They call it the People Mover, Detroit’s automated transit system that moves above ground on a single set of tracks. It’s a lot like Vancouver’s SkyTrain. But Detroit’s People Mover is less of a convenient mode of public transportation than it is something to do for fun if you have 10 minutes to kill. It circles in a loop around the city’s small downtown core, stopping frequently. It covers such a small geographic area that anywhere within its bounds it’s easier, and closer, to walk than it is to mount the two flights of stairs to board the contraption itself.
The People Mover was built in the late 1980’s and was supposed to be part of a larger transit system, until the funding ran dry. Now it sits alone in a sprawled and sparsely populated city connected by meager bus transportation. Last night it snowed about two inches and because the city has no money to plow the roads many of Detroit’s inner city schools called a snow day and cancelled classes. They knew buses would be unreliable, if moving at all, and students wouldn’t show up if forced to wait or walk.
Nevertheless, the People Mover does give tourists a different perspective of downtown. Plus, it only costs 75 cents. I boarded the beast and watched the city below. The others in the car didn’t seem to care about the view. Three men in suits seemed to be having a business meeting and another woman on board was playing with her phone. It’s entirely possible they were all native Detroiters too, which maybe contradicts my previous rant. I asked the woman where her favourite place is in the city. She was born and raised in Detroit so knew it well. She hesitated only for a moment then said Greek Town, conveniently also a stop on the People Mover.
Greek Town is true to its name. It’s a two-block stretch of road decorated with Greek and American flags strung high across the street, alternating Greek restaurants and pizza places, and loud Greek music playing from shops with buskers playing jazz saxophone on street corners. The street is a hybrid of two cultures that each refuse to give itself fully to the other: the battleground of two egos. It’s also where one of three major casinos is located in Detroit’s downtown – what some might say is a lot of casinos for a city of only 700,000 people.
This is where I met Mr. Tony High. Much like everyone else in Detroit, Tony smiled at me when I walked by and said, “Hey girl, how’s it going?” He was sitting on a milk crate at the end of Greek Town. He was casually leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, holding a cigarette with his left hand, a small American flag with his right, and a saxophone at his side. He was wearing 6 layers of clothing to stay warm which all fit nice and snug under his suit.
“I don’t need to play here, you know. I have money, I own property,” he said.
This seemed to suit what I’ve already deemed to be Detroit’s looming contradictory tone, but not an uncomfortable one. It’s like a tension between immediate aspirations and systemic actuality that’s played out in various ways throughout the city.
Tony agreed to let me record our conversation, then he convinced me to buy him lunch. He also proudly claimed that his performances can be found on YouTube, but I’ve not been able to find him again. This was Tony’s story today.