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CORKTOWN Detroit, Michigan

Michigan Central Station
Michigan Central Station

In October 2012, X-Press Magazine’s Global Correspondent BEN WATSON packed his bags and waved goodbye, after 19 years, to Perth. His mission: to see the whole damn world while he can.

 

Like every other city on the planet, Detroit is a place of contradictions—albeit one with a hard-as-nails reputation that, it must be said, is not totally undeserved. Flying over Downtown into Wayne County Airport, the post-apocalyptic feel of the place is apparent immediately. This is a town whose population has effectively halved since its heyday as an industrial city in the 1950s.

As a budget traveller, you are likely to find yourself smack-bang in the centre of them feels: the historically-Irish neighbourhood of Corktown, located about 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of town. For it is here that Detroit’s only youth hostel is located, and it is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the city’s revitalised riverfront and General Motors’ Renaissance Centre hotel.

When X-Press checked in to the Hostel Detroit, we were told by its friendly and enthusiastic staff that there was currently no power connected to the building. There had been floods upstate somewhere, and so we would conducting our evenings by torchlight and candles until further notice. This meant no wi-fi – nothing – for the next couple of days.

This was somewhat unsettling on a late-afternoon as the sun set amid the ruinous landscapes of Corktown. Half one house here, half another there; a vacant block where a souvenir stand and café once stood. There is a feeling of vulnerability, made more acute by the seemingly endless abandoned parking lots that once serviced Tiger Stadium—an iconic baseball field that closed in 1999 and was demolished ten years later.

Overshadowing everything, the decaying visage of Michigan Central Station, formerly Detroit’s primary means of inter-city transportation and once the tallest train station in the world. The windowless ruins of this grand-old-dame of the American railroad rise 20-odd stories into the air.

It looks, and feels, grim – like the Bomb has dropped. All those preconceptions offered by people who have never been to Detroit suddenly seem validated. The USA is a pretty safe place to visit, but it feels like – surely – if something is gonna go wrong, it will happen here.

Happily, first impressions are mostly nonsense. After all, most people are great, and the people of Detroit have weathered just about every adversity that the universe could possibly throw at them. This is, after all, the town that gave us The MC5, Motown, Eminem and that fostered The Stooges. The grit and determination remains strong, and Corktown is a testament to that.

As the sun rose on our first full day in Detroit, it revealed community gardens amid the ruins. The grounds of Tiger Stadium are maintained by volunteers, no less. Nearby, Michigan Avenue throws up surprise after surprise: PJ’s Lager House, run by absolute legends with live bands four nights a week; Mercury Burger Bar, awesome food, free wi-fi, endless cups of coffee.

Indeed, Hostel Detroit is case in point. In this most unlikely of settings, grassroots small business and community-powered optimism thrive. Americans, as a rule, are friendly people – but there is something uniquely excellent about Detroiters that makes the city a highly rewarding place to visit.

 

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