notice the vast tracts of open land where vibrant neighborhoods once stood. As you looked down from your 11th floor perch did you notice the skeletons of the old train station and the former Packard plant... Did you notice that unlike many other cities, Detroit does not have a major department store in its downtown...
    I guess that "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder! Unfortunately, I do not see the same "beauty."

    • 4.1

      @ lawrence2218:
      Your points are well taken as are eastsideslovak's. I must admit that it is a stretch to describe Detroit as beautiful and if you limit yourself to Detroit within the city limits, it becomes more than just difficult. When I refer to Detroit however, I mean Metro Detroit which includes Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Point, Lake Shore Drive and even Royal Oak and areas of Dearborn. Even within the city limits, there are still pockets of beauty particularly in the isolated examples of architecture. The Fisher Bldg for example, is one of the most beautiful bldgs I have ever seen. There are many others.

      My point is that the national media never publicizes this facet of Detroit. Every city has its slums but Detroit is portrayed as all slums. That is simply not true but try telling that to the rest of the nation. If the national media continues this 'blitzkrieg' of negative publicity on Detroit, the people, the businesses and the outside investment that we need won't happen. And the Fisher Bldg will suffer the same fate as Michigan Central.

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