Monday, July 8, 2013

Ghosts of Futures Past

This past weekend, a friend of ours got married in Detroit - his now wife's home town. On the plus side, the wedding was rather lovely - quite a good time was had with a great group of friends. On the minus side, I had to bear witness to what's become of Detroit.

It's not that I've never been to Detroit, before. It's not that my prior trips to Detroit weren't somewhat disturbing. In various IT jobs, I've had cause to travel to Detroit several times in the mid/late 90s and the middle third of the 2000s. Fortunately, I rarely had to go too deep into Detroit and, when passing by the heart of Detroit, it was usually at night. Dunno if it was so much a case then as now, but not having really seen the real Detroit in the light of day was probably a blessing.

The Detroit of 2013 in the stark light of day is ...soul-wounding. Block after block of derelict warehouses, factories, office complexes, apartment blocks and various types of houses. Many burnt-out husks. Windows either graffitoed, smashed or boarded up (usually with graffiti on the boards). Many houses with partially or completely collapsed roofs - either failing from their own decay and the forces of weather or from things falling on them. The ones with external causes were varoiusly-disturbing. All were long-collapsed and left untended. Roofs collapsed by tree-fall were probably the least disturbing. It was the houses with utility poles (or other civic infrastructure) crushing down on them that were perhaps the most disturbing - after all, it's one thing for a single house to be mortally wounded, it's entirely different when you realize that an entire area and its infrastructure have been abandoned.

Graffiti ran the gamut from artless tagging to pieces of art. Much of the graffiti was grim and gang-related. Some was almost "inspired".

Perhaps the most bitter-sweet was the abandoned, derelict school building with "School's out forever" emblazoned in large, colorful letters across the entire length of it the crumbling building. I suppose on the plus side, at least in that kind of desolate landscape, some vandals are at least able to maintain a bit of humor - even if gallows humor. Who knows: perhaps it was technically an art installation. Dunno. In all cases, it was very sobering.

There were also vast swaths of the city that appear to have been razed. Found out that, in many such cases, as neighborhoods died, the city had the stragglers move out since they no longer had the funds to provide EMS services or utilities.

As I was passing down one of the interstates, I saw a sign for one of the mega lotteries with an advertised value of over $80Mn. Given some of the real estate prices I'd heard people quoting - even for the more intact properties, it seemed like I could buy a significant chunk of Detroit with such winnings.

I don't know that Detroit is on a mortal path. But I gotta think the chance of a meaningful recovery is somewhere well less than 50/50. Worse, the same economic forces that created the current Detroit still seem to be at play elsewhere. Makes me dread might be in store for the rest of us.