“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here”- David Byrne.
I found myself in Detroit, Michigan on an unexpectedly pleasant October week asking myself just that question.
On one level, of course I know how I got here: Delta Airlines. I am not that reckless :).
On a whole other level, and the level that David Byrne was clearly referencing in Once in a Lifetime, I was quite confused.
How did the sequence of events in my life come together that lead me here?
To this forum…
In this city…
With this group of people….
Is there a reason for it? Was it “meant to be” for any reason? Or is it a result of decisions I made aggregated over the course of time? Had I made these decisions differently, prioritized things in my life in a different order, or just paid more attention to a few specific things, would it have lead to a result that is significantly different?
This song was on my mind because last time I was in Detroit, way before I even had the idea to start writing about my travels, I recorded a dance to this music video at the Henry Ford Museum.
This was in 2008, a time when Detroit was at some kind of a low point. The story of Detroit is familiar to many, as it has been written about extensively.
As the headquarters to America’s three biggest car manufacturers, the city was prominent and prosperous in the middle of the 20th Century. However, it fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th Century due to a combination of customers increasingly buying foreign cars and the decline in manufacturing in the U.S.
Nearly every time anyone writes about Detroit, they write about the city’s economic fortunes, often making points about social issues, economic policies, etc. Even when I came to Detroit with no desire to address the city’s economic misfortune and current attempts at recovery, it is hard to escape. Evidence of it is everywhere.
Visitors from other parts of the country kept telling me how eerie it felt; the lack of crowds, empty streets and mostly empty bars. Even acknowledging that these were all weeknights, it still felt different than what most people experience in urban areas throughout the country.
The history, as well as current state, of any place is always going to be a part of any travel experience. And, for Detroit, this includes the history people focus on (decline from 1960-2008), but also some of its history prior to this.
Strangely enough, despite the fact that Detroit is “The Motor City”, and best known for its role in the automobile industry, much of its history, and many of the interesting attractions, can actually be reached without a motorized vehicle.
Within downtown, one can walk to many of the city’s historical, and current attractions.
For those willing to walk a mile, the only places that really require vehicular transportation are the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum. The Cobo Center, all the attractions along the Riverfront, Detroit’s historic Opera House, the Fox Theater, the venues for all of Detroit’s sports teams, as well as multiple casinos can all be reached on foot within roughly a mile and a half of each other.
Interestingly enough, there is a lot one can do in the “Motor City” without even using a motor!
Much of this was actually built in Detroit after the decline of the auto industry. One of the reasons I visited Detroit in 2008 was to see their newly built baseball stadium, right downtown.
My 2017 visit to Detroit was to attend a conference related to a client I am currently consulting with. The reason is complicated as organizations rarely send consultants to conferences to represent their brand. Consultants are temporary and technically not a member of the organization.
It makes my identity, like Detroit’s identity as a city, feel way more fluid and complex than it was in the past. In the mid 20th Century, a place could have a simplistic identity; The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Iron City, etc. Today’s growing cities, like Denver, have identities that revolve around multiple areas of focus.
Many people are rooting for Detroit to make a comeback. Places like Greektown and Corktown, adjacent and walkable from downtown, are emblematic of a new, different, and more multi-faceted Detroit emerging from the ashes of the decay that plagued the prior half a century. One day, Detroit will find itself anew, unrecognizable to the Detroit of Motown, and people will ask “how did it get here”. They may even ask “My God, what have I done” (from the same song).
The point of David Byrne’s song is that people need to stop and periodically think about their lives, the directions they are headed, their priorities, etc. Otherwise, they will just kind of like drift, with nobody really understanding whey they are where they are, doing what they are doing, with the people they are with.
There are unique things about Detroit. Obviously the large amounts of empty space, some of which is being converted to farmland.
Also, their proximity to the Canadian border, rust belt infrastructure, and continued contributions to the music industry.
Attending this conference was a reminder to me. No matter where I go, no matter what I am doing, I cannot help but be me. While we all need to periodically re-think things, come up with new ideas, and even take on a somewhat different identity, there will always be some things fundamental about ourselves that do not change. Detroit’s current transitions reminds me of this.