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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Toledo and Detroit

My ride to Toledo was unremarkable. The poor scenery of Indiana almost immediately improved upon crossing into Ohio, where it transitioned into a more generic sort of flat commercial farmland. I met my girlfriend at my grandparent’s house in Toledo and we all caught up over some steaks while watching the Olympic opening ceremonies. Despite my fear of being completely disappointed after the extraordinary synchronized display at Beijing ’08, London ’12 did a pretty good job of keeping things on a personal level and I have to credit them for putting together a good followup production.

The highlight of Saturday (aside from pecan pancakes and Buckeye iced cream) was the visit to the Toledo Firefighter Museum. It’s a tiny building on the outside but the inside is packed with a very well preserved collection of historical fire engines, artifacts, and memorabilia. We were toured by a retired firefighter who clearly loved the job and walked us through the growth of firefighting technology and the industry itself with a deeply personal touch.

Sunday we journeyed to Dearborn, MI to see the Ford Museum. If there is a mechanical engineering mecca, this may be it. The museum is set on a huge campus that includes everything from historical buildings to its own coal burning railroad (not the kiddie kind). Inside, it is a tour through the history of engineering and industry. They have the “first engine ever built”, a massive oil-derrick-looking piece of black metal originally used to pump water from deep mines. The collection includes dozens of massive multistory steam engines, generators, railroad locomotives, farming tools, airplanes, cars, and basically everything big, heavy and mechanical that we’ve had a chance to cobble together over the last couple centuries.

I may not have continued mechanical engineering after school, but if I had to fight the urge to give a 100 ton piece of moving steel a hug, it’s a fair bet that the engineer is still alive and well inside. I’m not sure my girlfriend was quite prepared to deal with my ear-to-ear geek smile for two hours. They had some sort of innovation fair going on at the same time, and seeing a “real” Darth Vader walking around (product of a Star Wars replica club) was pretty much the icing on the cake.

The final sight to see prior to our trip across the Midwest’s most expensive highway to Chicago was downtown Detroit. I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit… such a major component of our nation’s history flowed from the industry that had its heart in the Motor City. The evidence of Detroit’s former dominance and current struggles was clear throughout the land, where auto parts factories, assembly plants, and other heavy industry stood tall among the dilapidated roads and boarded up houses of a desperate population.

The city itself resembled certain parts of older New York. But where New York had modernized and grown up around the staid brick buildings that were its early monoliths, Detroit appeared to have never really gotten past that point. There is a certain old-school charm to the style but it’s very jarring to look at a building and see light coming from the other side… the insides of many were completely gutted.

I am a believer in renewal and regeneration. That said, Detroit and surrounding cities like Toledo, which came to prominence reliant on a single industry, appear to be headed down a long and difficult road towards any kind of a rosy future. They will have a significant amount of physical demolition, societal pain, and commercial soul-seeking to undergo prior to that point. If they can find the life preservers and, eventually, growth vehicles to pull them forward, there is also a lot of opportunity in that chance for a fresh start, though it will span decades.