I’ve just returned from a brief visit to Detroit. My father, step-mother, three brothers and sister live there. So do my three uncles, three aunts, and many of their children.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Michigan since my father and step-mother — who was born there — married in a little town north of Detroit called Fenton almost 30 years ago. This time, I was there for my sister’s wedding. As are the rest of my Michigan family, my sister and her husband are deeply committed to the city. Their wedding — which occurred at the Detroit Historical Museum, under the old, neon, Tiger Stadium sign — was a celebration of the city and its culture. It was a beautiful celebration. They are a beautiful couple.

Plenty has been said in the past few years about Detroit. About it’s decline, really. And yes, the city is broken. Much of it looks like this:


See the layers; how the city is being stripped bare. The two buildings in the foreground — the brick structures on the right and left edge of the picture — are abandoned. The lot in front of both is empty, most likely after the building that used to stand there was left to crumble or burn to the ground. This is common. A visitor standing in this place could look down this very street and see the layering of history in the architecture, working her way from the gilded age through to the late 1970s, when the GM Renaissance center — the shiny towers in the distance — took its place as the tallest structure in Detroit. But she might feel a tinge of shame in her staring, or in her picture-taking, just as I did when I took this picture. Seeing Detroit today is fascinating, but I am an outsider; going from corner to corner, capturing these images of decay, feels like an act of callous intrusion. Almost like standing in the doorway of a dying stranger, taking pictures while the family mourns. My father, though he was born and raised elsewhere, has been a Michigan resident since the eighties and expressed resentment toward the decay-tourists who come just to look upon the death of the city, take pictures, and leave. So here I was, in a way, doing just that.

Except I didn’t see death.

Detroit is enormous. With over 140 square miles within its borders, it’s one of the largest geographical cities in the United States. And yet, its population has declined by more than 60% since it peaked at 1.8 million in 1950. Many cities, of course, have seen that kind of decline as technological and economic change has moved opportunity and people elsewhere. But with 25% of Detroit’s people departing in the first decade of the 21st century, decline no longer seems like the right word to describe what’s happened. For Detroit, it’s as if its veins have been sliced open. Its lifeblood has been poured out and much has been left behind, empty. There’s only so much you can do to protect and maintain what remains. Much of it is gone — buildings condemned and demolished; once grand homes burned — and much of what is left, boarded up. Perhaps to keep squatters out. Perhaps to keep the wilderness from reclaiming it.


In the midst of all of that — all of that “death” — is life. You can see it in what people are fighting to preserve. You can see it in the art that is allowed to be made of the remnants. Graffiti artists, in particular, have made a canvas of Detroit. After the death of one of the most prolific Detroit graffiti artists Sean Griffin, who worked under the name of Nekst, many artists paid tribute to him throughout the city. Upon invitation from Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, several collaborated on this mural, painted across the side of the building facing Woodward Avenue.

From death comes life.


The art museum sits in the midst of a rebuilding neighborhood. It’s a creative class project. It’s gentrification at work. But it’s difficult to be cynical about that when the gentry is moving in to what was simply empty before. And when what remains empty is not just left there to rot, but is attended to with a beautification project with a voice uniquely of Detroit’s own.

And, of course, at the center of all of this, is a coffee shop. Just a couple of blocks down from the art museum is the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company. After a couple of hours of touring the streets in the frigid cold, I stepped inside to find both a thriving business and community. It looks exactly like you’d imagine: Reclaimed wood bar. Edison bulbs. Blackboard menu. Steel espresso maker sitting right next to steel beer taps. And of course, long tables full; customers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder sipping coffee while doing screen things.

Not too long ago, the corner where the coffee shop sits used to look like this (courtesy of Google’s street-view):


Now it looks like this:


Inside, I ordered an Americano. The barista handed me this. A china mug with my order written on it in wax pencil. Something about that handmade touch felt just right. I read it as, “Single shot with Chris.”


It was good.

And you know something is happening when a neighborhood can support a coffee shop selling shots of espresso for more than $2. Love it or hate it, things like that keep cities alive.

Where there is life, there is coffee.

Standing outside the coffee shop, looking back down Woodward toward the art museum, you see this:


This is the Willis Avenue Station. It’s a steam heating plant that has been serving the area since 1904. One hundred and ten years and counting.

Where there is heat, there is life.

Surrounding this area are countless surfaces covered in art. Some of it is part of The Heidelberg Project, a public display of the power of creativity to transform the city. This house — what I found myself calling the house of shoes — I assume to be part of that project. I’m not absolutely sure of it (I couldn’t find any official mention or image of the shoe house online), but it’s either part of the project or a direct inspiration.


Walking through Detroit almost feels like walking through an artist’s book. It’s a work of art in progress. In the images is the full range of human experience — fear, anger, love and hope. It’s beautiful.




Here is a closer view of a building I stopped to photograph just a few minutes after seeing the house of shoes.


There is both cynicism and beauty in this image. That there is both is indicative of the complexity of the situation in Detroit. In case I seem to be romanticizing it, let me be clear: Detroit is in the balance. People are struggling there. People are suffering. And though I found beauty in these images, not everyone does. But however you may feel about them, they are a sign of life.

And life is good.

Written by Christopher Butler on January 22, 2014,   In Essays

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