WHAT DO DETROIT AND SAIGON HAVE IN COMMON?
Ol’ hollowed-out Detroit is in the news again, as it has recently become the largest-ever US city to file for bankruptcy. I’ve spent a lot of time in Motown and I still think about Detroit a lot. Surprisingly, I think about its odd connection to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam.
Tropical, pastel Saigon and gray, post-industrial Detroit may appear polar opposites on the surface. However, they are connected in two interesting ways.
1. Fifty years ago, Detroit led the world in personal vehicle ownership. Saigon is most likely #1 today , with 92% of trips taken on a personal vehicle, overwhelmingly the motorbike.
1950: Detroit created the automobile industry, and automobiles became a necessary part of life in Detroit; as they still are today. In the 1950s, Detroit was the USA’s wealthiest city. During that time, it’s prosperity had made it the most modernized city in the world. Modernity brought personal freedom and Detroiters reveled in it. Still today, there is no intracity train system and a very infrequently-used bus system. The spoke-like boulevards system may have decayed, but it is still the only good option if you’re looking to get in and out of Detroit.
2013: Saigon (very likely) has the highest rate of personal vehicle ownership of any major city in the world. This mostly comes in the form of the ubiquitous little motorbikes that Saigoneers scoot about in. There is no intracity train system, only a very slow and lightly-used bus system. Transit accounts for just 4% of trips. A growing population and economy mean that Saigon will have a few subway lines within ten years. But for now, Saigon moves along two wheels at a time.
2. Saigon has adopted another Detroit invention; the “Detroit Red Light”.
Let me explain.
DETROIT, 1988: My first visit to Detroit happened on a cold evening, just after a Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor, a time when Motor City needed Robocop more than ever (he first appeared here in 1987). My family and I had a drink atop the Renaissance Center, revolving peacefully 830 feet above the city, amidst lavish Christmas decor and safely above and yellow city lights below. It was the world’s highest hotel at the time. I had a sprite.
Then it came time to drive out to Grosse Pointe, Detroit’s wealthy lakefront suburb. I remember driving east on Jefferson Avenue and finally seeing the reality of the Detroit. We were cruising down the dark boulevard and hitting the green lights, fortunately. Then, an oncoming light turned yellow, my Dad gunned it and we passed through. Then, the yellow light came sooner on the next block, turning to red before we’d reached the crosswalk.
“Now watch this” he said.
The few cars moving along with us all gunned it, running the red light. The next stoplight was clearly red. We went right under that one, too. The entire pack of cars, in fact, moved east under any red light we pleased. Kind of fun.
My Dad explained that, in inner Detroit, it was too dangerous to stop at night. And, since the police were en route to more serious crimes such as homicide, or a neighborhood on fire, enforcement of traffic laws was “relaxed”. Ironic, considering that a Detroit policeman invented the first overhead traffic late here in 1920. Things have changed.
The next time I would see this exciting/dangerous disregard for traffic rules would be 20 years later, in Saigon. Just like lane partition lines, red lights in Saigon are merely suggestions, with bikes and cars shooting under them at the last second, or entire cloud of vehicles just saying “fuck it” and moving through at a medium pace.
It seems that drivers Ho Chi Minh City practice a “go with the flow” driving style. If you break from the crowd, you just may get hit. So, when one person decides to go through a light, everyone follows comfortably.
Some places always stay with you. I’ve always found elements of my favorite city, New Orleans, in other world cities I visit. Even broken old Detroit has stayed with me in some ways.