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Touring With the Enemy

by Alan Benson

I recently returned from a visit to Detroit, the Rusty Apple, the Windy Factory Town, the City of Lights and Lots of Deserted Buildings, or whatever the heck its nickname is. It was an educational trip -- I learned that soda is called "pop," that "Coney Island" is a generic term describing everything from a hot dog joint to a Denny's-esque diner, and that winter still sucks.

But the most important thing I learned during this trip is that the best tour guides are not natives who love their city. No, the best way to see a city is under the guidance of someone who despises that city and everything in it.

As I quickly found out, Native Detroiters were far more interested in finding out why yours truly had flown from sunny L.A. to Detroit in February. During a discussion on this issue, the theory was advanced that I was "incredibly stupid," which was quickly accepted as being the only way to explain my bizarre behavior.

After that, they pointed out Detroit's nice spots (Greektown, the massive Renaissance Center, the big houses in Grosse Point) before quickly chloroforming me and bundling me onto a plane so I couldn't invest any time in seeing how sad and run down everything actually is. Luckily, I escaped.

But let's face it, you ask someone who loves a city to show you the sights, and what are you gonna see? Museums, historical crap, statues, blah blah blah. Sure, it's nice to see the official touristy stuff, and some of it's kind of interesting, but I didn't brave coach class syndrome and frostbite to look at Wayne State's bust of Copernicus.

Tour with a city hater, on the other hand, and you get the real experience — modern American citiana in all its rat-, roach-, and pimp-infested glory.

Touring with a city hater is like talking to BoSox fans enduring the team's traditional post-All Star break slump. Nothing is good about the city or team in question, and either organization exists solely to torture and infuriate its inhabitants or followers.

And, like sufferin' Sox fans, who can quote reams of stats about players they despise, city haters do their research. You can count on them to know every blighted neighborhood, every avenue of collapsed dreams, every embarrassing, ugly facet of the metropolis.

And so, I was happy to be in the company of a rabid Detroit detractor while I spent my weekend near the shore of Lake Michigan. Sure, we saw the nice stuff (Greektown and the rest), but my guide made sure that I realized that these were the only cool places in what was otherwise a totally jerkwater burg.

With my faithful Detroit hater at the wheel, I saw some of the most butt-clenchingly scary neighborhoods you can imagine. Every turn uncovered dozens of magical sights: "that hospital has had a rash of baby-nappings," "gangs took over that building and turned it into a 20-story crackhouse," "that's where that guy was standing in the street masturbating."

Even when we did find our way into the tree-lined avenues of some of Detroit's beautiful old neighborhoods, she was quick to point out the scummy, collapsing houses lurking just blocks away. Even beautiful things had their bad sides exposed. We stopped in front of an intricately gnarled dome of ice supported by delicately twisted ice stalagmites. After giving me time to appreciate its beauty, my guide informed me that it was actually a malfunctioning fountain the city hadn't bothered to fix. Ah well.

The only municipal facility to get off relatively easy was the Detroit Zoo which is, my guide pointed out, "where they send the crack lions."

By the end of it, I'd seen every depressing, decrepit, disheartening section of Detroit. I'd seen burned-out bars, factories with absolutely no unbroken windows left, and an assortment of desperate people. And it was great! That's the only way to see Detroit. Now all I need is someone who hates L.A. to show me the really crappy sights of home....

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