Detroit: Is Motor City back in gear?

A century ago, booming Detroit opened its gracious Central Station. Now it's a ruin, and the city's gone bust. But change is in the air, says Chris Leadbeater

The police officer wants to know what I am doing. Not, specifically, in words, but in the way his eyes follow me, over the rim of his polystyrene coffee cup and through the rolled-down window of his parked patrol car as it sits on the cracked, weed-sewn Tarmac.

His facial expression registers bemusement rather than concern. But then, we are the only two people in this deserted drop-off zone. And I am the only person pointing a camera at the building that lurks behind the stern protection of the metal fence. Colossal, decadent and damned, Michigan Central Station gazes back at us – perhaps hoping that, here, maybe, are two passengers to help it fulfil the destiny it has struggled with for a century.

It is 100 years now since this feast of carved marble and unfettered optimism witnessed the arrival and departure of its first trains. It opened its elegant doors in December 1913, the most visible symbol of thriving times in a city on the rise. Detroit, then, was a place of confidence, investment and employment. In June 1903, Henry Ford had founded his celebrated car company in nearby Dearborn, and – along with rivals such as Chrysler, Dodge and Packard – had sparked an automotive boom that would fuel the city's growth.

The station was supposed to cater to a multiplying workforce. For a while, it did. Peering through the barricade, I can still make out some of its splendour: the Neoclassical façade that was crafted by the architects behind New York's Grand Central Station; the 18 floors that rise 230 feet above – epic spaces that were meant to swarm with office staff. I cannot see the interior waiting room that was modelled on an ancient Roman bath house, all sweeping benches and Doric columns – but it is there, mouldering in the damp.

And there is something else. The scent of over-ambition. Perhaps it was also there at the moment the decision was taken to posit the station in Corktown, three miles west of the centre. It was hoped that the flow of people would see businesses sprout in the gap. Instead, while the station's first four decades were busy, it was killed by the thing that had nurtured it, the automobile. Built without a parking lot in a city where the car was king, by the Fifties this proud pile of masonry was inconvenient, obsolete and expensive to run. Its corpse twitched on for a while, but the final train trundled out on 6 January 1988. Only its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 saved it from demolition in 2009, and it exists now in limbo. The Michigan Central Station Preservation Society (MCSPS) wants to restore it to its glory – but with a likely $300m (£200m) needed, this is an unfeasible ideal.

In a way, Michigan Central Station is the emblem of Detroit – the Icarus metropolis that soared on the thermals of the Belle Epoque and the Roaring Twenties, Art Deco hotels and Beaux Arts skyscrapers cascading as its wealth and size mushroomed. Then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the Great Depression, melting the wax in its wings and causing a spiral of decline; car-plant closures, job losses, crime, riots, racial tension and a drip-drip exodus of the middle classes to the suburbs and their malls, leaving Downtown to rot. Detroit has been a bad-news story for half a century now. In no other city would a move to file for municipal bankruptcy – a step Detroit took in July – seem inevitable.

That, at least, is the headline sentiment. And it is easy to dwell upon the damaged side of Detroit. Indeed, for a day, I cannot help myself, driving away from the station to seek out Lee Plaza, a hotel relic of 1929 at 2240 West Grand Boulevard that has stood derelict and windowless since the Nineties, its once gilded ballroom bereft of dancers. Then I turn my attention to the United Artists Theatre at 150 Bagley Street – a lost cradle of the arts that was a Spanish-Gothic wonder on opening night in 1928, but which has been defunct since 1984. And when I drop to sleep, it is in the Fort Shelby Hotel, a refugee from 1916 which was heavily reconditioned in 2008, but whose echoing corridors feel full of ghosts.

And yet there is a Detroit beyond the decay. Glance at the map and you realise that here is a city framed by water – as it was in 1701 when founded by the French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe. He appreciated his chosen location's position on the strait (now the Detroit River) that links lakes St Clair and Erie. The latter is, of course, one of North America's five Great Lakes. In summer, Detroit is a perfect launch-pad for a road trip north in search of two other members of the quintet, lakes Huron and Michigan.

Visitors prepared to tarry in Detroit for a day or three will also notice that this duckling of ugly reputation has swan-like tendencies. It is, after all, a city as ingrained in American folklore as New York or Los Angeles. It has been the proving ground for a raft of musical acts – the smoky blues of John Lee Hooker, the guitar-driven fury of the MC5, the White Stripes and Iggy Pop. It has been referenced by many – David Bowie's apocalyptic vision on 1973's "Panic In Detroit"; the goofy grins of glam-rock clowns Kiss on 1976's "Detroit Rock City". It brings out rage in some: "Look at y'all, runnin' your mouth again, when you ain't seen a mile road south of Ten," raps Eminem on 2000's "Marshall Mathers", a track informed by his tough background in the northerly district of Warren. It urges wistfulness in others: "Speeding on the highway in my little red Mustang. Things were a lot simpler in Detroit," replied Madonna in 1984, when asked what she missed about her home city.

Then there is the soul mother-lode. From 1959 to 1972, West Grand Boulevard hosted a musical revolution that was heard far beyond Detroit. Entering the Motown Museum, I briefly find it hard to equate this tiny structure with the indefatigable songs recorded here – "My Girl" and "Baby Love", "Dancing In The Street" and "The Tracks Of My Tears", "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and "Mercy Mercy Me" – though evidence is everywhere: photos of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson on the walls; the switchboard that a pre-stardom Diana Ross once manned; Studio A, where alchemy was mastered.

The city's cultural side continues elsewhere – in The Henry Ford, a Dearborn museum that shelters historic artefacts accrued by the motoring magnate, including, macabrely, the 1961 Lincoln Continental in which John F Kennedy was shot and Abraham Lincoln's assassination chair from Ford's Theatre. And Detroit Opera House strikes a pose for music at its most elevated in the core of Downtown. Detroit Institute of Art, meanwhile, is one of America's top galleries. For now. Since bankruptcy, there have been whispers that parts of its collection of 60,000 works – which features pieces by Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Degas, as well as US masters such as John Singer Sargent – should be sold to help drag the city from the financial pit. This issue has become a literal hot topic. Last month, two young artists staged an inventive protest, bending scrap metal into the words "#Save The Art", and setting fire to the petrol-infused letters outside the Institute's wide entrance.

Such spirit shows that Detroit's heart still beats. This is certainly so when its helmets-and-headgear stars are in action – particularly the Detroit Red Wings, statistically the greatest American ice-hockey team, with 11 wins in the sport's totemic Stanley Cup. And their baseball counterparts, the Detroit Tigers, are enjoying a fruitful era. Last month, they just failed to make the World Series for a second year running, losing to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series (effectively the semi-final of US baseball).

There are mutterings about the Tigers when I walk into Plaka Cafe on Monroe Avenue, Greektown's restaurant drag. Two construction workers are mulling over the team's defeat by Boston in game three of the series, gloomily eating pancakes. The waitress makes little eye contact as she takes my order, flitting between tables like a hummingbird between flowers, but my corn-beef-and-cheese omelette, when it arrives, is thick and tasty, and my coffee cup scarcely troubled before she swoops in to replenish it.

You could barely describe this scene as a "green shoot" – but it is an intriguing picture of a struggling American city carrying on regardless. There are others: Lafayette Greens, an urban garden where fruit and vegetables burst forth and a farmers' market is held every Thursday on the site of the Lafayette Building – a 1923 office block, demolished in 2010 – and the Grand Trunk Pub, selling 23 Michigan-brewed beers in a former railway ticket office.

The key shard of rebirth, however, is the Guardian Building, a late Twenties skyscraper, lovingly refitted and dedicated to regional government. It is open to all, and when I peek into its Art Deco hall, I find shops and cafés. And Icarus. He is here again, perhaps, in the form of a 1928 mural by the artist Ezra Winter. It depicts a quasi-angelic figure standing tall over a Michigan where machines buzz profitably and mines are inexhaustible. Like Michigan Central Station, it is a sliver of broken time, conceived before the Wall Street Crash that would change everything. Yet, as locals swirl below it, sipping their coffee, buying lunch, it is difficult not to admire Detroit's resilience. Or its raw, bruised beauty.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled to Detroit with American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), which offers daily services from Heathrow via Chicago.

Staying there

Double rooms at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton – Fort Shelby (525 West Lafayette Boulevard; 001 313 963 5600; doubletree.hilton.com) start at $126 (£79), room only.

Visiting there

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue (001 313 833 7900; dia.org). $8 (£5).

Guardian Building, 500 Griswold Street (001 313 963 4567; guardianbuilding.com).

The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn (001 313 982 6001; thehenryford.org). $17 (£10.50).

Lafayette Greens, 132 West Lafayette Boulevard (001 313 227 5555; facebook.com/lafayette greens).

Motown Museum, 2648 West Grand Boulevard (001 313 875 2264; motownmuseum.com). $10 (£6.25).

More information

visitdetroit.com

savemichigancentral.com

michigan.org

greatlakesusa.co.uk

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