Space might be the final frontier, but those of us stuck here on earth there’s one city whose name brings to mind death and rebirth. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a theme that’s even incorporated in the city motto: “We hope for better things, it will arise from the ashes.”
I’m talking about Detroit.
It’s the new urban frontier, but this isn’t the 1800’s and the safety valve theory of American expansion is dead and buried. People who move here drawn by cheap land and endless opportunity are often surprised to find an existing population that is uninterested in being colonized by East Coast escapees, an entrenched city government that has held on through Detroit’s recent bankruptcy, and a long list of things they can’t afford, like transportation and clothes.
Located in the heart of the American auto industry, Detroit’s public transportation system is inadequate and often disappointing. Aging buses don’t come on time and often breakdown. The much heralded M-1 rail line will only go 3.3 miles up one street, making it more of a shuttle for suburban visitors parking to go to the new stadium district than a useful form of transportation, and the existing People Mover light rail continuously circles downtown on its 2.9 mile loop. For 75 cents it’s the best way to see downtown, but I can walk from one side to the other in five minutes and given the city’s 142 square miles of land it’s pretty much useless unless you want an excuse to shout “Monorail!”
But why would you take public transportation in Detroit? It’s the Motor City not the Light Rail City, but for those of us who live here the cost to drive is extreme. Detroiters pay some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country and—as a result--more than half of the cars on the road are uninsured. Why the high prices? Part of it is Michigan’s insistence on unlimited liability insurance, but Detroiters still pay around twice the amount of drivers in nearby suburbs. When I moved to Detroit I priced insurance for a new car and it would have been more than rent… a lot more. I ended up in a used station wagon with over a hundred and fifty thousand miles on it, and at times I’ve paid over $300 a month for liability only insurance.
And anyone moving to Detroit is going to need a car for their frequent trips to the suburbs to go shopping. Housing might be cheap, but in the city even basics like blue jeans are expensive.
Those same businesses that have been heralded as proof of Detroit’s rebirth in national newspapers and magazines are untouchable by the people who live nearby. I can buy a house for a thousand dollars through the Detroit Land Bank, but if I want a pair of jeans it’s going to cost… a lot. Walking around Midtown Detroit I can buy locally made jeans perfectly crafted from American grown cotton for $250 dollars a pair (actually, I can’t. My boyfriend can, but for women the jeans are all custom made… which means they cost even more). I could also get a t-shirt made out of technical cashmere that can be thrown in the washing machine. It legit feels like it was made by fairies. I legit cannot afford it; or the underwear handmade in San Francisco; or the watches made a few miles down the road.
A food market in my neighborhood has just been renovated and repurposed as an upscale leather goods store. I haven’t been inside. I have nightmares about the price tags.
So, yeah, there’s blight. Yeah, houses are cheap (in some neighborhoods) and there are streets full of empty storefronts waiting to be turned into pie stores and cute little markets. For people who live in New York City where the rent is too damn high, Detroit might seem like a new frontier full of opportunity.
But it’s still not a cheap place to live.