Volume I – No. 4 – December 2004
In the first of a new feature for the newsletter, in which members offer their personal perspective on a T2M matter, Cambridge graduate student and native Swede, Gustav Sjöblom, finds crossing the road tricky on his first trip to America.
For many Americans as well as Europeans, the highlight of the 2004 T2M conference was not the conference papers, and not the welcome drinks at the Henry Ford Estate. It was not the guided tour of the River Rouge factory, nor the dinner at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was the first-hand experience of the particular form of mobility – or rather immobility – enjoyed in a city planned for the motor car and lacking not only public transport but even pavements and pedestrian crossings. The famous carmaker from Dearborn would perhaps have disapproved of the sign saying “Yield to Pedestrians” on the driveway leading to the Henry Ford Estate. But although there were not actually any cars around, this recognition of pedestrian existence came as a relieving glimpse of familiarity for the battered European academics who had found themselves literally stranded at the Ritz Carlton Dearborn in Detroit’s vast suburban sprawl, and had only recently been liberated by a bus, somewhat ironically disguised a tram, which took them to the Henry Ford Estate on the campus of University of Michigan Dearborn.
For the delegates who had arrived late on the night before the conference, the breakfast menu did not offer a good start to the day. “If you pay $20 for an omelet you expect to get the best omelet you’ve ever had. It wasn’t,” said Tom McKinney from Houston, Texas. Some of the European delegates did what any European would have done and attempted to go for a stroll in the neighbouring area to survey the local cafés and restaurants. Invariably they found themselves stranded just outside the hotel entrance, gazing onto the Dearborn cityscape from the vantage point of an island in the midst of a maze of impassable urban highways. After exchanging resigned glances with other Europeans who had flocked there for similar reasons, everyone went back into the Ritz and had the dearest continental breakfast of their life.
A group of brave men who later dared venture across the road to the Fairlane Town Center Mall faced further challenges. While asking for directions to TGI Fridays (which, incidentally, has just launched the latest step in burger evolution: the Jack Daniels burger) the group was constantly asked where they parked. Rather than endeavouring to explain that astonishingly enough he had walked the entire 100 meters from the Ritz, Robert Buerglener from Chicago, Illinois, managed to wriggle out of these situations with statements such as “We entered next to Sears” or “I came from the left”.
These anecdotes should not make you think that immobility was a negative experience. On the contrary, many found joy in the exotic adventures. I’d been looking forward to the American way of life for months, and after the conference promptly rented a Chrysler Sebring and spent three days cruising between fast food joints and cheap motels around Ann Arbor, Flint and Detroit.
Apart from real life tourism, the upshot of the enforced immobility was that all conference delegates flocked naturally to the hotel bars, which – besides the standard spectacle of luxury hotels: jazz and chocolate buffet, a wedding party and companies of young, cigar-smoking corporate careerists – offered ample opportunity for socialising and networking. Matching this cohesion and atmosphere will certainly be a challenge for the organisers of next year’s conference in York, England, where one can easily stroll around and choose from an abundance of cozy pubs.