Travel: Detroit: hitsville is just the pitsville

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The Independent Travel
RUSSIA'S FOOTBALLERS must be cursing their luck. Honolulu and Las Vegas were among the glamorous but unsuccessful bidders wishing to stage World Cup matches. Even places with a modicum of soccer heritage, such as Tampa Bay, were turned down. So Russia (along with Romania, Sweden and Switzerland) has been consigned to Detroit, America's prototype for post-industrial devastation, probably the worst place in the United States for a football match - or anything else.

Look through your old 45s for US pressings of Motown singles. The label features a map of the state of Michigan. Just above the 'T' of Motown is a bright red star picking out Detroit. A grim little blot on the landscape would be more appropriate. Whatever malaise afflicts the Western world, it is more acute in Detroit than anywhere else on the planet.

You would not think so, though, to arrive at the somnolent suburban airport and rent a car - the only way to get around in Motor City USA. Detroit is where the American auto industry was born, and where it is currently dying. I was driving along in one cause of the decline, a Toyota.

It all begins pleasantly enough. You whisk through self-satisfied suburbia, decorated with a wealth of trees and carpeted in green. On the genteel fringes of Detroit, signs invite you to report illicit garbage disposal by dialling 1 800 44 TRASH or 22 GET EM.

Gradually the scenery degenerates and the billboard messages become more sinister: 'Injured?

1 800 LAW SUIT', advises a firm of attorneys. 'Gangs, Guns, Drugs - had enough?' enquires the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It suggests the crime-weary 'Call 1 800 ATF GUNS'.

Law enforcement has its perks, however. Outside Church's Chicken Restaurant, the sign 'Police Eat Free' offers food in return for a security presence.

The epitome of the Motown meal can be ordered (but not eaten) at Rally's Hamburgers, a go-faster burger joint. Such is the obsession with speed that this 'drive-thru' even provides pre-packed change - your 71 cents change for a pre-processed dollars 4.29 meal arrives in an envelope next to the ketchup.

The dominant feature of the skyline is General Motors' headquarters, a Stalinesque folly of four towering monoliths which at one time controlled the greatest corporation in the world. Between the Seventies and Nineties, things went horribly wrong. Even Berry Gordy's record company moved to California in 1972, leaving behind a string of glittering oldies and the Motown Museum.

'Hitsville USA' announces the awning at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, a modest suburban villa. Berry Gordy bought it 35 years ago, and installed in the front room a studio which now looks laughably primitive but which in the Sixties provided the world with much of its popular modern musical heritage. The Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson broke out of the ghetto and into the charts from here.

Detroit's World Cup venue, the Pontiac Silverdome, is 30 miles north of the city. It is named, like the automobile marque, after the town against which it nudges. Pontiac turns out to be the Luton of the United States, a scruffy manufacturing town in the midst of rolling countryside.

World Cup history is being made here: for the first time a match is to be played entirely under cover. The hallowed Astroturf has been covered by a layer of natural grass, which will be ripped up as soon as the last game is over.

Just the other side of the freeway lies a crumbling missile base, intended to defend Detroit against Soviet attack. Downtown, you suspect the defences failed. The heart of Detroit looks as though a squadron's-worth of nuclear weapons have been sprinkled on what was once a well-to-do metropolis. Even England 'fans' would be hard-pressed to do more damage.