Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A boarding, not boarded, house

Calling Detroit the 'American Hiroshima' is not entirely right

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DETROIT -- In a cozy, panelled pub on Woodward Avenue, round about sunset time, I am trying to decide between the "House-Smoked Duck & Wild Mushroom Pasta With Sherry-Romano Crème" and the "Lake Michigan Whitefish, Marinated In Milk, Crusted w/Seasoned Flour And Flash-Fried, Accompanied With Cole Slaw And Miss Linda's Tartar Sauce."


Selecting the fish, which I envision being gaffed from a wooden rowboat by an old-timer from Petoskey who retired after 40 years building Oldsmobiles, I then am confronted with an extensive and tempting Bellini menu, not to mention a fine Veuve-Cliquot Ponsardin Brut at only $70 a bottle.

The fare is so creative, the beverages are so emulsifying and the clientele is so convivial that only two things serve to remind me that I am dining in the Midtown district of blighted Detroit: a sign on the door of the Union Street Restaurant, which warns against a rash of car smash-ins just around the corner, and the drink that I finally order, which is a lovely pale ale named Ghettoblaster.

"I got a story, ain't got no moral," the jukebox is playing from a speaker above my booth; it's the late Billy Preston from 1973. "Let the bad guy win every once in a while."

In Detroit in 2012, the bad guys win so often that it takes a core of courage and hope to seek out the points of light. Much of what you hear of the American Hiroshima is true: acres of abandoned stores, factories, schools, garages, rail yards and three-storey homes, bashed and boarded, standing alone or in sad, serried ranks on what once were streets of striving. (Three thousand houses have been torn down so far, leaving 16,000 vacant ones still standing.)

Several square blocks, scraped clean by eager volunteers, are being reclaimed as prairie farms. The mayor says 50 per cent of Detroit's able residents are unemployed. The homicide rate here, per capita, is twice that of any other major U.S. city.

In recent decades, 60 per cent of the population either headed for the hills or was slaughtered.

Unable to afford copper wire, light bulbs or workers to screw them in, the city must let miles of streets go dark from dusk till daybreak.

Driving just a few blocks from the over-bright riverfront, where the Red Wings, Lions and Tigers are cheered by crowds of fanatic Caucasians who then flee to the suburbs or Canada, one enters a burned-out, blacked-out zone of pervasive dereliction. Even at 5:30 on a winter's afternoon, the sense of menace in the shadows is heart-stopping.

In the middle of one of these benighted swaths, within view of the Motor City Casino and the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor, a two-storey brick building stands as a small bastion against total surrender. This is the newly opened Hostel Detroit, praised in out-of-town newspapers and magazines by writers who, one archly guesses, just popped by for a midday look-see and then scurried back to the Hilton.

What they found -- and what I found, after booking a room -- was a tidy little boarding house with a modern kitchen, a faux fireplace, bunk beds in a dormitory, fresh flowers in the communal bathroom, a good selection of VHS tapes and popular novels and a sign near the door that quotes the Dalai Lama: "I feel that we must consciously develop a greater sense of Universal Responsibility."

Among my fellow transients is a young man from the imperial city of Kazan, Russia, who is studying urban sociology, a Chinese tourist named Zhang and a chef from Washington, D.C., who tells me he is going to open a new restaurant in Detroit in time for Valentine's Day and who predicts "military-industrial rule is going to be imposed on the entire country as soon as Barack Obama is re-elected, starting with guess where? Chicago."

In my private boudoir, which rents for $47 a night, I have a double bed with a plastic under-sheet, an Electrophone Solid State AM-FM-Stereo radio, a 30-centimetre globe circa 1982 (Yugoslavia, two Germanies, the Central African Empire) and a swivel chair with a tag on the back that says PROPERTY OF CITY OF DETROIT.

The front door opens with a combination emailed only to pre-paying customers. Walk-ups are not admitted. A padlocked parking lot offers security, and there is a working street light out front.

From a small but growing roster of hipster clubs, high-tech hangouts and earnest restaurants, the new Detroit by evening beckons after check-in: dots of possibility on a blackboard of a failed yesterday. Firmly locking my little room, I drive away.

The whitefish at Union Street, I am pleased to say, is delicious, and no one breaks into my car. When I return, well-fed, to Hostel Detroit, some optimist has written in chalk above the guest book, "WELCOME HOME!"


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 J11

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