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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Diamonds in the Desert -- Part One

When I was about seven or eight years old, my mother bundled me up, took me to Lansing's train station and we boarded the train for Detroit.

I was so excited, I could hardly stand it -- it was not only my first train ride, but I was going to meet Carolyn Haywood, my favorite author, who was signing books at the J.L. Hudson department store.

Downtown Detroit was the biggest place I'd seen -- tall buildings, bustling with people. The Hudson building was 25 stories high -- I don't remember how many floors the department store had -- just "a lot."

What I do remember about that day is getting my book and following my mother around the store, parking myself on any chair, mannequin base or, if necessary, the floor, so I could read "Back to School with Betsy" while she tried on clothes.

Much has changed since those days. The Lansing depot is now a restaurant -- one with fabulous, vintage decor, Tiffany-style lamps, and Old Lansing artifacts. The food -- a tad mediocre. But still a fun place to go.

Writer Andrew Nelson (in a National Geographic article HERE) recalls the Detroit station as a "vast atrium that was inspired by the imperial baths of ancient Rome." In his article "Rise and Shine Detroit" Nelson says "Even a little boy in the mid-1960s notices the tempo. The Motor City is in motion. We build America’s cars. Thanks to Berry Gordy’s Motown, the world hums our songs. The city, fifth largest in the U.S. by population, is at the top of its game."

Fast forward to 2012. Nelson says "Michigan Central Station still looks Roman, but it’s a Roman ruin," long closed and oft vandalized. Hudson's was later taken over by Marshall Field's, then Macy's. The original site I visited was demolished in 1998.

Carolyn Haywood died in 1990 at age 92 of a stroke. I still have some of her books on the shelf at the cottage.

Detroit suffered from "White Flight in the late 1960s, when families moved away. First, commuting to downtown, they later built their businesses in the suburbs. The auto industry began to feel the pinch of the economy and foreign imports. Add to that the block-busters, encouraging people to move out of the city before the property values dropped too much. Nelson says that in 2010, the population, once two million, was not quite 714,000.

So, why would Rick and I want to spend Valentine's weekend in a "city that used to be great"?

Because amidst the desolation -- and there is plenty of it -- there are a few diamonds in the desert.

This series of posts continues in several parts and includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the fabulous Whitney, a wonderful restaurant in a beautiful Detroit mansion.

But first, I'll start with a couple of overall impressions that help put the weekend in context. (I assure you, when we get to the "Diamonds" you'll feel much encouraged.)

We arrived on a bright Saturday morning after a drive on roads that would embarrass Michigan's MDOT -- sometimes crystal clean, at other times with ruts of snow that felt almost dangerous. As we exited at West Grand Boulevard, the tall Fisher building stood ahead on the left, the original GM headquarters on the right and behind the Fisher, the St. Regis Hotel, where we would stay.

I have fond memories of this part of Detroit, based on many trips to the Fisher as a teen. We saw "Hello, Dolly!," my first show there -- Carol Channing stayed at the St. Regis. We saw "Applause!" and I met Lauren Bacall and Penny Fuller in the parking lot -- they stayed there, too. And so did the titans of industry who stayed at GM until it -- well, until it moved.

So, I had pretty high hopes. It was in an area called "New Center," which we never really discovered, it had a classic history. And, at first impression, not so bad. The room was nice, a spacious bed, comfy chair, clean bathroom.

Then you looked at the amenities -- or lack thereof. Not a pen, pad or hotel directory to be had. Where to eat? Well, how about the restaurant downstairs, so nicely mentioned in the website? (As my friend Jan says, "This is Detroit.")

There was a restaurant there, as advertised on the menu. It was closed around noon, but sStill, good to have a restaurant in the hotel, just in case we needed to grab dinner there, or a glass of wine after the concert that night, or our continental breakfast included with our stay. Remember this. It'll come back later!

Then it was off to the Detroit Art Institute, one of the "diamonds." I'll talk more about that in the next post and show you some terrific art. Let me just say that the estimated quarter-mile walk was more like three-quarters in the snow, slush and erratically shoveled Detroit sidewalks.

Nearly every building was closed up or had graffiti. We didn't see any restaurants except for two in the block before the DIA -- a Japanese/Korean spot and a crepe restaurant.

These are a couple of photos by Scott Hocking, whose work we saw at the DIA, truly one of the more depressing exhibits I've ever seen.

The exhibit, "Detroit Revealed," presents a look back at the last decade through the perspective of eight photographers who look at the once-great city through the perspectives of community, history and uncertain future. It presented startling portraits and documentary-like city scenes from urban garden to neighborhoods and closed factories. We didn't see a lot of the neighborhoods, apart from the drive-by on the expressway, and that's not the best way to evaluate. But the desolation in these photos really does capture in its own version what we saw.

The Hocking image is taken at the abandoned Packard Automobile plant in 2009.

The photo below by Andrew Moore shows a typical Detroit factory today. (This may have been the famous "River Rouge" plant, but I'm not sure. Bad blogger notes.)

Compare to the Diego Rivera mural I'll talk about more in a future post, showing Detroit in its prime.

We were in for an emotionally topsy-turvy weekend.

Next: The Diamonds of the DIA

Note: Some photos in this post are from Wikipedia, FreeLibraryBlog, Alpha-Bet Books. Photo of River Rouge Plant by Andrew Moore, 2008 © Courtesy of the artist and the Yancey Richardson Gallery. Detroit Institute of Arts.

19 comments:

Arti said...

What a wonderful post! These photos on your post are just marvellous. Thanks for all the info on the history and glory that's Detroit. For someone from Cowtown, up here north of the 49th parallel, this is like a virtual tour. Your post here complements well with Clint's impressive 'Halftime in America'.

Barb said...

I hope this current visit lived up to your fond memories, Jeanie. Loved the pics.

Leann said...

Oh what a wonderful post I felt like I was there with you and really want to go. Soo interesting and the photos are fab Jeanie

Enjoy the rest of your week!
Leann

Mae Travels said...

Really good insights!

Bella Rum said...

Quite a post, Jeanie. Wonderful pics and information.

It's sad to see such a great city in the midst of a struggle like this, but I'm glad you're going to show the diamonds. It's good to know there are positive things happening. Looking forward to part II.

Friko said...

I recently saw a film about Detroit and its history, some of it quite heartbreaking, but it seems there may be signs of hope and regeneration too.

Relyn said...

What wonderful memories you two made. Good for your Mom.

Linda said...

What great pictures (even the lifted ones...ha) and great memories. Ya know... I've never been on a train...not a moving train...except at the zoo, etc. Sad, huh?

Jeanie said...

I loved train trips when I was growing up and yours with your mom sounds like it was a special one for you.
All of your words and pictures show that Detroit holds an important place in your heart....what it was, what it is and what it can hopefully become.

Retired English Teacher said...

After reading this post, I have a better understanding of Detroit. I also hope that it can have a revival. I love that you called this post diamonds in the dust, and then went on to show us such wonderful photos.

Joanne Huffman said...

Impressive photos. I've lived here 10 years and haven't gone to Detroit once.

joyce said...

Thanks for the history....its always sad to see old gems go but good to know there's always new jewels being mined.
I was and am an avid reader but never read about Betsy!

Jennifer Richardson said...

oh such wonderful memories
...I LOVED Carolyn Haywood
and her Betsy!
I always wanted to live
in her neighborhood:)
thanks for sharing your
travels with us,
Jen

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Detroit! It holds an odd sort of nostalgia for me. No, I never went there. I was supposed to play a nightclub there in the mid-1950's...I chickened out....The thought of being in a foreign city for two weeks--knowing NO ONE, was more than I could bear. I still think it was the right thing to do, for me. Nightclubs can be the lonliest work in the world...!

Sad to say....the way it looks now, is very very depressing. These "diamonds" better come along here pretty soon, my dear....

Penny Fuller....an old Show Biz pal...Though I haven't seen her in many years now. Very talented woman!

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I forgot to say, I loved your memories of Detroit and your time there at the store getting your book signed...! Love the pictures, too!

Icy BC said...

Detroit is not a place where people want to visit, but I agree with you, there are still a few huge "diamonds" left to enjoy discovering.

Fantastic post, Jeanie!

Marilyn said...

I remember my grandfather talking about visiting Detroit when I was a little girl. He would go back there to buy his new Pontiac every couple of years. So sad that things have changed there and the auto industry is no longer the big employer force it once was. I hope it can rise from the ashes and become a special place again. Look forward to seeing the Diamonds.

shoreacres said...

It was interesting to read your DIA post first, and then come here and find so many of the stereotypical images I have in my mind confirmed as reality. It just isn't possible to talk about everything, all at once.

I thought it was ironic and sad that the Clint Eastwood superbowl commercial - all about Detroit - was filmed in New Orleans and (somewhere else).

I just can't get Joan Baez' song, Diamonds and Rust out of my head.

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I've never been to Detroit, so it's is interesting to see photos and hear more about the city! I love your young childhood memories of attending that book signing of an author you loved. What a special experience!!!

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