Saturday, August 24, 2013

Detroit On My Mind

Detroit is very much in the news lately.  So much in the news that when I was recently in Detroit I watched one of the local news affiliates spend several minutes interviewing a national news anchor about how much Detroit is in the news.  Like many things in Detroit it was hard to look away from, but dumbfounding at the same time.

There is much to love about Detroit.  I was born there, but raised in a nearby suburb.  Most of us when we refer to being from Detroit really mean a suburb.  But Pleasant Ridge or Ferndale or Oak Park don't mean anything to the rest of the world.  Detroit does.

It's frustrating to see people speculate about the city I think of as my hometown when it's obvious they've never spent any time there.  Many people think they know Detroit.  They've seen the "ruin porn" and the streets that have been allowed to decay and they hear about crime and poverty and the embarrassing level of racial segregation.  They maybe have some nostalgia for Motown and Mustangs, so they think they know Detroit.

The truth is I barely know Detroit.  It's been a long time since I called Michigan home, and when I go back I'm a visitor now.  A visitor with a great deal of affection for the whole area, and I'm delighted to discover things there both old and new.  Detroit is many things, none of them simple.  The kind of sweeping generalizations many want to make leave too much out, and often the best parts.

One of the things that is hard to wrap your head around about Detroit if you're not from there is how sprawling it is.  Area-wise you can fit Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan into that same space.  Getting around takes forever.  I'm always amused when people in Milwaukee complain about something being on the other end of town, when on an average day it only takes about twenty minutes to drive across the whole city.  Nothing outside of your immediate neighborhood in the Detroit area takes only twenty minutes to get to.  The amount of land available to do things with in Detroit is staggering, but corruption combined with a lack of vision and resources has caused it to go to waste.

Which is a shame, because the potential in Detroit is remarkable.  People who have never been have no idea of the beauty that exists there.

I learned as a child to look past the ruins.  The burned-out buildings and the blight don't change, so if you want to appreciate anything you focus on important landmarks like the art museum and Orchestra Hall and Belle Isle.  You take time to see the architecture of the old churches along Woodward Ave.  You marvel at the splendor inside the renovated opera hall, not the buildings left in shambles outside it.  You lose yourself in the enormous used bookstore, enjoy block after block of the Eastern Market on Saturday mornings, know where to find Chicago-style pizza in Greektown, and know around what corners the interesting restaurants and beautiful things and controversial art are hiding.  Detroit taught me how to not overlook the good that can be found in any city.  Some of the hardest working, most creative, and most talented people I've ever known are in Detroit.  The potential is inspiring.

But the struggle there is real and heartbreaking.  The suburbs have allowed the city to die and its everyone's loss.  Detroit needs so much to put it on a better track, but I feel as if it just needs the right people to care.

I'm horrified that what obvious jewels the city has left it's willing to squander for short term financial gain.  Talk of selling any of the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Art leaves me stunned.  Once that art is gone, it's gone.  It's like hearing Detroit officially say it's giving up any hope of being real city that anyone should take seriously.

I don't know if it helps or not, but I've seen blogs trying to do what they can by encouraging art lovers in other cities to buy a membership to the DIA to show support for saving the museum.  If any of my readers are interested, that link is here.

The DIA is an amazing place.  My father worked in the print department when I was a baby.  My favorite thing in the museum is a bronze sculpture of a donkey that my brothers and I used to be able to sit on when we were little.  They don't allow that now, but my kids still got to touch it the last time we were there.
Aden and Quinn at the DIA, December 2011

The craziest thing is that there is plenty of wealth in the region, just not in the city proper anymore.  I don't think outsiders grasp just how rich some of the rich in "Detroit" really are.  As respected art dealers in the area for 40 years my parents knew people from all ends of the spectrum, from struggling artists to wealthy clients, and I still tell stories of how extravagant some of the homes were I visited as a child when I would accompany my dad when he went to hang art for millionaires.

It's the contrast in Detroit that is so painful.  Not the fact that parts of the city itself are crumbling both literally and figuratively, but that there is opulence in close vicinity.  That north of 8-Mile there are people with the resources to not only keep the streetlights on and the roads plowed, but communities that are safe and thriving in a way areas of downtown can only dream of.

And too many think the inequity is evidence of some sort of justice, instead of the failure of society and individuals to care about the vulnerable among us.  I've never understood the willingness of those who think people deserve whatever they have or don't have to ignore the plight of children who, regardless of the situation they were born into, should not suffer.  People have no idea how much chance plays a part in what they feel they are entitled to.  (I wish there were a secular phrase that summed it up as well as "There but for the grace of God go I."  It's true for cities as well as people.)

There are no simple answers, but I wish there were.  When people bring up the fantasy of what you would do with unlimited money and power, my mind always goes to Detroit.  I'd want to figure out a way to fix it, with a better plan for the city and working it over house by house, block by block....

In the meantime, Detroit remains a place I associate not with the train wreck the rest of the world can't seem to look away from, but with love in all its glory and grief.  I'm glad I grew up where I did.  People who dismiss Detroit too quickly don't know what they are missing. 
Free Valentines at the closing of the Arnold Klein Gallery, 2011


  1. I have never been to Detroit, but it certainly looks different to me through your eyes.

  2. Reading about the bankruptcy of Detroit, I was both horrified and amused that the city received a telephone call from a Texan wishing to purchase the city! I had not pondered the concept that this could be possible. Could the right person lift an entire city to new heights? Could that person be from the Lone Star State?

    1. I think if Henry Ford were alive he would find a way to save the city, so I really do think one person with enough passion and money can do it. Why not a Texan?

      Personally, I would chop the city up into smaller, more manageable chunks and sell off sections for experimentation. Let the Tea Party people have a berg and see how well it goes with no taxes. Give another section over to a hippie contingent where everything is barter. Why not? The real key is to have people feel invested in where they live in a space that can be kept safe. There are so many possibilities for doing interesting things.

  3. I don't know Detroit at all, but this is a lovely post.

  4. Oh my goodness, Kory, I was reading your response to Barrett and dying! I was just saying something similar to Brien the other day--that I'd love to give sections of the country (although a city would be just fine) to the Tea Party and the red staters and the blue staters and such and see how things worked out.

    My mom visited Detroit as part of her travels for the publisher she works for. She found many amazing and wonderful things in Detroit as well.

    I had no idea just how large it was, and I really do appreciate you taking the time to share YOUR Detroit with us.

  5. I grew up in Ann Arbor, so Detroit was the "big city". School field trips included the DIA, which is amazing. When I was in college (at the U of M), we would go to Detroit for some of the music festivals. I remember being on the waterfront for music, and then walking away from the river to find a restaurant --which included walking past burned out buildings. Such a very strange place. Perhaps the size does have something to do with how difficult it's been for Detroit to resurrect itself.

    1. All those buildings burned in the race riots before I was even born, never addressed.... I panic a little when things are left to rot in my own neighborhood in Milwaukee because I've seen the damage it can do over time. It's demoralizing. And I do think size contributes to the issue, because there are physical limits. The wait time currently for 911 calls is nearly an hour in Detroit now. That's terrifying.

  6. That's very sad. I knew there was more to Detroit than what you hear - there's always more to a story. But it seems they need some very determined people (who have the money and influence) to save what's left and bring about more good - more art, more gardens, more jobs. Never was city planning so important a role.