Why I Love the Motor City
A lot of what has defined our country was born in Detroit. The auto industry, assembly lines, The Temptations, Aretha, Kid Rock and Eminem (even if he’s not your bag, he is one of the most influential musicians in the last 15 years). These days, the news out of Detroit isn’t about new wheels and music. It’s about destruction, ruin and the mass exodus from a city once dubbed “the Paris of the Midwest.” Much of the mainstream news out of Detroit reeks of failure.
Here’s the thing: yes, the Motor City has taken a beating in recent years. Yes, it has a lot to do with the fall of the auto industry. Yes, much of the city is desolate and abandoned (check out this eerie slideshow from Time.com. And yes, all in all, things have been looking bad for D-Town for quite some time. When we decided to bring Bizarre Foods America there last summer, I expected some squalor. What I found amazed me.
Detroit is one of the most culturally diverse cities I’ve visited in a long time. In between those great urban expanses of bleakness, there are inspirational pockets of urban vitality. It’s home to the largest Arab-American population in the country, not to mention its thriving Polish, Mexican and Bengali communities. What’s more, people from all over the United States have relocated to Detroit. I’ve eaten some of the best soul food in the country here. Oh, and did you know that Detroit is home to the largest farmer’s market in the US? Eastern Market is simply amazing, and peppered mostly with entrepreneurs who are bringing this city back in a big way.
Historically, the city of Detroit depended heavily on a single industry. For a long time, it thrived, but when it crashed, it crashed hard. I don’t think turning around big industry is the key to rebuilding Detroit. It’s about a lot of individuals making a difference on a micro level. From farmers to rock stars and everyone in between, this impassioned community is committed to hanging on. Instead of saying “not my problem,” citizens are doing what’s right for the community. I met guys who literally spend their weekends mowing the grass at their local parks because the city doesn’t have the budget for it (of course, this motley group is having a fun while they’re at it. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to drive a souped-up tractor?) There are kitchen guys who ditched restaurant jobs in order to introduce local, artisanal meats to the city. There’s the folks at Amar Pizza who’ve taken an American staple and put a traditional Bengali spin on it. I’d argue that this kind of cultural cross pollination defines America, and it’s the kind of thing Detroit is doing well, maybe even doing it better than any other city in the country. Out of an absurd challenge, has come a renaissance.
If I was a betting man I would be taking Detroit and giving the points, even doubling down. Plenty of people gave Detroit up for dead, and maybe it was already dead and no one knew it, but this city is gaining traction in its neighborhoods and small enclaves of commitment and its thrilling to see. I can’t wait to get back there.
Catch Bizarre Foods America: Detroit Mon, Feb. 20 at 9|8C on Travel Channel.