Looping Detroit: A People Mover TravelogueSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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For 75 cents, you can buy a token and ride the People Mover, the self-driving monorail 50 feet above downtown Detroit’s ground. You can ride all day—you may even have the train to yourself. Or you can descend at any stop and consider the terrain, each conversation, sighting, or associative memory a portal into worlds (beyond) all within a 1,000-yard radius.
I ride it a lot—occasionally for utility, more often for solitude, and, in the course of this project, for rumination. I invited contributing artists and writers to join me and board and descend the People Mover at a given stop with the minimal brief of “anything that would not be in a tourist’s guide to the city.”
I asked, I suppose, for poetic reverie and kept stumbling into politics, and vice versa. Looping Detroit started as a ride with an itinerary involving getting off at each stop, an agenda to create new habits of use, and counter existing patterns of the People Mover. Namely, that the People Mover is used primarily as a way to get from your car to downtown office buildings, sports arenas, convention halls, or the casino without ever touching a sidewalk in Detroit.
That may have been the goal—it may still be. My urban legend recorder says this small circle was an investment in the downtown of a city still reeling from urban unrest that had been brewing for decades but surfaced most publicly in July of 1967 as the Detroit rebellion and the Detroit riots. For suburbanites who were uncertain of the city, the People Mover offered the promise of safety, and commuters continue to drive through the city’s neighborhoods, park in secure garages downtown, and take the train to work at the fortified Renaissance Center without having to touch the ground.
Easy on. Easy off.
Mall developers call this the dumping strategy. Get consumers in front of where they want to be. For the People Mover, this is the Cobo Center (especially once a year for a few frigid January weeks for the Detroit International Auto Show), for hockey fans the Joe Louis Arena, Greektown for gamblers, or Astoria Bakery for the odd ethnic adventurer looking for a long lost pastry. Cadillac, that’s the French explorer—or the car. Or, for the commuter, a parking structure. But on ordinary weekdays, after 9am, while the People Mover is moving...not so many people are moving. Still.
At 139 square miles, the relative scale of Detroit can be conjured by mentally placing the geographic boundaries of Boston and San Francisco and the borough of Manhattan within the city limits. At an aggregated 117 square miles, there is still room in Detroit after superimposing those metropolitan masses. By contrast, the People Mover serves 2.9 square miles. In a collection called Transit Maps of the World, the London Underground is Medusa-dense, a tangle of schematic designs making sense of lines from all across the city and their transfer points. There is Massimo Vignelli’s 1974 NYC transit map, abstracting the transit system from the physical city by losing references to physical landmarks. As Detroit’s rapid transit line, the People Mover occupies maybe 1/32nd of a page in the book of maps. For one of the physically largest cities in this compilation, Detroit’s little loop speaks volumes.
At just under three miles or five minutes, the elevated driverless train is perhaps not an all-day train journey with respect to terrain. (Imagine the equivalent 12-24 hours: Montreal to Washington DC, Portland to San Diego, Paris to Istanbul.)
Built in 1987, the People Mover was the next big thing. In 1964.
And although we call it the People Mover, most would call this automated, driverless transit car a monorail, which, when not at Disney or between airport terminals, may end up as only an asterisk in the archive of urban transport.
In the mid-1970s everyone wanted one. Sixty-eight cities wrote the Federal government that they wanted one. Thirty-eight municipalities wanted one enough to submit full-blown proposals. Three were completed: in Jacksonville, Miami, and Detroit.
What do we say now? Can we forgive Detroit City Councilman Mel Ravitz, who, in 1985, when the press called the People Mover a Transit Disaster, said, “But if we were starting over, I’d say, ‘Don't build it.’” Round and around a 210-million-dollar carousel, read the Los Angeles Times headline).
In the intervening years, with fewer than 30 percent of the riders Detroit residents, the People Mover had been called “The Train to Nowhere,” “The Mugger Mover,” “The Downtown Bobsled Run,” “The Rich Person’s Roller Coaster,” and “The Horizontal Elevator to Nowhere,” and other names. While the People Mover has suffered its share of detractors, little has changed in its role or form—aside from that the train ran counter-clockwise until July 2008, when to correct for wear on the rails, the People Mover started running clockwise.
Detroit People Mover ridership soars on Saturdays when there are sports events—currently baseball, football, and hockey, and soon Detroit’s basketball franchise, the Pistons, will move back from the suburbs of Auburn Hills. During the 2005 Super Bowl, the train racked up 215,000 riders in one day; another spike occurs each January during the North American Auto Show. This is often called Bread and Circus planning, where arenas and entertainment complexes are built in the underutilized downtowns of “legacy cities” (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus) and the accompanying transportation infrastructure is tailored to suit the needs of the suburban visitors while the outlying areas of the city are left untouched. In Detroit, as in other legacy cities, the relationship between suburbs (largely white and affluent) and cities (largely black and less affluent) is continually exacerbated by these moves. From the time of its inception, the line inscribed above ground by the People Mover traverses the former of these territories, while the ground below has been the domain of the latter—up until recently.
Looping Detroit takes a train line as the spine for an explorer’s journey—the Trans-Siberian, the Patagonian, or a commuter’s daily, whether it be the People Mover or NYC’s Number 7 subway rising out of its subterranean depths in Manhattan as it crosses the East River into Queens with station stops in a myriad of complex, layered ethnic communities, from south Asian in Jackson Heights to Colombian in Corona or Chinese in Flushing. This mode of exploratory travel across under-heralded terrain is inspired in part by literary antecedents—notably Francois Maspero’s (1994) Roissy Express, which winds its way through villages and suburbs along the train line from the Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. Along a vast suburban distance, the RER line passes through town centers, housing projects, and locales that few tourists to central Paris would visit, yet scores pass through on this train line from the center of the city to Charles de Gaulle Airport. In Maspero’s prose and Anaik Franz’s photos, each stop is a narrative linked by a voyager who rides the train for the experience of the journey—both on and off the train.
The journey’s utility in Looping Detroit is for introspection, not transit, through the inspection of geographies and culture. The trip transposes the submerged and often blurry, ordinary lives of commuters into poetic encounters, prompted simply by getting on and off the train.
Looking around the city via the train’s trajectory offers passing glimpses of buildings and pedestrians, visible through the window of the train, linking the train’s speed to the speed of thoughts. Grounding these thoughts are the station platforms and the stairs connecting these platforms to the city below. I used the ideal infrastructure of the People Mover’s elevated platforms to experience what de Certeau writes of the train journey as a “bubble of panoptic and classifying power—somewhere other than a usual destination” (de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life: p. 111). From the platform, the rider has a view maybe like that of a low-flying bird, where one can see both Detroit’s skyline and its ground, passing through tangles of covered walkways piercing buildings. As above, so below? The city framed from the elevated line is distant—something at home in Fritz Lang’s visions for future cities in the 1927 film, Metropolis, or the equally dystopian view of Paul Verhoven’s 1987 film, Robocop. Set in a fictionalized, Detroit-like city where the ground below is lawless and the Renaissance Center towers gleam above, Robocop’s take on the ground below is filled with dark streets and denizens of a post-apocalyptic ruin preying on one another. Where the elevated People Mover at one time appeared as a glimpse of the future—a driverless train!—its track casts a perpetual shadow over the city below. Looking up at the train, the views beyond the People Mover track frames images that would be at home in another urban near future dystopia, Blade Runner. In this film, Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction is a vision of a city divided between above and below. The elevated portions reflect a technological domination, and earthly pains and pleasures anchor the ground level. Existing within the same space as one another, opposing present tenses are borne out above and below the People Mover stations.
I advocate riding the People Mover with an exploratory charge, where the train becomes the central axis that, along with each stop’s ecosystem of buildings, streets and pedestrians, is a source of discovery. In each of these instances in Detroit, while the next stop is between 42 seconds and one minute away, the willing urbanite—resident or visitor—can encounter a complex array of questions and conditions to challenge the notion of distance as a marker of an exploratory voyage.
Portions of this introduction appeared in “Small Loop for a Large City” in the journal, Infinite Mile, January, 2015
- François Maspero. Roissy Express: A Journey through the Paris Suburbs. Photographs by Anaïk Frantz. Translated by Paul Jones. London: Verso 1994.
- Peter Eisinger, The Politics of Bread and Circuses: Building the City for the Visitor Class Urban Affairs Review 2000 35: 316
- John McCarthy, Entertainment Led Regeneration: The Case Of Detroit, Cities, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp.105-112, 2002
- Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steve Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- James Risen, “People Mover in Detroit Seen as Transit Disaster” Los Angeles Times Dec. 8, 1985. http://articles.latimes.com/1985-12-08/news/mn-14803_1_detroit-people-mover
Is Sesame Street live?
The platform at Grand Circus Park is filled with red Elmo twirly toys that spin.
Around and around, at the hands of a whole lot of little white children holding them.
It’s a short ride—stay on past your stop and you go around and around. Again.
One Elmo pokes me in the eye. Better Elmo than the giant Tiger a block away.