In recent years, Detroit has come under the proverbial magnifying glass, being inspected and observed. While the city’s hardships have been well-documented (being the largest city to file for bankruptcy and the recent controversial water shut-offs), the rest of the country seems to be sitting back and waiting to see whether Detroit will re-emerge as a viable city, or fall further into disrepair.
On the other hand, Detroit is seen as a land of opportunity to many outside investors looking for a downtown area with cheap real estate and people willing to work. Even Michiganders who may have very little experience with, or connection to, the city are showing more interest. For anyone unfamiliar with the terrain and landmarks of Detroit, there’s one man who can acquaint you with both.
Joseph Krause started Backseat Detroit with the mission of offering tourists a narrative of the city. In just two or three hours, Krause can provide a thorough tour of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. He also offers longer, specialized tours.
Krause regales his guests with tales of Detroit’s historic landmarks and neighborhoods, offering a positive take on the city’s future. The most unique aspect of the tour is that, because of a disease that affects his vision, Krause shows tourists around as a passenger rather than a driver. If you don’t have a vehicle, or would prefer to travel by foot, he also offers walking tours.
Metro Times: What is Stargardt disease?
Joseph Krause: It’s very similar to age-related macular degeneration, except it’s genetic and it’s youth-onset. It’s progressive. There’s no treatment. Your vision gets mangled in the middle, and, typically, you maintain your peripheral vision. So as a result I gave up driving three years ago, and I don’t ride a bike either. So I get around by bus, foot, and Uber or Lyft cars.
MT: What’s your prognosis?
JK: There isn’t one; there’s not enough knowledge. The studies are all pretty new. Something that came out in the last year is it seems that there are two different types. It’s rare to be diagnosed as late as I was. I was 26; I’m 33 now. The youth onset type makes you legally blind much faster, and the result is you have it much worse than I do. It’s like a slower progression if it hits you later in life.
MT: When did you begin giving tours?
JK: Well, I’ve been a host on Air BnB … I was one of the earlier hosts in the city, and I was hard up for cash. Then I couldn’t help showing people around town. So when people came in, I would spend a couple hours showing them around. Jeanette Pierce helped a lot, from D:Hive. I work at D:Hive as well, but I’ve been doing backseat [tours] for a year now.
MT: How do you customize the tours?
JK: There’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” sort of thing. If you just have a very short period of time, you can see Indian Village or Boston-Edison; you can see the Fisher Building or the Guardian Building. If you want a ruin, you can see the train station or the Packard Plant. If you want public art, you can see Hamtramck Disneyland or the Heidelberg Project.
MT: How did you gain knowledge of the city?
JK: There are always gaps in knowledge. Like, I can’t tell you a lot if we tour a cemetery, or about sports. I can’t tell you shit about sports. I try to tell the arc of the 20th century because, if you’ve never been here, you look around and say, “How did it get like this?” That’s the answer I try to give. What I know comes from me trying to answer that question.
MT: What sort of clientele does your business attract?
JK: I usually get people from outside of metro Detroit, but sometimes I get locals. I’m usually showing people who have never been here before. A lot of them are from overseas, and around the world there is an interesting collection of people who are fascinated by Detroit and eventually make it here to check it out. There was a couple from Norway that I was showing around who didn’t understand how stop signs worked. Now there are places in Europe where there aren’t street signs because things are so small that you just pay attention. So they were like “Whoosh!” through a stop sign and I was like, “Whoa, you have to stop at those!”
MT: When you’re not giving a tour riding with someone else, and Stargardt’s inhibits you from driving and cycling, you rely on public transportation. What do you think of the city’s current transit situation?
JK: We’ve got some of the worst public transit in the United States. It should be a national shame. I mean, we’re getting what we pay for because it’s about a third funded of what it needs to be for both SMART and DDOT. I’m an amateur transit advocate, but that usually takes the form of writing bitterly on Facebook.
MT: With recent stem-cell research for Stargardt’s, do you have hope that a treatment will emerge?
JK: I’m actually participating in a study about it. They’re going to monitor me for two years, every six months, and I’ll be part of a control group for when they do the stem-cell research. I’ve also contributed my blood to this database for it. I like science, and I’m really happy that I can add data to this field.
MT: Does living with Stargardt’s affect your enjoyment of Detroit?
JK: The way my vision loss works means that right now I can still see somewhat clearly if I can examine things a bit. So my enjoyment of these things is not diminished. The lack of immediate comprehension of what I’m seeing is what makes me stay off the road. In the future, I may have no central vision instead, or partial vision, which means I wouldn’t be able to read or recognize faces. My vision corrects to about 20/40 to 20/60 in the parts of my vision that are active, but in other parts I see nothing. My eyesight doesn’t affect my appreciation of the things that are physically beautiful in the city, but because it makes transportation difficult, I no longer feel that cheap space in far-flung parts of the city is an opportunity for me as a place to live or be an artist. It’s been a stark lesson in how important good public transportation and walkable urbanism is.
MT: Do you have a favorite area or landmark in Detroit?
JK: I think the Penobscot looks the best in the skyline when it’s lit properly. The Guardian is the most spectacular thing we’ve got going. In a lot of ways, the Book Tower is my favorite because it’s so weird. It’s like an awkward teenager.
To learn more about Joseph Krause or to book a tour, see backseatdetroit.com.