Pilgrimage to the Motor City

Pilgrimage to the Motor City

I am moments from sliding behind the wheel and heading to what was once my home- the beleaguered Detroit area.

My parents were both born and raised within the city.  It was much like the South Side.  People identified with a parish rather than a neighborhood.  They were Gesu. Trees were big, homes were Tudoresque or Colonial on tree-lined streets.  When I was 5, we moved into an embryonic neighborhood in the suburbs. It was a treat to pile in the car and go to the more active neighborhood where my Mom’s parents lived. We could amble around freely.  Cousins lived in houses nearby, and we would go on adventures together: we bowled, bought pop and junky candy at the grocery, and ran through sprinklers.  It was beautiful. Life was good.

Then it wasn’t.Detroit-on-fire-in-July-1967.-300x196

When I was a junior in high school, riots broke out two blocks from where my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents lived.  Six Mile, the shopping avenue for lovely clothing, was destroyed by fire and violence.  Looters took everything.  My Aunt called in fear,  and we could hear sirens, panes of glass shattering, and fearful screaming and crying.  Memories and storefronts were scarred. Most people hunkered down, then got moving boxes.  There was plenty of space just up the road in Oakland County.  Many Tudor homes saw the colors of the Black Liberation movement painted into the panels that were formerly English Cottage style. It was a bad look, to be honest.  It didn’t really help the neighborhood meld into a post-war peace. The University of Detroit stabilized the neighborhood, but today these homes are worth a pittance.  No one wants to live there.

As soon as curfews were lifted, and gas sales were allowed, an active migration began. Businesses did not reopen.  Corporations relocated to the I-75 corrider. The tax base was gutted, schools hollowed out.

The ensuing vacuum of leadership provided an opportunity for corrupt, self interested exploiters to milk the life out of Detroit.  Corrupt leadership was the only leadership.  Federal dollars went into the pockets of one dapper Mayor Coleman Young, who talked a good talk, and treated taxes and grants like his allowance.  No one else wanted to reign over the ruins.  He was there forever, investigated and targeted, but not toppled until only a shell remained.

There have been some altruistic public servants, but the damage is deep.  Auto plants withered under Japanese competition for decades, and the employment opportunities faltered. The schools are desperate.  Firemen do not have equipment.  Garbage and water are being withheld from homeowners who are alone on their blocks of empty, boarded homes.  Move along, move away.

I mourned Detroit then, I mourn it now.

Much of the city looks like a war zone.  Factories resemble bombed out buildings, inhabited by squatters, addicts and rats.  There is no money to police the savage corners, just the Casino/Greektown/Sports areas.  There are signs of the post apocalypse, but I doubt if I will see my childhood memories recreated.

BUT.  I love going there.  Not back to the vast unloved neighborhood of my Grandparents, but to the place where I grew up, taught, and met Steve. Detroit means Detroit area.  We may not always love this scrappy, tattered relative, but we cannot sever it.  My family is still there.

The people of Metropolitan Detroit, now relocated in a donut around the ruins, are the best of the Midwest.  Without a giant Theater District, or a dazzling Downtown to seduce them, they find their social life stapled by…of all things- people.  They meet for meals.  They party at home.  They go to movies and restaurants in droves.  They unite to cheer their teams.  Families, friendships and  schools benefit from the localized devotion.

I will slide right back into this cocoon.  A bridal shower, coffee with sisters, art fairs, craft store shopping, wine on the porch, late night ruminations- this is where I am headed.  It is like slipping into that ratty old robe that just feels like a home sweet home.

In fact, I will be staying in my childhood home.  It is now owned, and burnished with love to a dazzling beauty, by my youngest sister Marie.  I will sleep in the bedroom I prepared for my wedding in.

They say you cannot go home.  I will.  Look out Woodward Avenue, here I come.  Pictures to follow.

Have a swell weekend yourself.


Leave a comment