How I survived an hour in downtown Detroit's 'Garthlock 2015'

Mar 2, 2015 at 2:11 pm

We went to a great food event on Saturday evening from 8 to 10 p.m. It was Steven Reaume’s NOODL presentation, “Pesto,” above the Grand Trunk Pub.

But instead of talking about our two hours spent dining, we’re going to talk about the hour we spent driving a total of 10 miles, thanks to visiting downtown Detroit on the same night as Garth Brooks and Monster Jam.

We knew we had picked the wrong time and the wrong way to get there when we found ourselves merging onto southbound I-75 at five miles per hour. For most drivers familiar with the city at large, that’s when a light bulb pops on suggesting an alternate route. We got off at Mack, crossed the railroad tracks, and took St. Aubin all the way to Lafayette. A right, a left, and a right and we were able to find street parking on Randolph, right before several Monster Jam fans did, apparently, given the way the street was suddenly all parked up.

The real problem came, however, when it was time to go home, around 11 p.m.

Don’t get us wrong: When a big event is going on downtown, you can tell because the streets are filled with traffic. But there’s traffic and then there’s traffic, specifically when you have events downtown that are going to draw legions of people from not just the burbs, but the sticks. We’re talking Garth Brooks at Joe Louis Arena, capacity 20,000. We’re talking the monster truck action of Monster Jam at Ford Field, capacity 65,000.

When you have events like that, something magical happens. You get tens of thousands of cars downtown, driven by motorists who really have no idea where the hell they are or how to get where they’re going.

And who can blame them? Given decades of freeway building, downtown is surrounded by a moat of concrete, with precious few bridges across them to get out. The CBD’s warren of off-angle one-way streets seems almost designed to frustrate those used to a regular grid, and the occasional superblocks, gated corporate campuses, and closed-off streets around federal buildings sure don’t help.

It also doesn’t help that there’s no quality mass-transit to help move all those people. In New York or Toronto, a subway can move 30,000 passengers per hour, meaning 30,000 people can get off at a stop each hour, leaving their cars behind. In Detroit, we have no such luxury, meaning everybody has to drive, find a place to park, and then spend an hour on traffic-clogged streets trying to get to the freeway.

And it’s always the freeway.

Why the freeway? Because there’s something else at play here, namely a kind of “fear factor.” On nights when people are driving into downtown from, say, Chesterfield, chances are that they’ve been conditioned by the evening news to see downtown as a place paved with opportunity — and Detroit’s “neighborhoods” as blood-soaked killing fields where the locals will slay you just for the hood ornament on your car.

And so everybody has to get on the freeway. And never, ever get off the freeway until they're safely back in Shelby Township.

But when you’ve got the final Garth Brooks show and a monster truck rally with a combined seating capacity of 85,000 on one Saturday night, that’s a lot of cars to get onto the freeway. Even if patrons of both events carpooled in packed cars and used both expressways to get out of town (which is being generous), you’re still talking enough cars to clog downtown’s streets for hours, and dump a half-day’s worth of normal traffic on each freeway over three hours. It was absolutely awful to get downtown, and a mind-numbing chore to motor back to the freeway.

Speaking of which, big props to Greektown Casino. Sure, you could have put up the new sign at the corner of Lafayette and St. Antoine on a night when nobody wanted to use Lafayette to leave downtown. You waited until Feb. 28, and blocked off the entirety of eastbound Lafayette, forcing traffic to regurgitate back onto southbound Beaubien. Not just a good job but a master stroke. You made a terrible Saturday night needlessly much, much worse, which is a stunning achievement.