Monday, 19 January 2015

Some strolls in Detroit, a warning about safety - and how cars are keeping people apart

On Sunday, January 11, as I have done on the equivalent Sunday for three consecutive years, I flew from New York LaGuardia Airport to Detroit for the first day of events related to the annual North American International Auto Show. I took a taxi – the only really viable means of transport – to downtown Detroit for my first meeting. Then, lacking a bicycle – my preferred urban transport option - I started walking.
The Rosa Parks Transit Center: start and end of many of my
Detroit perambulations
I walked from Greektown to the Rosa Parks Transit Center to catch a bus to Windsor, Ontario, where my hotel was (there is, sadly, no way to walk across the Detroit River that marks the international frontier). I walked from Windsor bus station to my hotel and back. I walked from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to Detroit’s eastern market. I walked a mile back to Greektown and then I walked back to the Rosa Parks Transit Center in the evening.

I walked because I dislike being cooped up in cars and paying for taxis. I prefer to get some exercise and see cities on a human level. But an incident part way through the evening reminded me that walking can be a radical – almost political – act, just as cycling is in some circumstances. In cities that have been set up to suit only motor vehicles, someone who walks sets an example of how it’s possible to break established patterns. Each pedestrian on a once-deserted street helps to prove it can be safe to abandon the cocoon of a motor vehicle.
Detroit's magnificent, art deco Guardian Building:
the kind of detail it's worth taking a risk to see.
Yet many of the people I meet when I go to Detroit think I’m simply inviting a mugging or other violent crime by wandering through “dangerous” areas. Some of them, I suspect, would be far from sympathetic if my foolishness led to my being hurt or killed.

It’s an issue that resonates well beyond Detroit. On December 20, it emerged last week, police in Montgomery County, Maryland, forcibly picked up two children – Rafi Meitiv, 10, and Dvora Meitiv, six – whom their parents had allowed to walk home from a park a mile away. The local government’s child services division is investigating the parents for neglect. The numbers of children walking or cycling to and from school in the UK have plummeted.

The walk from the bus station to Eastern Market helped to remind me why walking remains a minority activity in many cities like Detroit. I walked on sidewalks that were in poor repair and closed in places. I passed whole blocks of empty, brownfield space. The motorists using the roads across these wastelands were driving at grossly excessive speeds that made crossing the road an uncomfortable experience. Although most of the sidewalks had been cleared of the recent snow, not all had.

A considerable part of the walk was blighted by the presence in the area of a vast cloverleaf interchange between the I-375 Interstate and the Fisher Freeway. I walked on bridges over each, noting how, as some of Robert Moses' roads did in Brooklyn, they had cut through formerly coherent, walkable communities. Other streets were effectively slip roads for the freeways, with vehicles driving at commensurate speeds. The walk was also, thanks to Detroit’s low-density, sprawling geography, a mile-and-a-half, even though the areas looked close to each other on the city map.
Holy Trinity Lutheran: a stirring reminder
of Detroit's better past
I nevertheless arrived safely and in good time for the event I was planning to cover – the unveiling of some new models by General Motors’ Buick brand. I had the chance along the way to appreciate the fine architecture of Trinity Lutheran Church, a rare surviving reminder on Gratiot Avenue of how this neighbourhood must once have thrived. I was able to marvel at the resilience of the Busy Bee hardware store at the corner of Gratiot and Russell, still standing and serving customers when much of the surrounding area was derelict. I was able to appreciate the skyline – a mixture of modern attempts and redevelopment and art deco from the city’s early 20th century heyday. I spotted how close my next appointment – with Volkswagen in Greektown – appeared to be. I resolved to walk there too.

That resolve remained when I got a call from a colleague who had been at another event and was being driven by its courtesy shuttle service to Volkswagen. “Can my driver stop by and pick you up?” he asked. It was fine, I replied – I would walk. My phone buzzed a few minutes later with a text message. “Driver insisting we pick u up – safety an issue,” it read. My head started whirling with the implications of what my colleague was saying, that the driver was implying my behaviour was so foolish I should be given no choice about persisting in it. “Tell him I walked here,” I texted back. I started on what turned out to be a long search for my coat, for which I’d lost my coatcheck ticket.

I considered, of course, the crime risks – the ones to which my colleague’s driver was referring. It’s undoubtedly true that the Motor City has a serious crime problem. Detroit, with a population of 700,000, in 2013 recorded 316 murders. That’s only just short of the 334 recorded that year in New York, which has a population of 8.4m. I kept my iPhone mostly hidden as I walked, recognising it was one of the most obviously stealable items in my possession. I kept my eyes wide open for any suspicious activity.
A downtown Detroit alleyway: no, even I
probably wouldn't stroll down there.
But warnings against walking in Detroit don’t often feel to me based on careful calculation of the crime risks in any given area. I once had an alarmed auto company executive offer to find me a hotel room somewhere other than touristy Greektown because she presumed the area so unsafe. The warnings tend to come disproportionately from white residents of Detroit’s outer suburbs who never venture into the city proper outside a motor vehicle. Many people’s fears seem to reflect the high numbers of homeless people panhandling for money in some areas. I had one such person shout at me as I walked from the bus station to the Eastern Market. But, while I’ve sometimes had such panhandlers follow me for considerable distances, I’ve never felt seriously in danger.

It is certainly not comfortable to encounter the myriad social problems from which Detroit – which is mainly poor, 85 per cent black and whose city government has only just emerged from bankruptcy - suffers. “It’s because of you I caught my domestic violence conviction!” I heard a man shouting into his iPhone one night at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. “I learnt from the way I saw you treating my mother!” It’s hard, however, to avoid the impression that many non-residents remain instinctively suspicious of the city out of proportion to the current, falling crime levels.

There is no doubt at all, meanwhile, that the thinking that constrains the lives of children like the Meitivs is seriously flawed. Parents typically give far less freedom of movement to children than 40 years ago, yet rates of crime against children are far lower than they were then.
Gratiot Avenue in the snow: my colleague's driver understood
none of why I was prepared to walk in these conditions.
The empty sidewalks show how many people share his opinion.
It consequently felt like almost a moral imperative when the driver said I shouldn’t be walking to prove that it was indeed possible to do so. Having finally located my coat, I strode purposefully towards the exit. I kept striding even once I’d discovered, to my mild consternation, that it had started snowing steadily while I was inside. I was soon on my way back down Gratiot Avenue, face buried in my collar against the wind, towards the Volkswagen press event. Later that evening, my colleague and I both walked to the bus stop by the entrance to the cross-border tunnel. On the way, we saw almost no-one outside a motor vehicle. The walking felt mundane, rather than risk-laden.

In the days since, however, the experience of getting around Detroit and Windsor by bus and on foot has played on my mind. I’ve been considering it particularly over the past weekend, which includes a holiday to remember Martin Luther King, jr, the civil rights leader. In that context, the name of Detroit’s central bus station – the Rosa Parks Transit Center – has seemed especially apposite. It was Ms Parks – who spent the last several decades of her life in Detroit – who drew Dr King into the civil rights movement through her famous refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for a white man.
Downtown Detroit in auto show week: it looks smart -
but what would Martin Luther King make of the way
its people get about?
The battle over shared space on buses that Ms Parks set off was possible, it occurs to me, only because black and white people in Montgomery were indeed sharing space on public transport. Such a struggle is unthinkable in contemporary Detroit largely because white and black people so seldom share space when getting about. They are closeted either in private motor cars or on a bus system that almost no whites use

It would be fatuous, of course, to claim that my stubborn determination to walk a few times in Detroit did anything to alter those dynamics. The risks of crime in the city are real and substantially higher than in New York, which remains less safe on average than the UK. My stance will look less clever if, one day, I find myself beaten to a pulp over my phone or laptop – or worse.

But, as I walked past lonely, derelict buildings, I imagined how the now-abandoned stores must once have relied on passing foot traffic. The scaring away of pedestrians after Detroit’s 1967 riots must have marked the beginning of their end. It is hard to imagine the city’s reviving without its becoming far more comfortable for far more people, as I did, to devise a route to a destination a mere mile away, put his or her head down and get there under his or her own power.