Monday, July 25, 2011

The Motown Sound

I visited Detroit, Michigan over a weekend in July 2011.  Detroit seems to get a bad rap these days.  When you read an article about Detroit you see worlds like "war zone", "deserted", "empty".  I was hoping to find a more positive image when I visited.  I know how the press and the media can sensationalize things and distort reality.  Growing up in the sixites Detroit was known as the Motor City because of the car industry.  But for me, a music loving teenager in the 1960's, Detroit meant the Motown Sound, or as Barry Gordy used to call it "The Sound of Young America".  I used to love listening and dancing to The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, and Martha and the Vandella's.  When I arrived at the very efficient  and modern airport I was impressed and was hoping for the best.  One of the first things I saw in the airport was a gift shop for Motown Records.  This was what I was hoping for, not what I had read about it.  But sad to say, Martha and the Vandella's hit "Nowhere to Run" is more the theme of what I found in Detroit. 

I visited the central business area and found the beautiful General Motors Renaissance Center the waterfront.  Walking through the Renaissance Center I saw huge food courts with vendors offering food like many tourist area's in many major cities.  But there were no customers.  There was no one there except for the people working in the food court.  There was a large display of the new General Motors cars for the public to view. 

They were all fantastic to see, but once again there was no one there looking at them.  This huge skyscraper on the water front was literally empty.  I could hear Martha Reeves in my head singing  "nowhere to run, nowhere to hide." 

We decided to ride on the People Mover, Detroit's elevated train systerm for visitors.  We were able to ride it less than five minutes when we had to exit because the cars breaks were failing.  I was beginning to fear that all that I had read about Detroit might be true. 

There are many beautiful skyscrapers with some fantastic architecture still to be found in Detroit, but many of these great buildings are vacant and will most likely be gone soon.  The streets of downtown Detroit we empty at lunchtime on a Friday afternoon.  And yet all around you can see the possibilities of a great city still hoping for chance.

Leaving the downtown area its gets even sadder.  All of the photos on the Internet, in the magazines, and on TV are all true.  It does look like a war zone.  And it does not look like it's a war the Detroit is winning.  Vacant houses, homeless on the streets, weeds growing in the sidewalks, and devastation all around.  There was no Motown sound to be heard in this neighborhood unless you want to listen to Edwin Starr's anthem from the 60's "War" and The Temptations "Ball of Confusion".

The only music to be heard in Detroit these days is the din of the slot machines and the computerized music buzzing through the speakers at the lounges in the casino's that have sprung up in downtown Detroit.  This is also the only place you will find people in downtown Detroit. 

Like any good tourist I tried to ignore the reality and look for something pleasing to make me feel good about my visit.  And I did find this.  Walking along the water front, viewing the Renaissance Center, and walking through monuments in Hart Plaza I had my tourist experience.  I smiled and posed for the camera.   I read the inscriptions on the monuments.  And then we left Detroit for the suburbs, like most of the citizens of Detroit have done themselves.

I returned home to Baltimore, which like Detroit, is a city in distress.  But Baltimore has been a little more fortunate and has had some opportunity to turn itself around, and it makes me wonder if Detroit has a chance.  I have also questioned how can great cities like Baltimore and Detroit go to ruin.  Who is to blame?  Do we blame the racial divides of the 1960's.  Do we blame the failure of the car industry?  Do we blame the unions, the Democrats, the Republicans, the immigrants?   As I was gassing up my Nissan Sentra this afternoon I realized that perhaps I have to take some of the blame.  I shop at WalMart and Target for convenience and for thrift and buy all of their imported goods.  I drive a Nissan.  My underwear have a tag inside them that says made in Columbia.  I have watched the factories close around me.  And yet there I am standing on the waterfront in Detroit playing the good tourist and taking photos. 

I spent last weekend in Detroit.  This weekend I will most likely be singing some Motown song at karaoke in my local bar.   Life goes on.

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