I’m Your Vehicle, Detroit

DETROIT — Six days after returning home, two of the June 23-26 columnist conference’s field trips burn in me, tours of the Motown Historical Museum and the new heart-of-downtown home office of Quicken Loans.

Hitsville U.S.A.

The museum, informally called “Hitsville,” is in the two original houses in which Berry Gordy created the Motown recording label. Poverty, youth and convenience apparently led Gordy to set up in a residential block, eventually buying most houses there, each with a different business function. This also was a Malcolm Gladwell Outliers sort of monument: Its original stars (and writers and producers) were born within a few years of one another and many grew up in this neighborhood.

The one negative is this museum is it’s like a presidential library. You get only the good stuff about Gordy. He was no monster but neither was he a saint. The exuberance of the exhibits and most of all, the staff, overwhelm that predictable flaw. Museum visitors are organized into groups, guided to see a mini-documentary film then led through the rooms by guides who, besides lecture, sing and dance. By the end of the 30-40 minutes all visitors will have been persuaded to sing and dance a bit.

How else besides participating can one understand the genius of the analog sound effects Gordy used? (No one was recorded.) The most interesting is a 4×4-foot square hole in an upstairs ceiling exposing an unfinished attic. Singing or clapping under it created an echo — scratch that, created reverb, which would be recorded and used as a track. “Hey, young lady,” the tour guide said to a columnist, and he got her to sing the chorus of “My Girl” in the well. Little had we known that Tracy Beckerman could not only fill the room but sing on pitch. In the studio itself, he led the men in a Temptations-style clap and kick, and the women in a Supremes-like clap and shimmy.

Unlike most museums, we were not herded at the end to the gift shop, which I resent. But this is one time I might have bought a souvenir if I had had the time.The private museum allows no photography; there’s few photos online. But here is an AP picture of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee doing the guys’ step in the studio.

Quicken Loans

Quicken Loans hosted a lunch of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in its new headquarters, the top floors of the CompuServe building in downtown Detroit. Its executives want a lively urban atmosphere to enliven their young staff. They want to do right by Detroit and help revitalize its center, hit so hard this past decade. And the real estate there, plus government incentives, on this scale, is very affordable. Click here for a Detroit News report and a Detroit Free Press article. Quicken Loans had been in a suburb, overlooking a parking lot and a Costco, we were told. Now, staff had a view of the city skyline, the Detroit River and beyond.

It’s reminiscent of the high-tech campuses of Silicon Valley and Austin, but instead of sprawling horizontally, it’s vertical, several stories (20th through 23rd floors?). “We” are supposed to want to work in such environments. They’re said to be designed for creative people like us. My Beloved loved her Alltel Financial Services in west Little Rock and in other years IBM Global Services offices around the country.

When I am downsized from newspapers, this is what I am supposed to covet.

Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo
Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo

I was creeped out.

Give me dirty carpets and crumbs in the keyboards. It’s not that this set of offices with its dry-erase white boards and Herman Miller Aeron chairs with walls in earth tones of light yellow and muted moss green was sparkling clean. It was merely clean.

The signs got to me.

These weren’t the usual cute kittens and chimp babies mouthing greeting card motivational slogans.

Examples: The break room had large dental diagram illustrations with instructions on proper flossing.

A sign above nearby the coffee machine counter, “Please be HIGH LEVEL and keep area clean.” The capitals were theirs.

Around the corner were a pair of water fountains. On the wall beyond them were a pair of 6-foot-tall (life-size) pictures of the human muscle system, front and back. Its written message was on the importance of hydration and to drink lots of water throughout the day.

The many shredders, painted orange, had pointy white teeth handpainted around the paper slot. That was endearing.

A door along a hallway had a poster with a picture of a happy Monopoly-game like man. His own sign says, “AWARENESS.”  He is speaking: “Always Raising Our Level of (Door) Awareness — Please keep doors closed with not in use — thanks!” The parentheses were theirs.

Every well-lived-in newsroom has signs; I’ve posted some myself. But the patronizing tone of this mounted advice to computer coders, loan officers and phone support crews, acted to lift the Oz curtain: What would it be like to work here?

How long would I last in a joint like this?

Final Thought I

A day spent at the Detroit Institute of Arts would’ve been great if there’d been time. I want to come back to Detroit just for this museum. Yet the memory of a good hour in one gallery, the Rivera Court, will last, It’s a glass-roofed courtyard, and we ate the Saturday dinner there. Diego Rivera (played by Alfred Molina in the movie Frida), spent 11 months painting 27 panels in the wet-plaster fresco technique, which cover two walls and parts of the other two walls celebrating inventors and workers in Detroit Industry. See great art in person; nothing beats it.

Final Thought II

In promoting the conference, the NSNC posted videos of Motown hits. But this Brick stack needed a theme song. Armed with a vague memory I found “I’m Your Vehicle,” a 1970 hit by a band called the Ides of March. These fellows still tour. They’re not Motown. Still, “Vehicle” is an incredibly catchy song, and in hearing the second or third cover version it’s obvious the chart was fully in the Motown style. “Vehicle” has been a popular high school marching band song. and I’m an old band jock.

My favorite “Vehicle” cover is by Sammy Davis Jr. He wasn’t Motown, either.

But we all love it there.

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