Few topics related to urban blight will get Detroiters more worked up, both pro and con, than that of the train depot. Once upon a time, it was one of the most beautiful structures in the Midwest, in the country, perhaps in the world. Now, it is a vacant, hulking, rotting, half-looted massive beast of decay.
Nobody (except, apparently, owner Matty Maroun, who was symbolically murdered on the short-lived Detroit 1-8-7, and a handful of post-apocalyptic movie makers) wants the Depot to stay as it is. Tear it down or build it up, but don’t keep it the way that it is.
I’ve been struggling with how to explain why I think it needs to be torn down, and today it struck me.
Imagine you were watching Hoarders. The consultant is listening patiently to the person explaining that the rusty, disgusting hobby horse has to be kept, and in the middle of the living room at that, because it was once so beautiful. “One day,” says the hoarder, “and one day soon, I’m going to repair it and repaint it, and then you’ll see.”
“No, I won’t,” says the cold-hearted but pragmatic consultant, “because you’re never going to do it. You keep talking about it, but how long have you been talking about it? As long as that hobby horse sits in the middle of your living room, unrepaired, collecting spiders and dust, it will remind you of things you haven’t done yet. It was beautiful once, but it’s simply too far gone.”
If Detroit were a guest on the show, I think the consultant would be just as clear, just as cold-hearted, and just as pragmatic: The future date when the depot is going to be repaired is never going to come, and it continues to stand there, one of the first things you seen coming off the Ambassador Bridge.
The most blatant difference is this: At least the hobby-horse-hoarder can legitimately recoil sanctimoniously and claim that he’ll paint it now, darnit! He has that power. He can bargain with the cold-hearted consultant.
The reality is, Matty Maroun owns the Depot, and for his own reasons he refuses to do anything either way with it (although his son and putative future heir wants to at least fix the windows and otherwise make it look less like a ruin). All the power the city really has is to insist on a specific route and threaten retaliation, and, well, frankly, it’s been two years since their declaration of an emergency that necessitated Maroun tear it down on his own dime, and it’s still there. Not a great show of power on the city’s part.
If there were a way to save the depot, if there were a reasonable use for it that would justify the expense of rebuilding it, I would be in favor of it. Perhaps there is, but how much longer do we as a city wait?
I was driving around the city today, and it occurred to me that the biggest problem with Detroit isn’t the vacant lots. Sure, yes, there are a lot of those, but a bigger problem is the way in which houses and businesses get burned out or otherwise gutted and continue standing for years, even decades, after the fact. So many owners have simply given up caring about their property, not even caring enough about the community their properties are situated in to do the service of getting rid of the garbage.
As a city, Detroit is a hoarder. We cling to the past glories. Our biggest event is The Dream Cruise; one of our biggest tourist attractions is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking back on past successes, and one of the recent add-ons to the Henry Ford complex is the River Rouge Tour, a tour of a functioning Ford factory. As long as the purpose of looking back is to inspire us to look forward, then it’s a great thing.
When, however, we’re just looking back because we see nothing in the future to look at, it’s time to tear down the memories to make room for fresh aspirations. When we’ve stopped collecting and started hoarding, it’s time to call in the professional consultants and target the symbols for disposal.
And there’s little that’s more symbolic to this city than the depot.
Now, all that said, if someone were to truly renovate the depot, successfully, now—not in a few years, not as a vision for the future, but now—that would definitely be better than tearing it down. But it’s been so long and there have been so many visions. It’s time. Tear it down, and let’s work on building up the rest of the city.