(In Suburbia, pt. 1)
Metro Detroit is one of the worst designed places in the world. Now, keep in mind, it's not one of the worst places in the world, as is there is some affluence, but the thought that people willingly designed this artless urban monstrosity, well, it's just mind-boggling.
Here in my little suburban city, the world is perfectly divided into grids, all one mile in width, one mile in length. Perfection. The presence of nature, in all its wildness, is memorialized meticulously in grass lawns, which we trim routinely as if it were our own hair. Pedestrians are an exotic species to be gawked and yelled at safely from a moving vehicle. Concrete is everywhere, from the ubiquitous four lane roads to the massive parking lots for malls and office buildings. A car is a necessity, and widespread obesity is a necessary consequence. The unfortunate take the bus. I say unfortunate because the public transportation system in the Metro Detroit area is so poorly organized that I believe it was meant to mildly punish those who dare not to own a car.
Reinforcing this sentiment is the sceptral GM Renaissance Center, an evil overlord built of glass and steel on the horizon that benevolently winks at passing cars but stares me down alone menacingly as I boldly walk to the local grocery store. GM, Ford, and Chrysler, don't worry, I salute you with a pious reverence every morning and I bring sacrificial offerings of parts from rusty abandoned cars to the GM Transmission Plant down the road from my house every night. At the few parks allowed to interrupt the endless sea of houses and fast food restaurants and stores as I walk to the GM Transmission Plant and other fun places, trees are usually treated like an invasive species. They'll allow one or two to grow here and there, but any more than that and officials get suspicious of their motives and have them mercilessly cut down.
Metro Detroit is also, sadly, largely culturally bankrupt. Just my little town, a six mile-by-six mile geometrically perfect square in the Metro area, has about ten McDonald's, ten Taco Bells, five Burger Kings, and fifteen plus Rite Aids/CVS Pharmacies/Walgreens, as well as one Wal-Mart for good measure, of course. Shockingly, there are only two Starbucks, although many stores have 'mini-Starbucks' inside them. Go figure. The buildings were all seemingly designed from a single template that changes every five to ten years, making it easy for the experienced traveler to date the age of most buildings in a neat chronological order. The current fad seems to be building with red brick, which I will admit is more tasteful than the gray concrete fad that preceded it. The houses also appear to have their own shared templates, making the neighborhoods as bland as everything else. The bars are indistinguishable, and they all pump generic, mainstream, and, really, really insipid music out of their expensive speaker systems. When I do go to a bar with my cardboard cutout friends, I usually find that after about six or seven equally generic beers the whole atmosphere becomes unbelievably irritating, at which point I usually walk out of the bar and piss all over myself on the way home. Public restrooms, benches, waste baskets and other pedestrian friendly amenities like that are hard to find in Metro Detroit, you see. Sometimes, if I'm really drunk, I might pass out drooling in an unsuspecting girl's mouth.
The only pedestrian friendly places are indoor malls, provided you don't mind mallrats, enjoy shopping and an overabundance of sickeningly manufactured smells. Essentially, culture here is a Starbucks latte in one hand, a Lord & Taylor shopping bag in the other hand, and a People magazine cradled in your arms while you talk into your Bluetooth or listen to your iPod. They are status symbols, like the flashy cars everyone here wants and signs off on complicated finance plans to buy. Of course, like in any highly populated area there are plenty of movie theaters and a few decent venues for seeing live music, but nothing particularly amazing. Harpo's is great if you like extraordinarily violent mosh pits - I even saw a derelict stab a mosher one time! All in all, the place is a grimy throwback to what the Detroit area was in the 70s.
It's not all gloom and doom, however. If you like dining out, there are plenty of ethnic restaurants. Just a week ago, I ate at the Blue Nile Cafe in Ferndale, an Ethiopian restaurant, and the food was delicious, an amazing carnival of flavors that deserves its own write-up. And to think, sadly, that all most people know about Ethiopia is that it has been stricken with famines in recent times. Other interesting examples of ethnic eateries in the area include Under the Eagle (wacky Polish food), Howe's Bayou (seductively spicy Cajun food), Beans & Cornbread (good old soul food, not technically ethnic), Palm Palace (savory Middle Eastern food), Neehee's ("Indian vegetarian street food," the restaurant claims), and Fuji (a Japanese buffet that is tastier than a buffet has any right to be). There are also a lot of Americanized Mexican restaurants, but I can't think of an outstanding, noteworthy example.
Unfortunately, diversity is not always welcomed in Metro Detroit. Metro Detroit's formation was a byproduct of White Flight, when white people fled Detroit en masse in the 60s and 70s in response to race riots and other social pressures. As late as 2005, the mayor of Warren described his city as a "fortress" (a direct quote) protecting the rest of the suburbs from the evils of Detroit (a police chief was quick to talk down the racial implications of this quote in the local news). I-696, a local highway, cuts through south Warren like a medieval mote, an artificial border separating the city from the undesirables south of it. Ten foot walls erected as sound barriers surround the southern borders of the neighborhoods facing I-696, reinforcing the fortress-like qualities of the city.
Despite these preventative measures, Warren's population has become increasingly black and Middle Eastern over the last two decades. Still, the populations remain highly segregated. I even remember in High School how the blacks, the Chaldeans (a term for Middle Eastern Christians), and the whites usually had their own tables at lunch. I, as I'm sure you can assume from my writing style, sat with the misfits at the misfit table, with people of all colors, although usually we were the color red, blushing with embarrassment from our lot in life. Anyway, I even heard about a mini-Race War happening at another high school between the gothic kids/white supremacists and the black student population, so take that for what you will.
Sometimes, late at night, I like to sit on a walking bridge that goes over I-696, the very bridge that someone from my high school jumped off and killed himself. I sigh at the starless sky and watch the passing cars going their aimless ways, their headlights a poor substitute for starlight and I want to leave myself with them. It doesn't matter if you're black or white or green or yellow or red, nobody gets out of here with their soul intact.
As much as I supposedly hate this place, Metro Detroit, part of me will miss it when I'm gone, hopefully to somewhere where I'll be happier, and hopefully by the end of the year.
(A Citizen's Unfinished Sketch of Metro Detroit, pt. 2)