Windsor — heartbreaking city, now blogged

Most people have difficult relationships with their hometown. There’s a reason you left, but you still probably have a certain amount of love for the place, because it is home. Over the past six years I’ve been going “home” — at ever farther apart intervals — to Windsor. I still have familiar haunts and routes, and some things are still instinctive, like knowing the spot on the Dougall Avenue on-ramp to avoid lest that bump throw your car into a skid. There are also a few folks — keepers-of-home-fires — that welcome me back each time, even though I’m probably an insufferable prodigal son who moved away to Toronto only returning to complain about this-or-that Windsor landmark being torn down for a parking lot, or lament that the semi-rural area I grew up in is now the worst kind of sprawl (look at what we started).

This past Christmas was particularly difficult. Windsor has always been intimately tied to the auto industry. When it did well, Windsor was happy. When it was tanking, it was the only thing that mattered, and the only thing people talked about. And it’s not doing well at all right now. During my 5 days in Windsor I heard, over and over, about Ford’s laying off. And Chrysler’s laying off (the big companies in Windsor are always said in the possessive). My mom would ask about my high school friend Amy; “is she still at Ford’s — is her job safe?” Later I saw Chris and he tells me he hasn’t worked in 10 months at Chyrsler’s, and he expects his UI will run out soon, and he bought some expensive music gear in Detroit but hasn’t written a song yet either. When Windsor is down, it can suck everybody’s energy away.

Out one night I talked to a woman who told me Ford might be laying her off too. Her dad, a Ford-lifer, talked her into taking the job after high school. “It’s good money,” he said, but Ford might have run out of it now. She told me, with one of those happy 1990s Blur songs playing in the background, that she wasted her life away and she’s only 30 and she’s worried if she’ll be able to keep the house that Ford bought her or not. I told her that people change careers all the time, and everybody I know stops doing something and starts doing something else routinely, but people don’t see the world like that in Windsor.

Even after the the dot com bubble bust and the post September 11th recession rendered my first Toronto job non-existent just as the SARS crisis hit, this city at it’s lowest never ever felt anything like Windsor does when things are bad. Everything there balances on one single thing. There is that Yeats poem Slouching Towards Bethlehem “The Second Coming” with the line Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold which if you read the poem might be about falconry but I’m certain it’s about Windsor. Experiencing Windsor like this and seeing it get broken up over the last few years, is heartbreaking.

So when I discovered the International Metropolis blog three days ago that excruciatingly documents the hallowing out of my home town, it felt just like being there. International Metropolis mixes photos of current Windsor happenings with archival photos and plans as well as developments in Detroit, a city with heartbreak on a scale better measured against cities destroyed by war or hurricane. We often get down on Toronto, but going back home, and now reading this blog, does put it all in perspective. This blog captures Windsor at just the right angle, and with the right amount of love and outrage that any city needs.

International Metropolis looks across the river at Detroit often, as the two cities are connected in so many ways. In a recent post, Andrew (the blogs author) visited the Detroit International Auto Show at Cobo Hall (next to famous Cobo Arena that all you Detroit Rock City fans will recognize). It was always a big yearly trip for Windsorites to go over to the show and see the fantasticly expensive displays showcasing all that is new in both cars and Midwestern ball gowns worn by the models who stood next to the cars. The entire massive multi-football-field-wide Cobo floor was covered in new carpet, turning you into a ball of static electricity, snapping painfully each time you touched a metal car or, presumably, a Midwestern ball gown. All the radio stations would broadcast live from the show too — so we’d get to see the DJ’s who up till then were just voices. WLLZ (Detroit Wheelz), the now defunct classic rock station (whose call letters were said to stand for We Love Led Zepplin) would broadcast from inside a giant trailer sized 1980s Ghetto Blaster. It’s now used by one of the hip hop stations, trading AD/DC for Jay Z.

The auto show is the last bit of glorious Windsor/Detroit that is still big and powerful and downtown. Seeing pictures of it now — after being in Toronto for so long where the idea that the car can still be the central pillar in a transportation network is absurd — is like watching an old movie. Being back in Windsor, and hearing people talk about the state of the city right now, you can feel the end of an era coming, and that’s a hard thing to wrap your head around. It feels like Gary, Indiana is around the corner. I tell my friends to get out while they can, but they don’t listen.

(Photo of the Ford generating plant on the Detroit River and plan for Dominion Forge industrial area from International Metropolis)

16 comments

  1. Yeah, I always remember the big 3’s names used in the possessive. This story goes with the ghostly feeling I had while wandering through Windsor over the hoildays (and surrounding areas – Amherstburg has been going through similar problems with the closure of major industries like General Chemical).

  2. Great post Shawn. I think you captured what it is to be a former Windsorite.

    Watching Ouelette hollow out has been especially hard over the years. It was never anything special but back in my high school days it had that thrill of being “downtown.”

    Windsor has always had that aura of impending doom about it. It’s hard not to with Detroit across the river with its beautiful skyline and the knowledge that so many of those buildings are abandoned and decaying. I think people from that area can understand quite well that it’s possible for cities to live and die.

  3. i’ve lived in windsor all my life and i got to tell ya that the downturn in the automotive industry may be a blessing in disguise. as long as people were making good money working at the big three, parts plants or tool and mold shops, nobody cared a damn about the city’s hollowed out core, lack of public facilities or decayed infrastructure. that’s because they could always move out to the county where land was cheap and big-box outlets were sprouting like mushrooms after the rain.now that those high-paying jobs rapidly disappearing, people are finding it hard to make the monthly mortgage payment on their brand new homes, they’re making fewer trips to “best buy” and getting around is a lot harder when you can’t afford to buy gas. hard economic times are going to force people in windsor to take a long, hard look at problems that have been ignored for years. in every crisis you’ll find opportunity and this may be turn out to be windsor’s golden hour.

  4. I’m saddened by the demise of WLLZee, and remembering Doug Podell serving up the first heavy metal videos late night on Channel 56’s _The Beat_ …

    Hoping that WRIF still rawks (um, Baby!).

  5. erin> Yeah, downtown, until at least the early 90s, had some mixed use to it. Now it’s mostly bars and clubs, 80% that cater to 19-20 year old Michigan kids, who run wild.

    george> Yeah, there are those who argue that the more gas prices go up, the less likely people are to contribute to smog. The thing with windsor though, so much has been gutted, a return to past urban forms might not be possible without a huge rebuild. I think specifically of the area around the Art gallery, where one of windsor’s best urban neighbourhoods was torn down for a hockey arena that never came, that now is going to be located out by the 401.

    sharon> WLLZ went goodbye in the early to mid 90s i think. I used to do my paper route listening to Doug Podell in grade school. Check out some of the old jingles here.

    WRIF is still there and rock (that baby! guy is there too) but they play a lot of New-Metal and that heavy angry white guy rock. Meh.

    One thing I do miss about Windsor is Detroit Radio — it’s an interesting market. Toronto doesn’t compare — but then I also think the radio had to make up for the lack of public life in Detroit. Everybody’s in their car. Chicago has good radio too.

  6. You guys were listening to the wrong music. You should have been tuned to the strong songs of WJLB!

    Westside!

  7. Andrew> I grew up in a house of Bob Seger, so it took a while for me to find WJLB on my own. It was certainly not a station we were allowed to listen to “In the car.” I will submit though, that the three tapes I listened to most during my paper route were:

    U2-Joshua Tree
    Ice T – Power
    Public Enemy – Takes a Nation of Millions

    WJLB tended not to play either Ice T or Public Enemy, and focus during the day anyway, on mushy R&B. They did have the Electrifying Mojo though for a time. You can hear your strong song jingle here though.

  8. I grew up in a Bob Seger house, too, and of course saw him at Joe Louis… but a better (and stranger) memory was Public Enemy at the Windsor Arena, with Chuck D riling up the crowd saying that fans had been turned back by Cdn customs because of their colour.

    You’re right, of course, about JLB’s crappy day-time (and Sunday) programming.

  9. Ha — I saw that Public Enemy concert in Windsor. Got Chuck D’s autograph too — he was sitting in the stands while Maestro Fresh Wes was on.

    The windsor star did a great job fearmongering that show, just about saying there would be race riots. It was the Fear of a Black Planet tour.

    I did get grounded though, as i stayed until the end, which was later than my midnight curfew. My parents feared a White Suburban Teenage Planet i suppose.

  10. Oh, I had completely forgotten Maestro was there, but he was the only other act I had good memories about. John Salley was MC. I still can’t believe they played The Barn.

  11. I left Windsor in 1995, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about the city ever since. You can blame the economy, or bad urban planning and poor municipal governance, all of which are contributing factors to its current state I’m sure. But at a certain point you have to start blaming the people who live there as well. So many other mid-sized towns have managed to carve a space within their confines for a world beyond two car garages and big box shopping. But something in the attitude of windsorites seems to make that impossible.
    Though the people I know from Windsor are by far some of the funniest I’ve ever met, there’s something about their vision of the world – sneering, ironic, self-deprecating, and worst of all, completely uncurious about the world outside of Windsor – that has to be held accountable for the state of the city. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with cynicism and it makes for fun conversation over beers at The Avalon, but you have to fight for things at a certain point.

  12. A> I think that’s why I was so excited about Andrew’s International Metropolis blog — there are people and groups in windsor who care, and who are fighting in their own ways. I do think I’d feel overwhelmed though — it’s a smaller city, so it would be harder to find a group of people big enough to feel like you’re part of a “movement” — a critical mass of other likeminded people who care about urban things.

    But they are there — also check out these folks, fighting for bike lanes in Windsor:

    http://www.cyclewindsor.ca/

    Toronto (though perhaps you’re not from Toronto) is a media centre, so whatever happens here has much more opportunity to get picked up in the press and etc, and become a “thing.” Harder to start that sort of thing/momentum in Windsor. Or even a bigger place like Buffalo (not a media centre).

    There are reasons why ideas and new things start in big cities first….

  13. I hate to nitpick an excellent post (which captures many of the feelings I experience returning to my hometown of London, Ontario), but the Yeats poem you quote is titled “The Second Coming”.

  14. John> Doh, I knew that — in my head I always call it the “slouching towards bethlehem” poem though, as it’s such a powerful line. It didn’t help that the page I linked to also mis-titled it. Thanks.

  15. Shaun,

    I spent a decade away from Windsor living and working the KW and TO. I have been back for three years and I have to tell you that while the changes in Windsor have been difficult there is a shift that has happened since you wrote this. Windsor and Detroit has changed the face of the entire world – it was here that the moguls of there day chose to create their lives. Now that era is leaving and the jobs with it – but it’s not the end – for Windsorites and Detroiters it is our story of the beginning.

    Look through the history books and be inspired that major change ends up bringing out the best in these two cities. They have risen and continue to fight against the rest of the world telling us that we are the > of either the US or Canada.

    I (like every person who left Windsor) cried all the way down the 401 – believing my professional life to never be the same now that I had come to the end of the earth. Yet something amazing had occured in my absence. A spirit, an energy, a rebirth slowly happening. Within three days my view transformed.

    Windsor and Detroit will not fall by the way side. We will show the rest of the world what has always rightfully belonged to us – innovation, change, and survival against all odds.

    Who am I?
    I am most certainly not a politician. 🙂 I am a professional who wakes up every morning excited (yes excited) but what is happening in this region. I cannot wait until the rest of the world begin to see the same.

    It inspired me so much I created a show to highlight everything going on here.

    Check it out here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUHnCczodLM

    This is just the beginning. The London England Financial Times awarded us the “Best City for Investment in North America for 2007/2008”. I have an amazing report you’d love to read, to share with your family and friends who aren’t tapped into the exciting changes of this community.

    Stay tuned, Windsor is going to surprise you!

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