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An Ode to Detroit’s People Mover, a Looping Public Transit Joke

A book edited by Nick Tobier gathers contributions by 15 artists and writers reflecting on one of Detroit’s longest-running inside jokes: the People Mover.

A view of General Motors headquarters from the People Mover (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — Writer, photographer, and University of Michigan professor Nick Tobier’s latest publication, Looping Detroit: A People Mover Travelogue, takes as its subject one of Detroit’s longest-running inside jokes: an elevated tram that circulates endlessly, and often completely without passengers, on a 2.9-mile track connecting 13 stations around the immediate city center. Built in 1987, following a “driverless transit car” craze in the 1970s, it is viewed by all as a failure of public infrastructure.

The People Mover is inarguably ridiculous as a form of public transit — not least because it services a hilariously small footprint. A huge portion of Detroit’s diffuse population lacks a means of personal transportation, instead forced to stand in wait for a notoriously unreliable bus system (read the harrowing and heartwarming human interest story of Detroiter James Robertson for a case in-point). Meanwhile, the $210 million dollar People Mover is basically only employed to shuttle people who already have cars from parking garages to downtown entertainment centers. It represents a sobering mismanagement of resources.

Nick Tobier, Looping Detroit: A People Mover Travelogue (image courtesy University of Michigan Library Press)

But I’ll be honest here: I love the People Mover. Whenever someone comes to visit, I make a case for taking them on what amounts to an amusement park ride around the city center, with excellent vistas of both the Detroit River and the architecture that has earned Detroit the first and only United States UNESCO City of Design status, as well as original mosaics and other artworks at nearly every station. As an added benefit, the People Mover still offers a token option, enabling New Yorkers (and former ones, like Tobier and me) to re-experience a lost facet of the MTA system (you can also deposit 75 cents directly into the machines — or, frankly, hop the wheelchair gate with relative ease).

Judging by the literary and visual contributions to Tobier’s project — each drawing inspiration from a different stop on the People Mover loop — I am not the only one with complex or conflicting emotions about this quixotic piece of infrastructure.

“I picked the Broadway stop as my muse,” said artist and printmaker Stacey Malasky, who created a drawn object collage that captures the many elements of the busy downtown entertainment district served by the station. “Now I have a three-year-old son who attends the YMCA for daycare, and he loves riding the People Mover! 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 three-year-old and notice the gorgeous artwork at every station, and the way I want to throw up a little when it tips at an angle over the Detroit River, or how it announces the next stop and then, two seconds later, we are at that stop.”

A drawing by Stacey Malasky for Looping Detroit

“My favorite stop is Cadillac Square,” said Tobier, “for the social/architectural mix of the City County Building and the small back streets, parking lots, and places I have gotten to hang out.” In addition to his opening essay, annotations, and epilogue for the book, Tobier contributes a series of photographs depicting Detroit environs adjacent to the People Mover — sold a little short by the black-and-white printing of the publication by the University of Michigan Library. Tobier also served as editor for the 15 artists and writers, whose contributions reflect a jumble of conflicting emotions, hard data, and layers of memory. After all, the People Mover has been circling around Detroit’s psyche for going on 30 years.

“I selected these artists and writers for their voices and their connections to the city, both as long-term residents and more recently arrived,” said Tobier. “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.”

A spread from Looping Detroit, featuring a photograph by Nick Tobier

One such contributor is Katie Grace McGowan, whose intermedia practice often juxtaposes found language from signs and public promotional materials with personal memories and loose sociological surveys.

“Nick did a splendid job gathering disparate perspectives on the People Mover,” said McGowan. “This book’s release couldn’t be more timely. 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 twenty years from now, I suspect people will view the unfortunately named Q line in the same light as we view the People Mover today.”

MGowan is referring to the M-1 Rail, a pet project of Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert. He brought on several of the city’s major philanthropic arts organizations to help fund the first arm of a light rail system that will serve a short stretch of the Woodward Avenue corridor — the main artery of the city’s downtown area. Like many Detroiters, Tobier is skeptical.

“The downtown to midtown corridor is already fairly well served and well resourced,” said Tobier, “and although I appreciate investment in any public transit, I see that the investment comes continually in the same areas, while the vast footprint of the city is continually underserved.”

A spread from Looping Detroit, featuring writing by Michael Zardoorian and a photograph by Nick Tobier

Indeed, while one ride to nowhere is perhaps amusing, a second demonstrates an astonishing blind spot on the part of the city. One hopes the lessons and personal histories captured in Looping Detroit can serve as a timely reminder to the powers that be not to perpetuate the mistakes of the past, but to learn from them.

Nick Tobier’s Looping Detroit: A People Mover Travelogue is published by the University of Michigan Library and available from Amazon.

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