Cross-Border Contrasts

With the Green Card interview yesterday (of which Kari has the full story) ending some hours earlier than expected, we decided to walk back along Jefferson from the federal building to our hotel, two blocks from the GM tower, exploring downtown Detroit.

Downtown Detroit contains one of the densest populations of striking 19th century architecture I’ve seen in some time. Beautiful, tall, stone buildings are to be found throughout the downtown area, but they’re almost all extremely neglected. Boarded up windows and empty doorways abound, and aside from the Renaissance Center and a handful of office buildings, the only lively properties are casinos (largely established in 1996 to compete for tourist dollars with neighbouring Windsor). It’s one of the starkest examples I’ve yet seen of the devastating impact of urban sprawl, and deeply depressing. Looking upwards to the decorative tops of buildings was an inspiring experience, but the eyes’ journey back down to earth was sobering.

We had been taken aback when our immigration officer, Stephen, told us of his 90 minute (each-way) commute, but walking through the city and then driving back to Grand Rapids it was quickly apparent why he should have to drive so far. Public transport was scarce, and the only new development we saw in the downtown was yet another car seller.

By contrast, Windsor, Ontario was a pleasant place to visit. The areas we walked around didn’t have the grandeur of their neighbours across the river, but there was a lively feel to the downtown area and a pair of buses were among the first sights to greet us as we emerged from the tunnel linking the two countries.

I don’t have the background knowledge to make a judgement on why the contrast is so marked, but Windsor seemed evidence that a downtown area provides many visitors with their key impression of a city. If the ideas of groups like the new urbanists were to be applied to Detroit, it could be a stunning destination, an urban centre of considerable elegance, and perhaps downtown workers could be tempted to a life without 90-minute commutes.



  1. I remember listening to a news story on the radio about someone who got into those old buildings in Detroit. I’m not sure, but I think they might post their experiences online.

  2. Interestingly, the superbowl could end up making a difference. There’s been a law passed that owners of ‘not up to code’ Detroit buildings either fix up their properties or sell. Although, I fear that the neglect is on such a scale that owners of these buildings wouldn’t have much choice other than to sell.

    All this to make way for the superbowl coming to Detroit next winter. I’m not convinced this will make a difference, but it should be interesting. Though, judging by your report, Detroit has a long way to go by this next winter.

    And, in all fairness, there are SOME nice areas of Detroit proper. The northwest side, in particular has some pretty areas. On the whole, though, I think your assessment of urban sprawl is dead on.

  3. Thanks, guys. As ever, I have some reading to do!

    I hadn’t heard that the Superbowl was going to be in Detroit. I hope it works as a spur for further development, cause something needs to break that cycle of decay, decreasing population, and services that crumble with the reduced tax income.