Cops and Cathedrals – Part I

For me, really embracing Detroit means being a wreckage dork first

Downtown Detroit Lives_©Where Excuses Go to DieI’m in Detroit this week and have assorted free days to leave the safe confines of my host’s Grosse Pointe neighborhood for Mad Max Island, aka downtown.

I’m sitting at a table with coffee now, preparing  for the 21º weather and listening to police scanner feeds covering Wayne County, which itself is like sticking my hand into a bucket of ice water before it’s poured over my head.

Off Waverly Street, a policewoman reports, a fight between two women has just ended with one holding the other’s hand in a car door and breaking it. A suicidal man is offering to kill himself, but through police observations from across the street, he has a severely autistic adult in tow who is resolutely unwilling to step away.

“Daughter is threatening mother with a gun over a check” crackles over the air, followed by an officer in another location answering a call involving “a group of people” attempting to “force their way into a home” where workers are inside. Aside from that literal siege, a mile away, an actual home invasion is announced as being “in progress.”

EVERYONE LOVES A COMEBACK_©Where Excuses Go to DieAfter a silence, two officers report they’re on the lookout for kids witnessed breaking into a boarded up church who are now throwing chunks of stained glass from the tower.

You notice two things right off the bat, listening to Detroit Police Dispatch. First is how observational the police role in this city has become: very few perpetrators will be confronted unless and until it’s absolutely necessary, and even then there’s no guarantee. This metropolis simply doesn’t have the depth or funding to risk a showdown with its citizens.

Detroit Police Dispatch_©Where Excuses Go to DieSecond is how casual some officers’ reportage seems. It isn’t neglectful: it’s pared down and practical in a fancy-radio-jargon-went-out-the-window-long-ago kind of way. In contrast, LAPD code speak and radio chatter sounds sorta stuck up; at least to civilian ears, it’s far more “regulation” (and thus ambiguous). That’s probably unfair to the LAPD, but it’s as if these things are extras Detroit can no longer afford. I’ve seen two police cars in four days.

I’ve been to this city before, taking tributary routes off Jefferson, Mack, and Michigan Avenues into the night, into the snow, sneaking around, and exploring block after block of burned out houses. I have hardcore stair-climber guides (yet), so I haven’t sat in silence 22 floors up, in one of the many abandoned office towers, but it’s a goal. During my last visit I found myself belly up to a bar with a bunch of laid-off auto workers a few days before Chrysler got its bailout from the federal government.

BELESSED ARE THE PORCHES FOR THEY ARE WHERE CHILDREN LEARN_©Where Excuses Go to DieDriving through this part of Michigan is alternately inspiring and incredibly disheartening. Inspiring for the community victories that will reinvent –are reinventing– this city, and disheartening for the cards stacked against them. But because it’s demise has been so well covered by one of my personal heroes, Charlie LeDuff, and more controversially by Anthony Bourdain, and Detroiturbex – I’ll stick to how this applies to my own experience.

The Sidewalk Doesn't End_©Where Excuses Go to DieI don’t find 36 square miles of subjective hazards and urban desolation disappointing just because to some it means that American pride has been reduced to car exhaust. I don’t believe the way things have been qualifies them for the way things should stay, and I also don’t believe that’s necessarily bad. I believe in evolution, and we have yet to see what Version 2.0 (or 7.0, for that matter) can mean to a major U.S. city.

Abandonned churches seem as strange as echos that grow louder_©Where Excuses Go to DieWhat does get to me, though, is that the trust one comes to have in buildings, in industrial architecture, is blown apart here. It’s all but gone. And it’s not just address after address of gorgeous, 1920s brick homes now standing empty, some with giant trees on top and others burned to a crisp. Encountering massive stone cathedrals, beautiful and old but now just gutted, battered, and lost, bums me out tremendously.

TWO HOTELS ONE SMILE_©Where Excuses Go to DieWhat this all comes down to for me is how much we –Angelenos, Americans, and more fortunate citizens of the world– take for granted. The fact that there’s really no excuse for doing so weighs on me.

Corn flake-sized snow has now entered the equation with strength. It won’t deter us from exploring The Whittier. I know what all of these structures look like covered in white –and it’s not much of an improvement. But have you ever met someone you really like and come away hoping they like you just as much? That’s how I feel about Detroit. Kinda takes me back to school, when I found that the kid in the wheelchair was almost always the best judge of character.