Next stop was Detroit, a city that possibly has more sobriquets that any other place. Motown, Motor City, Rock City, The D, Paris Of The Midwest and so on. If Milwaukee is an unlikely holiday destination, Detroit is probably even further down most peoples vacation list. If you went into the travel agents and tried to book a fortnight here you’d probably be told that it’s not safe, it’s like a war zone and there’s nobody left in Detroit! Nonetheless I’ve always fancied going. Detroit has an incredible rich history and culture. Admittedly I was a little put off by its dangerous reputation and lack of accommodation. Centrally located hotels tend to be business-orientated and thus expensive. When I discovered that there’s a hostel in Detroit I was a little surprised and certainly intrigued. The hostel turned out to have some of the best reviews I’ve seen on TripAdvisor, and I believe they are genuine reviews too! Hostel Detroit is located not far from downtown Detroit, maybe a twenty minute walk. The TripAdvisor/Yelp reviews suggest that the area was fine in daylight so I stuck my bankcards and passport down my undies and gave it a go!
Most of the walk to the hostel is down Michigan Avenue which contains quite a few nice looking bars, shops and eateries. Nothing dodgy so far. The last few blocks to the hostel would’ve been a bit of a surprise if hadn’t previously checked it out on Google Street View. Over the years Detroit, for a whole variety of reasons, has suffered a massive population decline. In 1950 over 1.8 million people lived in Detroit. Today that figure is under 700,000. Many people have moved out to the suburbs, with the metropolitan area population of 4.3 million still being one of the largest in the US. Losing almost 2/3 of the population, combined with Detroit covering a huge area (it was of course the birthplace of the car), has meant that there is a huge issue of empty houses and abandoned neighbourhoods. On Youtube there are countless videos of almost ghost town areas. Unoccupied houses tend to be a magnet for crime, particularly arson. Therefore there has been a recent policy of demolishing empty old houses that have fallen into disrepair. This has left huge open spaces where streets of homes once stood. If it wasn’t for the grids of roads you’d never have known that these were once thriving neighbourhoods. The area where the hostel is located, Corktown, is such a place. All this was explained to me by Evan, one of the people who runs the hostel. Hostel Detroit was set up five years ago to provide visitors somewhere to stay who want to have a look at this unique city. The hostel is set in a renovated old house that has been done up nicely. Surrounding the hostel are blocks of streets that have been levelled with grass growing over them. The odd house still remains. These tend to be either in good condition, in the process of being done up, or dilapidated. While I took some photos of the general area I didn’t want to take pictures of specific houses. Photographing homes of less well-off people is disrespectful and I find the fascination that some television programs have with poverty porn to be fairly distasteful. Also I didn’t want someone to see me, think that I was taking the piss and coming out to beat me up! Apparently the residents tend to be either those who’ve stayed here all their lives or people who’ve moved in recently to take advantage of low property prices. Evan said that house prices in Corktown are on the up, with the area becoming quite hip.
Corktown is a historic Irish immigrant neighbourhood, hence the name. There’s still a row of Irish bars remaining that were situated next to what was the old Tiger Stadium, the spiritual home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. Although demolished in 2009, there were remains still present until June of this year. However since then the land jas been completely excavated to make way for a kids community baseball park.
While Corktown is what Kirstie and Phil would describe as an up-and-coming area, the obvious question is whether it is safe. Evan is clearly a huge advocate of Detroit and when I arrived he went through a map of the city in great detail, pointing out the things of interest. He assured me that all of the areas on the map (which included Corktown) are fine if you use the usual common sense street smarts; look confident and like you know where you’re going, don’t flash fancy stuff around, don’t go out alone after dark, etc. Apparently the really dodgy areas are off the map and would have little interest to the average tourist.
I walked across Corktown to the local supermarket. My natural instincts from the empty plots of land would suggest not to walk around here. However what I saw was a different scenario. The few pedestrians looked much like any respectable people you’d see walking down the street anywhere else. Plenty of hipster-looking people on bikes were taking advantage of the flat and generally quiet roads. Many of the empty blocks of land seemed to be looked after with the grass mowed and a few park benches in place.
Just before the supermarket is the infamous Michigan Central Station. This is possibly the most famous image used to portray the decline of Detroit. The building was the main railway station serving Detroit until it closed in 1988. To call it grand is an understatement. Since closing it has fallen into a state of disrepair. Being on the National Register of Historic Places though means that it can’t be easily demolished and today it just stands there with nobody knowing what to do with it. For anyone who likes clapped out historical buildings this one is a classic.
Diagonally opposite Michigan Central Station is a row of fancy looking businesses, one of which is Slows Bar BQ. Pretentious name aside, I can’t recall ever having a better chicken sandwich than the one I had here today. I then headed back to the hostel because while I’ll listen to people who tell me that it’s fine to walk around Corktown, there’s no chance I’ll be doing it after dark!