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A Prayer for Motown

by on July 01, 2011 6:00 AM

DETROIT – Anagrammatized, my daughter informs me, the name of this mighty American city is "I rotted."

At first glance, Detroit looks like a normal city: office towers, squares, fountains, green spaces. But when I gaze down from my 20th-floor hotel room, a view that takes in a vast swath of downtown at morning rush hour, I can count the number of pedestrians on my fingers and toes. Density-wise, I feel like I'm looking at Wyoming, with buildings.

At street level things are even eerier. Woodward Avenue has the look of a main shopping street, but for one detail: Almost all the storefronts are empty. A closer look at the office towers reveals that most of them are untenanted as well. The city is like a mummy: It looks solid, but it might crumble at the slightest touch.

Beyond downtown, things are even worse. In some neighborhoods, the buildings are crumbling, or have already crumbled, leaving empty lots that look like they were scoured of their buildings by a tornado.

We've all heard that Detroit has fared worse than most places during the economic travails of the past few years because it relied more heavily on manufacturing jobs than most places, and so many of those manufacturing jobs have gone away.

The numbers are startling. Detroit has lost more than a million residents since its heyday in the 1950s. About a third of the remaining population lives below the federal poverty line. Twenty to 30 percent of the city's residential lots are vacant.

But it's one thing to read about the decline of Detroit and another to see it.

The sad thing, apart from the tragedy of unemployment, is that there is a lot to like about Detroit. It's a river town, for one thing, and it has a River Walk. There's a pleasing blend of holdover buildings from the heyday of the Big Three carmakers and gleaming office towers anchored by the likes of Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Compuware. The city has done a nice job sprucing up the downtown with landscaping. Ford Field and Comerica Park, where the Lions and Tigers prowl, are right in the heart of town.

I caught a Tigers game during my visit. It was a sellout. The streets near the ballpark came alive. But: It was a lovely Sunday afternoon and the Tigers were retiring the uniform number of Sparky Anderson, their former manager who died last year. Most of the crowd, I suspect, came in from the 'burbs. When the game ended the streets would echo once more.

Is there hope for Motown? As part of the conference I'm attending, I've heard presentations by top executives at tech companies that have invested heavily in downtown. They contend that they're bringing Detroit back from the brink by offering good jobs in a city with ridiculously low housing costs. That attracts young people, who prefer the urban vibe. The hope is that the influx of young talent and energy magnetizes the city, pulling in other entrepreneurs and "knowledge workers" to the point where a revitalizing critical mass is achieved.

That sounds lovely, but nobody said anything about what the creation of these high-tech jobs will do for the city's vast number of unemployed factory workers. The concern, frankly, is that a new Detroit of white-collar – and mostly white-skinned – computer jockeys will simply displace the old Detroit of blue-collar – and mostly black-skinned – assembly-line employees as the rents rise, which they are bound to do as the real estate regains value.

Skeptics I talked to also point out that the city's schools are a mess. Good jobs and cheap rents will pull young people into the city but once they start marrying and having kids, they're not going to stay unless the schools improve.

My trip to Detroit included a visit to the Motown Museum. I was expecting a public building of some kind and was surprised to see that the museum occupies two modest houses connected by a breezeway. A sign on one of those houses says "Hitsville U.S.A."

Berry Gordy was a 30-year-old songwriter when he borrowed $800 from his family to start his own record label. As Motown Records and its sister companies turned out hit after hit by the Miracles, the Vandellas, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the business expanded into eight houses up and down Grand Boulevard. Gordy repaid the $800 and made millions more.

It's a great American success story and was a great Detroit success story – until Gordy decided Los Angeles was the place to be as he expanded into the movie business.

Now Motown, the record company, lives on only as the Motown Museum. It's a sweet little museum, but you'd hate to see the same thing happen to Motown, the city.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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