The surreal suburbs of old Detroit

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 09.11.2018

Driving my mother’s Subaru down Michigan’s I-75 highway with four Luxembourgers in the car made me feel a little like a taxi driver in a surrealist film. We were in Detroit’s suburbs, the place of my upbringing, speeding past strip malls and leafy neighbourhoods towards the northern suburb of Rochester Hills, where friends had offered to host us for dinner. On the average weekday, chances of Luxembourgers in this region are probably zero.

Detroit itself was once a cosmopolis: back in the 1920s, Henry Ford’s assembly line had helped attract the workers, industry, and magnates that sculpted the city into the world’s hub of automobile production. New skyscrapers went up, an artistic scene developed, and so buoyantly were Detroit’s machinists trusted that Ford even briefly experimented with designing and producing airplanes for personal use, having already succeeded in the same venture with cars. For a time, the Ford test pilot commuted 25 miles from his house to work by plane, which shows the audacious futurism of a rich, excitable city.

Unfortunately, the test pilot crashed his own plane and died, which may have been a harbinger for what was to come: over the century, Detroit transmogrified into something ugly. As happened with many other “Rust Belt” cities of the American Midwest, declining industry and racial collision sent the wealthy fleeing into the surrounding regions. It was front page news when, in the 2000 census, the population finally fell under a million for the first time in 80 years. Whereas the prototypical city is a concentration of business, affluence, and culture ringed by working class people imagined to be hanging on at the edges of this financial nucleus, Detroit had become the exact inverse: in Michigan’s biggest city, a suburban halo of money and power encircled a decrepit, crumbling downtown.

And it was through this halo that we – I, my Luxembourgish wife, and her family – were driving, almost fifteen years after I had left it. Growing up here was confusing. Each suburb melts into the next one, and none of them has the urban density that would characterize a city; you drive, and drive, and drive – and the scatterings of parking lots, lone office buildings, oak trees, billboards, front yards, and wooden houses just never end. Whole lives are livable here: it’s gigantic, subtly populated with four million people. You would have no reason to go to Detroit except for a rare sports event.

Indeed, during my suburban youth, Detroit was mostly a distant force whispering myths of danger, drugs, and corruption, unrecognizable as a city in the way one comes to know Chicago, London, and so on. The suburbs blended together and existed in fuzzy opposition to Detroit, the way an asteroid belt might orbit a black hole. We knew we weren’t Detroiters. Claiming to be from Detroit would have been like a nurse pretending to be a doctor, a lie effective only on the clueless. But that left us in the infinite, in the surreal, floating together but attached to nothing.

The urban geography of Luxembourg, of course, is quite different. Villages are discrete: road signs announce which one you’re leaving and which one is coming up next. Fields and forests separate them, and some villages even tend the small flames of their own traditions and accents, suggesting that the physical space between them serves as a symbolic, even cultural, demarcation too.

Suddenly, through the Luxembourgish eyes of my passengers, it seemed that this perpetual Midwestern civilisation had to adhere to some principle of spatial organisation. It couldn’t unspool forever, despite how it seemed to: where was the real outer limit of Detroit’s suburbs, where roads and houses gave way to fields and forests, and did growing up beside an empty, lost city matter more than my childhood self had thought?

These questions sank into my mind as we arrived to our friends’ home in Rochester Hills. After dinner, our hosts drove us to a nearby hotel restaurant for dinner, where a tall man with a hat and a weird aura nearly collided with me. He clicked his tongue, stood at attention, and thanked me when I moved aside. Later, it turned out that this was Mick Fleetwood, drummer for Fleetwood Mac, who were performing the following day in Detroit’s newest downtown venue, Little Caesar’s Arena. We had tickets to the show.

This bizarre happenstance had a side effect of rendering the geographical quagmire of my upbringing in sudden, bright clarity. Both the suburban hotel and the downtown venue are classy, famed buildings, and now they joined together under the personal jurisdiction of Mr. Fleetwood. The hotel in Rochester Hills is 25 miles away from Detroit, but, if only for a moment, the whole city glowed in a single light. And why shouldn’t it? That’s the same distance Ford’s poor dead test pilot used to fly twice a day.

Celebrities have stayed in suburban hotels and performed downtown before, but for some reason it clicked this time for me. It was hard as a young suburbanite to construct an identity that existed in opposition to an old, dying city. We kept Detroit at the edge of our lives and the edge of our minds. And yet, we needed it to define ourselves! Now, there is new life in the urban center: Little Caesar’s Arena has just opened – while a large concert venue near Rochester Hills has recently closed down – and investors, entrepreneurs, and hipsters have taken interest in the city. Over the years, many have wrongly heralded new prosperity for Detroit, but this renaissance looks and feels real. Surprisingly, at least to me, this rebirth affects suburbanites too – even ex-suburbanites who now live in faraway Luxembourg.

Driving home with my four Luxembourgers and discussing the oddities of Mr. Fleetwood, I felt the suburbs as part of Detroit for the first time. Maybe the city’s history of cars and Motown music could be mine, too, its French founders part of my own lore. For a moment, driving through the dark, the suburbs became more real than surreal.

Jeffrey Palms
© 2023 d’Lëtzebuerger Land