University of Michigan publishes a reflection on Detroit’s infamous People Mover

The politics of going nowhere

Jan 11, 2017 at 1:00 am

After more than seven years of living in Detroit, showing visitors around the city remains one of my favorite pastimes. Detroit is an endlessly nuanced and multi-layered place; in a sense, everyone who spends a significant amount of time here has their own version of the city. But no matter how short a given visit, I typically insist on taking my visitors on what I refer to as the city's "only ride" — the much-maligned, much-belittled elevated tram that trundles in an endless 2.9-mile loop around the city center, aka the People Mover.

It's the subject of the recently published Looping Detroit: A People Mover Travelogue, by writer and photographer Nick Tobier, a professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. The written and visual examination of Detroit's notorious transportation initiative features the reflections of more than a dozen local artists and writers.

Tobier moved to Detroit from New York City. For anyone coming from a place with such strong public transportation infrastructure, the People Mover is comedically inefficient — its 13 stops cover a distance that the average New Yorker would simply walk.

"I was really inspired by the strangeness of a big city and a small train," Tobier says by email. "Growing up in NYC, each subway line was an epic journey connecting distant parts of a vast city. There was an irony in the People Mover because each stop is so close to the next, it becomes a kind of limited Odyssey in geography, but not in imagination."

It's only after you talk to Detroiters and spend a little time here that you realize that there is literally no one in the entire metro area — including the original champions of the project — that considers it to be anything but an expensive joke. With a more nuanced understanding of Detroit's politics and power structure, you also come to understand the irony that the city's sole reliable piece of public transportation was literally designed to only really serve people with cars; the People Mover's main popular function is to shuttle commuters between parking garages and offices — or sports fans and North American International Auto Show attendees — to their recreational destination without having to resort to the indignity (or perceived danger) of walking through the streets.

The complexities of Detroit city politics and personal perspective are baked into the format of Looping Detroit, which assigns each stop to a different artist or artists, collecting short-form writings and drawings that meditate on the People Mover's function, or the memories associated with it.

Tobier says he "selected these artists and writers for both their voices and their connections to the city both as long term residents and more recently arrived. But all with keen attention to their roles as part of the living ecosystem of a city where questions about race, class, and privilege should/could intersect cultural inquiry." These musings are illustrated throughout with Tobier's own photographs — rendered in somewhat lackluster black-and-white — which aligns to a certain degree with the charmingly retrograde nature of its subject matter, but also elides the visual details that set the scene for his contributors.

One such contributor is Stacey Malasky, an artist and printmaker based out of Ocelot Print Shop, which she helped to co-found. Malasky tackles the Broadway station with one of her signature drawn object-collages that capture the many elements of the busy downtown entertainment district served by the station — including the Detroit Opera House, Comerica Park, and the PuppetART Theatre, as well as legacy businesses such as Henry the Hatter and the downtown YMCA.

"Nick Tobier asked me to take part in his People Mover project and I was delighted to for several reasons," Malasky says. "I really like working with Nick and find his observations and interests genuine and refreshing, and I have always found the People Mover to be fun, but a tad silly. At the time I was a member of the YMCA downtown so I picked the Broadway stop as my muse. Now, several years later, I have a 3-year-old son who attends the YMCA for day care three days a week, and he loves riding the People Mover! He calls it the tall train and while I still think it is a pretty poor excuse for public transportation I can't help but see it through the eyes of my 3-year-old."

Another contributor, inter-media artist and performer Katie Grace McGowan, offered one of her signature literary collages. She layers broad social commentary, wording from found signage and slogans, and personal memories of, in this case, dealing with the heartache of a painful breakup, as it pertains to the Michigan Avenue Station.

"This book's release couldn't be more timely," McGowan says by email. "It's great to read people's thoughts on Detroit's maligned loop as the city's next fraught public transportation scheme prepares to launch. Ten or 20 years from now I suspect people will view the unfortunately named Q-line in the same light as we view the People Mover today."

Indeed, Looping Detroit has hit the market at a moment when we examine whether the latest costly public works project will offer an entry point into wider infrastructure, or simply be another limited foray in offering amenities to people who already have reliable transportation. After all, one comedic little ride around the city is good fun for visitors (and 3-year-olds); two begins to look like a city that fails to learn from the history in plain sight.

Looping Detroit: A People Mover Travelogue was published in 2016 by the University of Michigan Library, and is available on