Dancing in the Street


Detroit, Michigan

Miles: 850 ish…

I had had the destination of Columbus in mind to couch surf, but really nothing else. Chicago? Or Springfield? Or St. Louis? I’m spending my time a little more in the Midwest because I feel like I’ll be able to explore more of the west on my days off from this internship thing. And thus I arrived once again staring at google maps. I had typed in Columbus, Ohio, zoomed in on my exact location, and then just started slowly clicking about, looking for interesting things within a day’s journey. And thus I came across the inspiring breakthrough of “hey, Detroit’s like 4 hours away.” 10 minutes later I had found a hostel with a respectable looking website (cause that’s how you tell if a place is sketch or not, right?) and had e-mailed/booked away.

I really don’t know much about Detroit. The first thing I think of is the music, for obvious reasons. Half of my freshman year was spent learning about Motown and the crazy business shenanigans of Berry Gordy. Further, several of my papers for this class were on a present-day Detroit DJ who used his DJ-ing skills to morph the emotions of the dance floor (it was an academic paper trying to use SAT words to discuss the pretty non-academic subject of grinding). And then of course no one can forget Eminem is from Detroit. I got a little lost (what else is new) and I don’t think I found 8 mile (though maybe I did), but nevertheless I expected the whole city to be just like that super bowl commercial, with a splash of well-choreographed Motown singers on various corners. I was wrong, but not disappointed.

Despite my excitement, my first impressions of the city were not that great. Upon my approach, the wide highway was lined with an unusual amount of garbage, every few exits the smells would change from one fowl odor to another, and the tour bus I was somehow stuck behind kept sporadically emitting this dark black exhaust right into my open window. The beautiful trees, farms, or other pleasant scenery that had been the definition of my drive thus far was now taken over by ungainly vegetation surrounded by an almost eeyore-colored sky. Approaching the exit, a sudden fear gripped me that driving in cities is scary. I mean sure I can handle Norfolk and other things, but the image of New York City traffic – with taxis and professional drivers darting every which way, construction and confusion forcing me into lanes that suddenly bring me onto a bridge that most definitely can only lead to doom all while trying to shift to the next gear- darted across my mind. But I got off the highway (on the wrong exit of course) and there was no one. I could have done donuts in the middle of the road and nobody would have noticed, I had the freedom to be lost, rubberneck road signs and take as many u-turns as I needed.

I made it to the hostel first, fearful I would miss the designated check in time or something. I pulled up behind another car and stared at the bumper stickers for a while. Beside the obligatory MoveOn.Org’s Obama/Biden sticker and the religious coexist sticker, my favorite was “Republicans for Voldemort.” I definitely had found the hostel. They had e-mailed me a code and I carefully typed it into the front door. A weird buzzing noise sounded, the handle turned, and I entered into this wonderful sanctuary. Every wall was painted a different bold color, artwork hung everywhere, and the maze of hallways and stairs uncovered foosball tables, kitchens, bunkbeds, and an entire upstairs room devoted to bikes available for rental. I cautiously moved about the house, introducing myself to strangers doing laundry, gardening, or searching endlessly for the their green sunglasses, though I immediately forgot everyone’s name. I found my bed in the ten-person room with sheets neatly folded, a towel, and a lock for my locker down the hall all placed beside a notecard bearing the incorrect spelling of my name.

With myself semi-checked in I went in search of Hitsville USA. It was 5:30 and I was unsure if it would still be open, but I thought I would try as I had to leave in the morning anyways. A few wrong turns later, I navigated into the parking lot. My lime green bug stood out amongst all the black, grey, and white American-made cars. On either side of the Motown museum, funeral homes were in full operation, with people pouring out of the one adjacent to the parking lot I sat in. I found this interesting not for the death aspect of a funeral home, but classically this was a huge business for black entrepreneurs. They may not have been able to control many things while alive, but they were certainly going to make sure their loved ones were well served in death. (Think it’s a coincidence that Norfolk’s councilman Riddick operates out of his family’s funeral home?) Behind the parking lot was a diagonal street lined with every shade of brown two-story houses complete with huge porches where dozens of people were relaxing, gossiping and enjoying the Saturday afternoon. I marched up the steps to the museum, excited that I had 10 minutes until it officially closed, only to find the doors locked. I walked around to a few other entrances, peering into the windows as best I could, preparing some sort of begging speech, only to find nothing. I turned away just as a group of three black women also ambled up to the door. They were louder and a manager issued forth, stating that the last tour was at 5:30, but (in true Berry Gordy business style) we were welcome to visit the gift shop. Though the other women scoffed and didn’t take up his offer, I went in and tried to get a quick glimpse around. The walls in the lobby were filled with signed photographs – from Martha (of Martha and the Vandellas) to Ray Charles to Smokey Robinson to Dozer and Holland the song writers to (of course) Michael Jackson and a few posters from the Wiz. I wanted to stay there forever, I wanted to go in! But the dude was staring me down, so I bought a postcard and quietly left.

I drove around the city some more, noting how even the name-brand stores looked run down, that entire lots ran vacant or degraded, that it should be rush hour but the streets remained relatively empty. In the heart of downtown though I finally found some jazzed up theaters promoting both unknown bands (at least to me) and the featured concert of the night: Young Jeezy. I finally ran into traffic here as well, though not very scary as I had gotten lost here before and knew where I was going. The car behind me had all of its windows down, blasting the radio. At one point Kanye’s Goldigger came on and a few kids on the street walked up beside the car, started dancing, and began shouting along with the lyrics. I wanted to join.

Back at the hostel I ran into Dennis (I only remember his name because of Dennis the Menace) and he gave me an official tour and rented me and the other new dude out a bike. Dennis and the other new dude (whose name I don’t remember, but it definitely ended in –o, so lets call him Bo) are both Canadian. Well, Bo might be Australian, but I’m pretty sure it’s Canadian. Actually I was quite surprised to learn that like half of the people at this hostel were Canadian. I had no idea, but apparently Canada is literally a bridge away. Dennis is here volunteering for a month, taking care of the place, running the reservations, and just hanging out. The Vitamin water he carried around was called “connect” and I had to smile at the appropriateness. Dennis wore a Kelly green t-shirt with O’bama in bold white letters across the front (with the apostrophe as a shamrock) and his hair was kind of curly and all over the place. He gave us a little history on Detroit (like the population has halved since its heyday – hence empty streets and lots) and on the hostel (like it opened a month ago and a lot of the stuff is pillaged from abandoned buildings – for instance, my bunk bed is made out of the doors from an abandoned school, fun, right?). But he remains optimistic, thinking this is the year where things turn around, where all these raw materials and cheap land reinvigorate peoples’ entrepreneurial spirit.

At the end of the tour Bo and I were left outside, newly furnished with bikes and maps. Dennis and Bo kept talking about a rapture party, held in some industrial center complex. One of those TV evangelical guys had predicted the end of the world again. So Bo and I decided to investigate. Bo is a grad student on his way to Mexico or something for research. He was light skinned and had an accent, though he spoke so softly I couldn’t hear half of what he said. He wore skinny jeans, a white t-shirt, a hat, two thick toothy gages, and a cloth satchel across his chest – I definitely would not have thought he would fit in anywhere in Detroit, until we found this party and I discovered and that I was the odd one out. I had come thinking I would find some jazz or rap nightclub and instead I stumbled across the hipster artists. Not that this wasn’t really cool still.

The industrial center was huge. Large grayed windows were surrounded by some sort of sooted concrete and steel. It used to house one of the many companies that initially supplied Ford and other car manufacturers with various parts. The complex was easily a block or two long and wide. Various people had said that artists now occupy a lot of these spaces, but the bazaar in the first arena of this complex seemed to really only sell pilfered junk. We kept walking and ran into a parking lot and actual artist studios, but still couldn’t find this party. Finally Bo walked up to a police guy/security guard and asked if he knew where the party was. Before he could even finish the question, the policeman gave the most explicit directions possible to the other side of the block. I was stunned. I’m sorry but in Williamsburg or Norfolk, you do not ask the police where a party is being held. I guess here they have bigger fish to fry. We found the party inside a large, abandoned warehouse. All the walls were covered with spray paint, some nonsense doodles, others more pronounced statements like: “the future is canceled due to lack of interest.” The opposite side of the room had welded sheets of scrap metal and two overturned plastic bins attached to a gorilla mask holding two mallets. After some experimentation, the bystander learned how to press a couple of buttons and watch the gorilla very loudly beat the drums. Meanwhile, a guy kind of behind the scenes held the remote to a large metal skeleton head on wheels, with speakers attached to the base making grumbling noises as the thing roamed about the room, terrorizing whoever it ran into, moving its balloon sized eyeballs back and forth, and chomping its serrated mouth. Three random leather couches sat at skewed angles in the middle of the room, slightly facing the projection of a movie. The documentary featured taking down some sort of tilt-a-whirl in Chernobyl and putting together the scraps in the UK for people to appreciate and ride. It was eerie how the decaying towns surrounding Chernobyl resembled some of the blocks of Detroit – obviously not to the same extent, but there was definitely a motif of abandonment and renewal there. Nearby a standing bicycle was outfitted with a contraption that thrust a dildo in and out. Outside was even more interesting. A long metal pole was grounded in the center-left with a tire at one end, and a propane-propelled something at the other end. A person would wear a racing helmet, climb onto the end of this contraption and spin around in dizzying circles until the rocket on the other end ran out of fuel. Its name was the regurgitator. I wanted to try it, but never got a chance. The opposite end of the parking lot held a large metal contraption that resembled a dragon.  It was definitely on wheels but never moved forward. Attached at various points were couches and chairs for people to climb up on and sit. You could climb two separate ladders in the back: one which led to the dragon’s belly (and shelter from the rain) and the other which led to a couch just below the dragon’s tail. If you sat here, you and a partner could alternate pulling on the large wire cables to make the tail swing back and forth. But the greatest point of all was yet another propane tank attached to the nose of the dragon. With just the flick of a switch a small manageable fire from the dragon’s nose suddenly turned into a flame flower with a 10ft radius. The crowd stood around erupted into cheers every time this happened. To add to the rapture theme of satan and fire, numerous fireworks were produced and shot off at random points. Some from the safe distance of a far away trashcan, others jokingly from a person’s hand. The most interesting ones were lit from the dragon’s mouth. Because of the precarious nature of this feat, only two of the four successfully made it into the air, while the other two bounced off of bystanders before exploding nearby. No one may have been hurt, but don’t try this at home. (also, loud music and fireworks and still no cops – why has Williamsburg warped my perception of everything?)

Despite this excitement, this party was really almost just a social art exhibit and by midnight the band sucked and the population hadn’t increased much so Bo and I biked the streets of Detroit back home and, after a cup of tea made by one of the British hostel guests, I promptly fell asleep in my little corner of a bunk.