By John Ruberry
I hit the road last week–to a regular stop for me–Detroit–my fourth visit there. Coincidentally last Monday, when I arrived, was the first day that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lifting of Michigan’s ban on indoor dining, replaced by low-capacity dining, took effect.
Yet central Detroit was still nearly void of people last week.
During my first visit, in 2015, while I noticed a fair amount of bustle on the streets and sidewalks downtown, I also walked past empty skyscrapers. On my next trip, two years later, most of those same buildings were occupied or being rehabbed. And the city’s light rail line, the QLine, an expensive and impressive showpiece, had just opened. As I noted at the time on my own blog, these trolley cars ironically echo Detroit’s monorail, the People Mover, the 1980s Stalinist boondoggle championed by Coleman Young, the five-term mayor of Detroit who may have been a closet communist. Both the QLine and the People Mover serve only the downtown area. They look stunning though.
Also in 2017 Little Caesars Arena opened in the adjacent Midown part of the city. It brought the Detroit’s NBA team, the Pistons, back to the city for the first time in nearly four decades. The NHL team, the Red Wings, made the short jump from downtown’s Joe Louis Arena to Little Caesars too. Since the early 2000s the NFL entry, the Lions, and its MLB team, the Tigers, have been playing downtown. Which made the many gamedays in central Detroit a magnet for hungry and thirsty people with fat wallets. Now the teams play in front of no fans.
Quicken Loans has been based in Detroit since 2009 and is now America’s largest mortgage lender. While Detroit is still the Motor City it is the Mortgage City now too.
But meanwhile in the neighborhoods the decline of Detroit continued. For urban explorers like myself, that is, people who photograph or shoot videos of abandoned homes, factories, offices, churches—am I leaving anything out?–oh yeah, schools, there is no shortage of material to work with.
Things looked even better for Detroit when I spent a day there in 2019.
Then COVID-19 hit. Whitmer’s statewide lockdowns have been among the nation’s most restrictive. As I witnessed in Chicago last year, the streets were also eerily empty in Detroit in 2020 according to media reports, such as this one from AP in October:
Downtown Detroit was returning to its roots as a vibrant city center, motoring away from its past as the model of urban ruin.
Then the pandemic showed up, emptying once-bustling streets and forcing many office workers to flee to their suburban homes.
And if you work for Quicken and its Rocket Mortgage wing, many of your job responsibilities, perhaps all of them, can be done from a suburban home, as Quicken performs most of its transactions online.
But lets say you need to come downtown for your annual review. What else is there to do? On Day 1 of the partial-lifting of the indoor dining lockdown, it looked to me that about half of the restaurants there were still closed. Most retail outlets were shuttered. And all of the shops and eateries were closed at the Little Caesars Arena, where I hoped to buy a hockey souvenir for Mrs. Marathon Pundit. But of course there is always Amazon to fall back on for that. Oh, Kid Rock’s Made In Detroit restaurant at Little Caesars closed last spring, although that departure had nothing to do with COVID.
So in downtown Detroit last week you still had to struggle to find a place to eat. Yes, there were a few of those ludicrous tents outside some eateries–by the way temperatures were in the 30s all last week during our visit.
Story continues below photograph.
Part of the allure of big-city centers has been the array of shopping and cultural choices offfered. That’s mostly gone now in Detroit. Sure, New York, Chicago and other large cities are facing similar challenges under COVID lockdowns, but many of their eateries and shops have been operating for decades. And yes, such businesses usually have narrow profit margins but being a going concern for many years means there will be an established customer base that might remember you a few years later. What if you are a Detroit boutique that has been open only for a couple of years?
Back to those cultural choices: The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of America’s premier art museums. I wanted to attend Wednesday but the DIA was sold out that day. I was able to purchase tickets, online of course, for myself and my traveling companion the following day for one of the available time slots. And do you know what? Outside of employees there couldn’t have been more than 50 people inside the sprawling museum when we were there. I’m confident that Wednesday’s “sold out” day wasn’t much different. On the positive side I was able to stand and stare in front of the DIA’s four Vincent van Gogh paintings as long as I wished–there was no one to push me aside and tell me, “You’re done, now it’s my turn.” Yes, we were forced to wear masks and we had our temperature taken at the museum’s entrance. Precautions were taken.
My companion visited Dearborn’s Henry Ford museum on Tuesday–a fabulous place that I experiended in 2015–and it was nearly empty too, I was told.
The Motown Musuem in New Center remains closed, it re-opens February 18. Man, oh man, we really wanted to see that place.
Will COVID-19 and Michigan’s lockdowns kill Detroit’s revival?
Many people have their life savings and their mortages invested in small businesses that have been closed for months in Detroit and other large cities.
The dominos will start falling. Which is something most Detroiters know a lot about.
John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.