Why Foreigners are Still Attracted to Detroit

Posted on June 12, 2012

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in Detroit in 1831 to the “utmost limits of European civilization.” He wrote ‘Democracy in America,’ which helped Americans for the first time to see their country from an outsider’s perspective.

Foreigners are still attracted to Detroit. Jake Warga visited recently to see who’s coming from overseas.

Nora, a French documentary maker, is spending a year in Detroit working on a documentary about it. She said she quickly fell in love with the city, as is evident by the name of her blog “Detroit je t’aime.” The French might have a particular fondness for Detroit, as the city was founded by a French explorer. The name of the city is derived from le détroit, which means ‘strait’ in French.

“In French we say Detroit, and it actually comes from where you have two rivers meet,” Nora said. “In French, we call it Detois. It was founded by a French guy you know, Cadillac.”

Nora said though Detroit is a metaphor for a lot of things, she would say it’s a metaphor for hope because the people, more than anything, believe in their city. Another reason foreigners come to Detroit is education. Murielle Roddier, a native of Nice, France, came to Detroit and teaches at the Tubman College of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Michigan.

As a European, she said, she wanted to come to the United States to see what didn’t exist in Europe. “Some people say this is its own thing, that it does not exist anywhere else. Some other people say that it’s exactly what the future looks like everywhere,” Murielle said.

I’ve come to see Detroit as a working metaphor of the 20th century, of the American dream. Its growth was phenomenal, as was its decline. Abandoned buildings are now playgrounds for urban explorers, ravers, artists and tourists.

“It’s interesting to see those who hold onto the American dream and come here and say this is what’s left. It is the American dream in terms of the original American dream,” Murielle said.

I asked Murielle if she thinks Detroit is America. The answer: Detroit is as American as it gets.

“To me Detroit is so completely embedded in the history of modernity and of ‘Fordism;’ it is amazing to be here, to see it up close.” A good way to see how a foreigner sees the city is through a photographer’s eye. Detroit is a very popular place for Europeans to come and take pictures.

Romain Blanquart, a Frenchman, liked the city so much he stayed and now works as a staff photographer with the Detroit Free Press newspaper.

“I think Detroit is America, but Detroit is a lot more because Detroit is a lot of other places, that people turn to it as an example of what good and what bad can happen to a place, but the same thing is happening all over the country and in Europe. Yeah, we are America, but we are the world,” he said.

For those visiting Detroit there are a couple of options of where to stay. For luxury and history there is the once abandoned and left-to-ruin Book Cadillac Hotel, founded by decedents of the French explorer. It has been painstakingly refurbished to its 1924 glory days, plus some escalators, and is once again a social center of Detroit.

But one of the best places to find Foreigners is in a hostel. Opened recently, Hostel Detroit is a two-story house with a great view of the very iconic and very abandoned Michigan Central train station. But the station was born the same time as Ford’s cars, and as we know in United States, cars won the race to move people.

It’s a first-stop for many visitors and their cameras, including me. I felt somewhat guilty when I pulled-up in my rental car, a Chevy Volt, because it represents the next generation of conquerers who will now gloat at the fallen.

Back at the hostel, I met Maria, a resident of Oslo, Norway, who said she came to the United States specifically to see Detroit. Maria said she didn’t rent a car for the motor city when she arrived, but got a lift instead from someone she met on the plane.

“I got driven to this hostel, because I arrived in the middle of the night, by the former mayor of Detroit, Ken Cockrel,” she said. “I was just sitting close to him and found out he was living quite close to the hostel. It’s just [that] people are very helpful.”

I asked her why on her first trip to the United States she is visiting Detroit, and not, say, New York.

“New York, you can go when you’re old, when you are 50 and you can afford it and it will be still the same,” she said. “Detroit, I came now because of a lot of coincidences I heard [about] what was going on here.”

I asked what lessons, if any, Maria might take back with her to Europe. “This city fell, but they’re actually trying to do something about it. And people support their community. I think Europe can learn tjat sometimes we may be a wee bit spoiled,” she said.

“The thing is it’s not how you fall that defines you as a person, but how you rise up again. I think that says a lot about Detroit.”

By Jake Warga, PRI, The World