Detroit is a city in motion. Demolition and new construction projects hum alongside the never-ending journey of the homeless to stay warm and find shelter. The city is abuzz with action. If you’ve never experienced Detroit firsthand, a staggeringly comprehensive tour of the city by the Detroit Free Press is a satisfying and enlightening alternative to travel. In fact, it’s so unbelievably thorough that it probably trumps, at least in sheer detail, the experience of actually seeing the city. The project, called Driving Detroit, was conceived by columnist and Motown native Bill McGraw. And his love and aching hopefulness for his hometown are evident in every aspect of the project.
The Free Press describes the mission of Driving Detroit as “extreme, even a little preposterous,” and it is. McGraw drove all of Detroit’s roughly 2,100 streets, which took him four intense months and spanned 2,700 miles. The outcome is impressive. The series is divided into four parts: McGraw’s narrative tour; a photo and video guide; a map of McGraw’s course through the city, with the neighborhoods broken down into color-coded sections by level of decay; and a discussion board filled by readers.
A common theme throughout McGraw’s narrative tour is the purgatorial nature of the “New Detroit,” a campaign by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to revitalize the crumbling infrastructure of the historic city. Ultimately, the Detroit McGraw describes seems like a chaotic, unfinished project, the work of an industrious child with severe ADD. The images McGraw’s prose evokes are like frozen moments in the midst of a major change: half-finished construction, single blocks bizarrely divided in two by thriving, solid edifices next door to empty, gutted husks. Even the people of McGraw’s Detroit are cleaved between those almost naively hopeful for change and those either too apathetic or worn-down to care. His description of Detroit and its paradoxes are as much intimate travelogue of the Motor City as they are hard copy by a veteran beat reporter.
The real gem of the project is the visual tour, created with the help of a large team of photographers and reporters. The still photos bring the city’s partition between blight and prosperity into stark focus. And the video footage, paired with some spectacular Motown sounds, is so fly-on-the-wall brilliant you’ll just have to see it for yourself. Taken as a whole, the project offers a voyeuristically intimate look at Detroit that only the most knowledgeable of tour guides could provide.