I’ve always found the best way to read a city’s mood is on a bicycle. You move at a speed that allows for a kind of mutual handshake with the urban topography.
This past summer I shook hands with Detroit. Specifically, I signed up for Slow Roll, a mass social bike ride. Slow Roll (pronounced “Sloow Roooooooooll!”) was co-founded seven years ago by Jason Hall and Mike MacKool as a small, motley group of cyclists who bonded while riding motorless in the Motor City, evading the police and potholes and irate drivers. Over the years, Slow Roll has evolved and grown up alongside its hometown and now the Detroit police escort as many as 4,000 Slow Rollers on a weekly ride designed to highlight one of the city’s many historic neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, the Slow Roll I was supposed to take part in was canceled hours before its start because of a threatening thunderstorm. But, as the old saying goes, “80 percent of life is showing up.” So I showed up.
The Slow Roll gathering point, in front of the old Masonic Temple, was a ghost town. There was me, a young African-American man named Woody who had been Slow Rolling since the beginning (“Since before the beginning”) and three middle-aged white women who had come in from the suburbs. This was their first Slow Roll and they hadn’t heard the ride had been canceled.
“Don’t worry,” said Woody. “They’re coming.”
The women looked doubtful beneath their bicycle helmets. Not too long ago suburbanites rarely came downtown. I remember visiting Detroit in 2001 and being unnerved by how empty the streets were. It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie. The national media participated in constructing this portrait of Detroit as the ultimate failed American city, artfully feeding the public’s appetite for ruin porn with photos of decaying buildings, majestic theaters crumbling into dust, trees sprouting through walls.
Over the last five years, however, Detroit’s downtown corridor has seen a veritable explosion in real estate investment. Much of this growth was precipitated by Dan Gilbert’s now-famous decision to move the headquarters of his mortgage lending company, Quicken Loans, to a building overlooking Campus Martius Park in 2010. Mr. Gilbert, the “mayor of Gilbertville,” as he is sometimes mockingly called, now owns a significant portion of the downtown, over 60 properties in all. Today, the sidewalks of Gilbertville are packed with millennials taking a break from beach volleyball to sip craft beer and nibble on artisanal pickles.
As capitalism returns to Detroit’s downtown in all its feverish forms, you can see the city materialize before your eyes. It’s like watching hot lava cool: There is Gather, the trendy new communal table restaurant; there is the Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the Pistons and Red Wings; there is the new Q-Line streetcar whispering down Woodward Avenue; there is the future home of Shinola’s boutique hotel (another Gilbert joint).
In Detroit, the future is still being written. Time and time again I felt giddy with possibilities, informed in large part by the innovators I was talking to. Yet many of these same innovators — community activists, artists, small business owners — took issue with the trendy notion of a “New Detroit,” as this term largely ignored the fiercely independent and creative spirit that has existed in the city for decades and made Detroit such a haven for creatives and visionaries in the first place.
Indeed, those who have been here for the long haul were skeptical that the massive redevelopment downtown would translate to any kind of sustainable change in the surrounding neighborhoods, areas that largely bore the brunt of the Motor City’s long decline. How Detroit navigates the various dangers of regeneration and gentrification seems a particularly poignant question given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit race riots that exposed the deep tensions ingrained within a city that remains one of the most segregated in the country.
BACK AT THE Masonic Temple, the suburban women were growing restless in their activewear.
“Maybe we should leave,” one of them said.
“Oh, they’re coming. I bet you,” said Woody. “If 100 people show up, you’re buying us all dinner.”
We waited. And sure enough, they started to come. And come. Detroiters, it turns out, will not be discouraged. Out of necessity, they have learned to ignore advice from officials and make do themselves. After all, it was only four years ago that their city declared bankruptcy, the largest American metropolis to ever to do so. The local city government had all but stopped providing essential services. Trash bins went uncollected. Forty percent of all streetlights were out. In many parts of town, the police would not come if you called. Whole blocks were abandoned, blighted. Grass grew tall; the wilderness was reclaiming the city.
But throughout this time, Detroiters persisted, as they always had. Largely left behind by the public sector and a foundering automobile industry, people adapted, bartering for services, trading welding work for a D.J. gig, founding their own recycling program, forming powerful local community organizations that fulfilled the role normally reserved for the government.
Over the years, countless artists like Dabls (“Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust”), Tyree Guyton (“The Heidelberg Project”), and Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert (“Power House Productions”) claimed the city as their canvas, transforming neglected buildings into profound art pieces more affecting than anything found in a museum. Urban farmers converted vacant lots into founts of organic produce. The national narrative from this time was usually about how a once-great 20th-century city was visibly dying before our eyes, but this was also the story of how the citizens of Detroit continued to thrive, redefining what a 21st-century city might look like.
Maybe a 21st-century city looks like a crowd of Slow Rollers. People from all walks of life. All colors. Some were riding beater bikes, some were on tricked-out skull and chrome low riders. Some people were in wigs. Many had elaborate boom box set ups, as though music had been invented solely to play on a social bike ride.
“They’re still coming,” Woody said. “We would’ve gotten 3,000 if they hadn’t canceled.”
We ended up with about 200 riders. The thunderstorm never came. Woody kindly did not point out that the skeptical suburbanites owed us all dinner.
Since this wasn’t an authorized Slow Roll anymore, we lacked both an official leader and a police escort. No matter: we collectively chose a route and policed ourselves, just like the old days. We rolled slow, clanging our bells as we brought traffic to a standstill. To stop traffic in the Motor City using only the power of 400 bicycle wheels is a deliciously powerful feeling. Joy was in the air. Someone was playing D.J. Jazzy Jeff at very loud volume. The city wrapped us in its arms. We rolled down Cass Avenue, over Interstate 75 to Detroit’s newly revamped waterfront, past children cartwheeling through geometric fountains and couples strolling for views. Across the glassy Detroit River we could see the low-slung skyline of Windsor, Ontario.
“Sloow Roooooooooll!” we yelled at Canada.
The man next to me had precariously attached a giant speaker to the back of his bike with a bungee cord and was blasting “Purple Rain.” Prince propelled us. From the waterfront, we turned north, heading up the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a new bike path that traces an abandoned rail line from the river to the hip Eastern Market district, home of a sprawling farmers market and annual public mural festival.
Like the High Line in New York City, the Dequindre Cut is an ingenious piece of industrial adaptation. Sheltered from the city through which it slices, the underpasses of the Cut are adorned with gorgeous commissioned graffiti murals that serve as a kind of public meditation on urban recovery. One piece by the artist FEL3000ft reads, “A star is born through immense pressure and we have had our fair share. That beacon of light you see in the dark is our fair city rising from the night sky.”
THERE ARE PLANS to extend the Greenway into a giant loop around the city. Slow Roll co-founder Mr. Hall wants to start a program that gives every citizen a bike. There is space to dream big in Detroit, to do things that would be impossible almost everywhere else, and this is part of the reason it feels like the most exciting city in America right now.
I met with a group of motivated high school and college students who were working with Phil Cooley, co-founder of the business-incubator Ponyride, and Ben Wolf, a design/build fabricator, to construct the Dequindre Cut Freight Yard, a portable cafe, D.J. booth and pavilion made completely out of modular shipping containers.
“It’s cool to actually be changing the place I live,” said Jose Vasquez, a soft-spoken senior at Western International High School.
“Remind me to tell you about my next project,” said Mr. Wolf as I was leaving.
In Detroit, there is always a next project. Such ingenuity is rife across the city. The day after my bootlegged Slow Roll, I visited Recycle Here!, which, on the surface, resembles your average recycle drop-off center — plastic goes here, newspaper there. Recycle Here! was founded in 2005 by Matthew Naimi, a stocky, bearded man with a barrel laugh and a healthy sense of the surreal. Back then, the city lacked any kind of official recycling program. The Saturday drop-off days, like the Slow Roll, quickly became community events. Everyone came out, traded old junk and started to build weird sculptures out of the refuse.
“And if you’re going to have a recycle center then obviously you need band practice rooms,” Mr. Naimi laughed. Obviously. This spirit of utilitarian-activist-creativism abounds at Recycle Here!’s sprawling facility that includes the Lincoln Street Art Park, an egalitarian space of reuse and collaboration, and site of more than one legendary outdoor party (the motto, “Share Your Candy,” is prominently displayed). Recycle Here! also runs a robust after-school and camp program that educates young people on environmental stewardship and sustainability.
I thought a lot about sustainability during my time in Detroit. We tend to envision sustainable cities in terms of green architecture, renewable energy, an emphasis on innovative mass transit. By many of these metrics, Detroit continues to struggle, in part because its population is scattered across such a massive area, about 139 square miles, of which 40 square miles, an area almost twice the size of Manhattan, stand vacant.
Public transport in the city is woeful. In a famous case of commuter hell, a factory worker named James Robinson had to take a bus partway to work and then walk the other 21 miles round-trip. He would get home at 4 a.m., and have to leave for work again at 8 a.m. Detroit is the largest American metropolis without a proper public transit authority, and much of the resistance to any kind of cohesive transit plan can be traced to a longstanding mistrust between the affluent suburbs and the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
This could be changing. The city just opened its first operating streetcar in over 60 years, the Q-Line, which was largely privately funded and runs from Campus Martius up and down Woodward Avenue for 3.3 miles. The Q-Line has garnered some controversy as being primarily a “show pony” targeted to tourists that does not provide any real commuting benefit to many Detroiters like James Robinson.
Perhaps. But every revolution needs a show pony. This past summer I rode the Q-Line a couple of weeks after it first opened, before a fare was being collected. The tram was packed with young and old, black and white. Everyone had an opinion about the streetcar; everyone was suddenly an expert on the intricacies of urban transportation. As we slid past buildings being thrown up at a lightning pace, I felt a bit like I was on a Disney ride.See the future American City being built before your eyes!
Part of the Q-Line’s uphill battle is that the American City in question is still very much the Motor City, conceived around the encapsulated mentality of the automobile. Again and again I marveled at the efficiency of an Interstate System designed to penetrate deep into the urban grid.
Given that Detroit has lost over 60 percent of its population since the heyday of the 1950s, there is hardly any traffic on these highways, allowing you to essentially get from any two points in about 10 minutes. When I drove, I was early to every meeting. It was the American dream! Except it wasn’t: As I meandered down mostly empty four-lane freeways in my Ford Fiesta rental, I became acutely aware that, unlike on the Slow Roll or Q-Line, I wasn’t meeting anyone. I was alone, trapped in a cocoon. The car, once hailed as the key to every major United States city, is essentially the undoing of organic urban cohesion.
While in the past Ford and G.M. have been accused of ignoring the needs of their hometown, both car companies have begun to shift toward embracing the 21st-century Detroit citizen, who either cannot afford to own a car or else might choose not to. Ford in particular has rebranded itself as a “mobility” company, investing heavily in new ride sharing technology.
I visited Ford’s sprawling campus in Dearborn, Mich., and met with Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions, in a towering white garage space surrounded by Ford Fusions that had been converted into autonomous vehicles, their trunks stuffed full of processors. A nearby screen eerily displayed the world from the car’s perspective. I was a green flickering blob.
“We can’t just think like a car company anymore,” Ms. Robinson said. “We have to become ethnographers. So we went into communities and asked how people were getting around to try and address solutions from the ground up.”
Ford started a competition called Go Detroit Challenge, which funded six Detroit tech companies working on innovative transportation solutions including CART, a program which pairs customers, ride share companies, and grocery stores to enable low-income populations greater access to healthy food.
This year both Ford and G.M. have doubled down on the potent combo of electric vehicles and driverless technology. This was also the year I finally took the plunge and bought Chevy’s all-electric Bolt EV, which features a range of 248 miles per charge. Driving the Bolt for the first time was an emotional experience for me; it was like touching the future. No more gas stations, no more emissions. The clean torque of an electric engine, both whisper-quiet and instantaneous, is addictive. I will never go back.