As I descended into Detroit, I realized I’d lucked out with my window seat. As we flew west, I looked north to this view of the city of Detroit and nearby Windsor:
When I looked out the window to take this picture, I put down my book, Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle. I had literally just finished the astounding story of alcohol being smuggled across this river during Prohibition. Martelle writes:
“…providentially it must have seemed, wartime prohibition laws across the river in Canada ended on January 1, 1920, a little more than two weeks before the American booze spigot was officially shut off” (Martelle, 104).
Powerful forces across this area of America looked to Detroit and the potential for illicit trade just across the Detroit River. There is no estimate for the extent of this underground empire, but both sides of the river saw a new market for rapid growth. And then I read about how this market, artificially created by a constitutional amendment, began to change the lives of locals.
“The smuggling business was so good that Canadian farmers gave up spring planting in favor of rum-running, letting their fields on the south side of the river lie fallow as they moved booze across the river in small launches.”
Everything changed in two weeks for the liquor export business in Windsor and the traditional way of life was left for new enterprise. And then I thought, this whole city has become like a fallow field: left for new opportunities and markets.
Detroit was planted, the city was carefully nourished and developed, and then it was left with no regard for heritage or tradition. The money ran dry (or ran away) and the people left with it. I guess, as much as you love a place, you have to feed yourself and your family. Even if you had a job you might have feared for your life. Detroit became a loser, a bad bet, and an unstable place to live:
“In March 2011, the US Census reported that the population of Detroit…had dropped to 714,000 people, down by a quarter-million since 2000 and by more than 1.1 million people from its peak of 2.8 million residents in 1950…” (Martelle, XII).
As Windsor plodded along at a casual, Canadian pace, Detroit rose to global fame and fell to national shame.
Today, people are overcoming the stigma that descended upon Detroit all those years ago and realizing there is still much to love. I’m amazed by the beauty and drama of the buildings and the potential of the space around them. And I’m not just squinting my eyes and using my imagination.
I don’t know what’s next for Detroit, but I’m glad to be here to see it unfold. The descent has been devastating and has left a shell of a place. I don’t know what Detroit can become without heavy industry, but creative citizens here are working to figure it out.
I’m just a tourist inspired by a story.