From Detroit to Berlin and Back Again

Nicole Dieter

Once the thriving epicentre of America’s manufacturing boom, Detroit is now a vision of industrial decline with the highest rate of homicide per capita for over a decade in the U.S. Its striking degeneration has been documented with instantly recognisable and iconic images of abandoned homes and buildings, yet against all adversity Detroit remains a highly creative city famed for its legendary Motown and Techno music scenes. With the recent wave of Detroit-inspired events in Berlin including a discussion about the Berlin connection at the American Embassy and a photography show at Kühlhaus, not to mention the constant flow of Detroit-Berlin DJs and music crossing paths over the Atlantic, we wanted to find out just what the Motor City has to offer. Who better to take us on a tour than ex-resident and honorary Berliner Nicole Dieter; having returned home for the first time in years, she reports on her rediscovery of this lost city.

I’ll never forget the earnest look in my mother’s eyes when she lectured me the day I got my drivers license:

“Nicole”, she said, “there are two sides of Gratiot –if you find yourself below 8 Mile, you’re on the wrong side.”

I grew up on 16 Mile Road in a lower-middle class sector of Clinton Township. To put it in perspective, that’s the same charter township where Eminem currently owns two massive homes. Metro Detroit was as suburban as it was boring, and as unaesthetically appealing as it was strip mall infested. Luckily, the fifteen minute car ride down I-94 was my freedom ticket to the city’s finest offerings.

During the better part of my adolescence, I watched the Detroit Red Wings win the 2001-02 Stanley Cup at Cobo Arena and I was wined and dined at Hockeytown Cafe and Greektown by rich school boys clenching Daddy’s Master Gold card. With my friends, I danced at my first techno party during the Detroit Electronic Music Festival and I once got incredibly drunk and gambled away my monthly waitressing earnings at MotorCity Casino. I remember crying when the Nutcracker was transformed into a handsome Prince at the Fox Theatre and my first understanding of Maya and Aztec civilizations wasn’t through a textbook, it was at the Detroit Institute of Arts! Detroit City was top! So why on earth, like so many others, did I abandon it?

Like a tragic high school love story, something more adventurous came along. It’s not like I didn’t love Detroit anymore, I just wanted to start seeing other cities. My love affair with Berlin actually began in 2005 and in the summer of 2006, I left Detroit for Berlin.

But like many broken relationships, I was smitten with desire and planned a comeback. It wasn’t for the long haul though, because after my selfish betrayal, Detroit would never take me back for good. Instead, it was a three week fling; I got to know a side of Detroit I’d never seen before. Back then I was young, naive and scared and this time I wanted to do things differently. So like Mark Twain, I threw off the bowlines, sailed away from the safe harbor, caught the trade winds in my sails, explored, dreamed and rediscovered my love for Detroit:

Michigan Central Station
In all my years of commuting on the Jeffries Freeway, never once did it entice me to merge off the exit and admire its massive gothic beauty in full view. After all, it was just another abandoned building in Detroit. The way I viewed Michigan Central Station never coincided with how the rest of the world saw it. One of the most remarkable things about this site was the walk around the back – the train tracks to nowhere left the hair standing up on my arms.

Detroit Historical Museum
I vaguely remember the last time I was here; I think it was about the same time I started learning long division, and these days I couldn’t divide the numerator by the denominator to save my life. A trip back to the Detroit Historical Museum seemed in order. Six hours, three floors and seven halls later I relearned everything about Detroit, tracing back from the Anishinabe and the frontier post trading all the way through the Golden-era of industrial capital by mulling through a collection of artifacts, video installations, timelines, showcases and replica communities.

Heidelberg Project
This is pinned almost smack in the middle of several surrounding no-go zones growing up. But today the amount of media attention garnered by native Detroiter and artist Tyree Guyton’s Ghetto Guggenheim has briskly fanned the crime away. The visit gave me a deeper insight into the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left a once flourishing neighborhood neglected, poverty-stricken, racially segregated and decaying. The Heidelberg Project is colorful evidence that a better tomorrow is on the way.

City Bird
American Apparel track t-shirts bearing the slogan, “Say nice things about Detroit”, handcrafted jewelry in miniature wood cut-outs of the Michigan mitten, quirky handmade greeting cards, wallets made out of neck ties and original Stormy Kromer caps! Wait, was I in Berlin? Nope! I found DIY novelty in a little red brick building in Midtown! Its household compadre, The Nest, is directly next door.

Good Girls Go To Paris Crêpes
My mom and I stopped in for lunch and shared “The ‘O’”, a savory pocket of warm feta, kalamata olives, spinach and greek dressing, and a sweet rapture of “Alysha”, filled with Butterfinger, ricotta cheese and chocolate. The monster-sized crêpes weren’t the only thing that left me satisfied, as a smiling counter girl noticed my camera on our table, came around and politely offered to take a snap shot. I later learned that she was founder Torya Blanchard, whose idea originally was born in a 48 sq meter walk-up window stand.

Motown Museum
Two of the original Hitsville USA buildings hold the carefully preserved Studio A and upstairs apartment of Berry Gordy. The numerous costumes, photos, records and original furnishings completed my Motown experience, and the entire package was sealed with love after learning Micheal Jackson donated his famous fedora and rhinestone-studded gloves before putting in some time behind the gift shop’s sales counter.

Eastern Market Antiques
Two floors of 1,500 square feet revealing reasonably priced vintage goods. It was like an indoor Mauer Park minus the overcrowding of urban-creatives, the last season H&M threads and the money-conniving dealers. My only regret: not bringing an empty suitcase along.

The Majestic
Legend has it that magician Harry Houdini gave his last performance on stage here in 1926 but it’s no myth that this is also where The White Stripe’s Jack White brawled with fellow garage rocker Jason Stollsteimer in 2004. These interesting tidbits went round in my head whilst queuing to purchase a Greensky Bluegrass ticket. My karma chimed in at the right time when a fellow concert attendee turned around and handed me a free ticket, and with a big friendly grin wished me a Merry Christmas.

Motor Lounge
When Detroit-turned-Berlin techno DJ Derek Plaslaiko told me about his ‘We Are Family’ party at Motor in Hamtramck (the concrete island city in Detroit) I flung my slippers off my feet and fled the house. It looked like a Berlin party, it sounded like a Berlin party, but when the lights switched on at 3am I was soon reminded that this was no underground rave. However, bypassing the gnarly hangover and post-party-regret-syndrome made the night so much more memorable.

Motor City Brewing Works
The aroma of fresh, brick-oven pizza lured me in like a hypnotized soul. I couldn’t decided between home-brewed beer or Motor City Soda so I ordered the Ghettoblaster, a red mild ale, and washed down my pizza and spicy artichoke dip with a Rock and Rye soda. It seemed like a lot, but the laid-back staff, the horseshoe bar under the sun-kissed, slanted roof and the lively ambiance had me sitting in my bar stool for hours.

AJ’s Music Café
A thin man in a vintage jersey t-shirt with thick-framed glasses brought me an extra sweet holiday latte and I soon learned the man was AJ himself. Old Detroiters, hipsters, college students and fedora wearing cool-cats played chess and Lincoln Logs on wooden tables, sipped hot coffee on vintage couches, scribbled down notes from text books in old diner booths and fooled around on an antique wooden piano. The place possessed a certain lost identity while radiating a sense of inner warmth as old and young, talented and rookie musicians braved the open-mic night.

Looking back, however, I have come to see that the parallels between Berlin then and Detroit now are uncanny: a city in ruins, screaming for the next creative class citizens to take advantage of its cheap rent while reviving and gentrifying from the bowels out.

I’m thinking this thing between me and Detroit is far from over.