Jungle Gym City

I’ve never really experienced the states. I’ve been through a few, and even went to Disneyland in Florida… but wouldn’t feel comfortable claiming to know the nation with the temerity to claim an entire continent’s name for itself.

Hopefully the following weeks will help inform some opinions. Beginning with Detroit, this tour is going to take me on a journey through a country so many of my fellow Canadians have opinions on but so few have actually taken the time to get to know beyond the caricatures and archetypes filtered in through the media.

This isn’t actually my first time in Detroit, and this visit reinforces impressions formed last time.
It’s a city of massive contrast. The third of the population that remains rattles hollowly among the art deco grandeur of the city, avoiding those places left fallow after the eventual decline of the roaring 20’s expansion. I see it as an interesting reflection of the failure and fallacy of the American dream. I actually had the bank where the concept of credit was formed pointed out to me. Abandoned, like so much of the city, the place where Ford once extended loans to his employees. Making an unheard of (for the time) five dollars a day, they used their prospective earnings to help build homes and expand the city. So yeah, you can blame him for all this.

Against all odds there is an positive spirit that manages to resonate through the city’s underfilled streets. Every open space boasts art, graffiti, and official signage all urging people to look to the future of a new Detroit, offering hope and optimism in a city where the sidewalks are pebbled with shattered glass from break ins; where opulent towers too expensive to either sell or maintain crumble in place, still defiantly beautiful despite years of neglect.

My host Petparazzi and fellow explorer Detroit Liger echo this spirit and pride – both of them wearing Detroit branded  clothes, speaking of their love for the city. And it’s not just in spite of the decay – in many ways this has opened up their city to them, allowing them an intimate perspective and sense of ownership and discovery like no other place in the world would. They can enter places that, had they been maintained, would have been exclusive domains of the elite. The infrastructure and history is laid bare, no sterilized tours or one sided info pamphlets – just the evidence, visceral, right there to be walked among ; sifted through; interpreted.

Personally, I’m more of a nature person – but I appreciate the parallels between the density and chaos of jungles and cities. Detroit is the perfect compromise – it is a city gone half feral, a concrete jungle in the truest sense. Out of the poverty brought about by the city’s decline a social regression has taken place, the robberies and gun violence contrasted against the vision of hope and regrowth that struggles to take root in the ruins. It’s not a distant, far removed kind of poverty. It’s putting my money on a carousel so the clerk behind bullet-proof glass can spin it around an and replace it with my change and receipt, never leaving an opening for contact. It’s Petparazzi paying more in camera insurance than home or auto. “Every time I go out [exploring abandoned places], I assume I’m going to get robbed,” he tells me. And almost in the same breath he says he would never leave, that he loves his city.

The Big D demands more respect from people than the average city; it contains the ragged edge of civilization where one can easily regret letting one’s guard down. But I’ve been surprised. I’ll not soon forget the man who rolled out of his newspaper bedding to offer a friendly hello, and whose demeanour and conversation spoke more of a fellow who had simply fallen on hard times than the crackhead one would have expected. The local art scene is thriving on the unique atmosphere, and everywhere abandoned places are being reclaimed by civilization, bit by bit.

Eventually it seems this city will once again stabilize. Like all wild places, Detroit will eventually be tamed; the metropolis of majestic forgotten spaces will be replaced by a sterilized and family friendly town. It will become a city like any other, and while that may be for the best, I will always be glad to remember the jungle that was Detroit.

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