Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Detroit's Image Problem

Here's a pair of stories that I'll nominate for the first Bad Timing Award of 2006:

You can almost hear the City Fathers: "Move along now, nothing to see here, pay no attention to that bleeding rapper..."

Actually, music is a great way to illustrate where Detroit has been and where it is now. About 45 years ago Berry Gordy, Jr., started Motown Records. With legends such as Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, Motown virtually defined black popular music in the 1960s and into the 1970s. In the late 1960s, Detroit spawned such rock legends as Bob Seger, the MC5 (overrated IMHO), and of course, the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent (formerly of the Amboy Dukes). Three decades later, Seger is boring and semi-retired, Nugent has moved to Texas, Motown Records was sold long ago, and the city is best known for Eminem, Kid Rock, and the White Stripes. Although I like some of Eminem's songs, let's face it -- Detroit has been on a downward slide for decades.

A friend once explained the problem with Detroit. When "white flight" happened in Chicago, the people moved to the suburbs. When it happened in Detroit, the people moved to the suburbs and took the businesses and cultural attractions with them. So while downtown Chicago still attracted suburbanites by day with thousands of jobs, shopping, museums, theaters, etc., downtown Detroit had little to offer. (Certainly a number of Chicago businesses have emigrated to the suburbs over the years, but plenty of jobs remain downtown.)

I've only been to Detroit once, as the coda of a long weekend in Dearborn visiting the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I'm sure I wasn't there long enough to give the city a fair assessment, but what I saw was pretty damn bleak: wide, empty streets lined with vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. Even the expressways were crumbling (the article notes that I-94 and I-96 have been repaired lately).

So I don't really know; maybe Detroit has changed for the better in the six years since I was there. But stories about rappers getting shot on the freeways aren't going to help the city change my mind.

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