An overwhelming sensation sweeps over me when I first step onto the sidewalk in front of the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. I look up and feel a sense of awe. This is a Detroit, Neo-Renaissance landmark. This is an American landmark — a beacon to the country’s 20th Century prosperity and optimistic outlook on the world. Nothing could stop the United States. Nothing could stop Detroit.
Important people stayed at this hotel, the tallest in the world when it was built in 1924. Stars of stage and screen, musicians, authors, statesmen, and eight U.S. president all stayed at the Hotel-Book Cadillac as it was then known. I feel tangentially important, if not in reality, for staying here.
Downtown Detroit feels enormous, far greater than anything else I had experienced in the U.S. Maybe because it’s quiet. In Chicago and New York City, you’re almost constantly surrounded by people. People who are busy, hurrying to their next spot, and texting on their phones to let people know they’re hurrying to their next spot.
Detroit is another story. Detroit is the story of the American Dream gone wrong. It’s been well-documented elsewhere and I certainly can’t do the topic justice in a few paragraphs. Plus there’s a fair bit of skepticism among Detroiters when outsiders spend a few days in their city and rattle off analysis with an air of expertise, like someone going on cable news with the oblique title of “Political Commenter” to talk about some election. I won’t do that.
I especially love the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit, because it tells a significant chapter in the story of Detroit — at least to this outsider. They closed their doors in 1984 back when things couldn’t possibly look any more bleak for a Rust Belt city like Detroit. Suburban flight was so ingrained, the kids of the sprawl generation had moved even further away from the city, surrounded by their parking lots, Walgreens, and McDonald’s.
Now bear with me here. I know the comeback narrative is tired and selective. While it’s debatable how thick this chapter truly is in Detroit’s story, it does exist and the Westin makes an appearance in 2008 when it reopens after 24 years. This is also a time when city-living is becoming trendy again. The third generation of suburbanites are starting to move back into the city — Detroit included.
There is still no shortage of empty storefronts when I walk around downtown Detroit, even on the same block as the Westin. I’m skeptical of passersby because there are so few. There’s something about a busy city that makes me more trusting of strangers. Safety in numbers, I guess.
After a short evening walk, I’m happy to head back into the hotel and have a look around. It’s hard for me to visualize $200 million in renovations, but Westin Cadillac appears to fit the bill. Maybe this is why I feel important staying here. All that money poured into an American landmark — and I get to sleep there.
A rush of guilt sweeps over me. I know I’m privileged in almost all the ways one can be privileged in the United States. I know that where I’m sleeping would be a fantasy for so many in the country, let alone those who actually call Detroit home. But as quickly as the thought came, it disappears as the view from a hallway window of downtown Detroit in an evening gray distracts me. I fixate for a moment on a waving American flag. The colors are as bright as the flags they use before baseball games to please the patriotic crowd and the folks watching from home. Not a single thread looks faded.