It was our first time in Detroit, Michigan, a place located in what the Americans like to describe as the “wide, open spaces” of the Mid-West.
It was the first time for most of the others as well, including a great many Americans. It gives you some idea of the size of the United States.
To put it into context, I’ve been to every Malaysian state except Perlis – any countryman can figure that out. Meanwhile, it takes only 42 minutes to drive from east to west in Singapore.
America, on the other hand, has 49 other states to choose from and it takes between 40 and 50 hours to drive the length of Michigan, depending on the number of burger-joints you stop at along the way.
In fact, that was how the great state was originally mapped.
The city’s Mayor hosted the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) delegates as an introduction to the city and we marvelled at the imposing residence set amidst its Gatsby-like grounds. Its manicured turf was only separated from the green of Canada by the Detroit River and frigid was the operative word as a chill wind blew off its waters. It made the daily 17-degree forecast improbable.
It was only my opinion, of course. “We used to call this bikini weather when I was in high school,” a cheerful mayoral aide revealed rather unnecessarily.
At dinner, we met US Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an informed person of such charisma that it seemed ridiculous that he could have lost to Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate. But the fact that he had a Secret Service detail – complete with sunglasses and ear patches – and a watchful Coast Guard cutter on the river attested to his Cabinet status.
Detroit’s the second biggest city in the state after Drummond but it didn’t feel like it. There were no jams and, indeed, little traffic on the streets. Some of the shops were boarded up with “For Sale/ lease” signs.
Even so, it was clean and there was a general sense of optimism with many people crediting the Mayor with much of the city’s rejuvenation. It had gone bust in 2017 and was now bouncing back: the 10-day APEC meet was presumably part of it.
The city’s fortunes had been inextricably tied up with auto manufacturing. In the 1960s, for example, most households boasted a boat, but the industry’s decline since 1979 mirrored Detroit’s slump. It’s still home to the Big Three automakers but decades of disinvestment have also given rise to a peculiarly American phenomenon: a depopulation by race. Only 10% of Detroit’s 640,000-odd people are white.
Our Detroit experience was pleasant enough. Food was great, we encountered mostly helpful and genuinely nice people. OK, there seemed to be an overachiever’s share of people who muttered to themselves, especially in the early mornings but who knows?
You might mutter too if you woke up to 8 degrees “and windy”.
We were given a tour of the Motown Museum where Barry Gordy and his family lived when he recorded the first Smokey Robinson hit in 1959. One wall of the legendary Studio A – complete with original 4 track console and Steinway piano – was lined with stars, photos ranging from Smokey and The Supremes to Michael Jackson and a grinning Stevie Wonder: too many bands to name, an impossibly youthful, and nostalgic, salute to Detroit’s past.
Later there was even Motown-karaoke for the intrepid. The Americans and New Zealanders kicked it off with Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine followed by the Chileans with the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love. Even the normally staid Chinese took to the mikes.
Only then do you realise why it would be prudent for them to keep their day jobs.
It’s why Diana Ross is on the wall of Studio A in the first place.