Anyone who’s lived in a famous city gets used to a byproduct: visitors.
"We’d love it if you’d show us around," they say, as soon as they drop their backpacks and rolling bags and check their email. Polite people smile and say, "of course." Less tolerant people tell them they’re on their own. One person I know kept a supply of Washington, D.C., trolley tour passes and simply doled them out, unable to stand yet another visit to the Mall.
But if we take the time to go along, and keep our eyes open instead of rolling them, it’s virtually guaranteed we will see new things in our cities. The things we consider to be the highlights might not impress visitors at all – and the things our friends and relatives find memorable might enlighten us and unexpectedly move us as well.
I found this out during a recent whirl through Detroit, a city I’ve been visiting since childhood, where I’ve lived and worked through the years, and where I’ve got my tour down pat. Or, at least I thought I did.
We had some time to kill before meeting friends at Comerica Park, and I figured I’d give the standard, "This is the Detroit News building, that’s Kennedy Square, you remember where J.L. Hudson’s department store was" monologue. I was hoping my mom and godmother would look past the crumbling buildings and focus on what I pointed out.
But I was surprised to find that some of the buildings I remembered as being empty had come back to life. Bellmen were bustling outside the old Pick Fort Shelby Hotel, which I used to race by on foot, intimidated by its dilapidated appearance.
It’s now a Doubletree by Hilton that boasts of a "welcoming, modern interior" and where chocolate chip cookies greet guests on arrival.
In place of the Lafayette Towers Building, which I watched being torn down two years ago, we came upon Lafayette Greens, an urban garden built in partnership with Compuware Corp. While there’s been a lot written about urban farms across Detroit, the idea of growing organic produce and flowers right near the federal courthouse was something I could never have imagined when I was covering bankruptcy cases there.
As I was taking it in, my godmother, Maxine Clapper, piped up from the back seat. "I’d like to see Campus Martius," she said of the downtown park that has a skating rink in the winter and attracts lot of brown bagging workers at lunchtime. We headed there, via a detour on Jefferson Avenue along the riverfront.
I knew that Ford Auditorium, which had stood empty for years, was now gone. But I wasn’t prepared for another sight: a wedding party, getting out of a limousine. They were heading for the Dodge Fountain, designed by architect Osamu Noguchi, to pose for their pictures.
It seemed a novel and endearing idea, and I felt a little choked up at the idea that people cared so much about Detroit that they’d commemorate their ceremony in the middle of downtown, rather than at a rose garden.
Detroit isn’t the only place I’ve felt unexpected sentiment about something from my city tours. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to receive an award from The New York Times, and I was able to bring my seven-member family to the city for a lunch in my honor. I promised to take everyone on what I was joking calling my "On The Town Tour" of Manhattan – from the Bronx down to Staten Island (or at least, where the Staten Island ferry docks).
I thought my teen nephews would be impressed with Columbia University, my alma mater, and that my arts loving godmother would enjoy seeing 125th Street in Harlem, especially the Apollo Theater. I figured my engineer brother would enjoy riding along FDR Drive, and that my sister-in-law, who watches The Real Housewives of Manhattan, would like seeing the shops on Madison Avenue.
But, that’s wasn’t what sank in. Instead, everyone was awed by seeing the enormous construction site for One World Trade Center, which sat before us, vast and illuminated.
Lisa, my brother’s wife, told me the magnitude of 9/11 hadn’t registered with her until she saw the sprawling zone for herself. There was a reflective silence in the car as we rode north in the late evening to drop off my brother’s family at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
There, stuck in traffic, my godmother gazed out the window. "What are all those people doing out at 11 o’clock at night?" she asked. Every café table, every bleacher seat was full of tourists, and probably their relatives, gazing up at the blocks of flashing, twinkling, colorful lights.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve sped through Times Square, trying to avoid those very tourists. But looking at them, looking up at the lights, I realized that I was just as impressed as they were. That evening, Times Square wasn’t just something to be gotten through – it was a spectacle to contemplate, and let resonate.
"Why?" I answered, as sentiment swept over me. "I guess they’re here because they don’t have this at home."