I’m in Detroit, visiting my mother while the rest of the family spends the week in Disneyworld. I’m getting the better end of the deal. There’s construction on I-94 East, so I’m re-routed onto surface roads and through a patchy section near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge. I navigate by keeping the RenCen in sight—the RenCen means Jefferson Avenue, which I can take the rest of the way to the east side. I grew up near Detroit in the eighties, lived there sporadically for a few years in the mid-nineties, and moved away for good in ’98, but I try to go back three or four times a year to visit my mom, who still lives in Grosse Pointe and works for Wayne State University. We have our little three-day routine: jazz at the Dirty Dawg, shopping at the Somerset Collection, a side-jaunt up to Melodies and Memories on Gratiot where she waits in the car (her choice) while I do a quick browse through the CDs.
Like many ex-Detroiters, I spend a lot of time hearing shitty things about the city, but I can’t think of a single conversation I’ve had with someone who’s actually lived there that didn’t reveal how much they love Detroit and want it to do well. Part of why Detroiters love Detroit is that everyone else hates it. Part of it is that it’s a hard city to love, and that makes the affection one feels for it all that more intense. Looking through the window of a fifth-floor office downtown, the main color you notice as you stare over the city is green. That’s in part due to the partial and in some cases complete abandonment of many neighborhoods, leaving trees poking through rooftops and vines crawling across windows and walls. The problems one always hears about Detroit—crime, drugs, gangs—are real, but they’re no longer the main story. These blights are typically due to overcrowding, and Detroit’s predicament is the opposite. After years of economic decline, Detroit no longer has a population sizable enough to sustain its geographic sprawl—this used to be one of the biggest cities in the Midwest, remember—and so the pockets of urban redevelopment that do exist are forced to do so alongside the surrounding decay. One fantasizes about somehow consolidating the remaining population, bulldozing the ruins, and recreating Detroit as the culturally vibrant, ethnically varied, mid-sized city it actually is. Maybe there’s something fascistic about the idea, but it’s frustrating to see so much potential struggling to emerge amid all those blocks of vacated land.
A few years ago, I was teaching a writing course in Boston, and one of the students turned in a story that began with the main character returning from a business trip to Detroit. As I read, I had to keep my annoyance under control as I encountered snide comments about the city—how the character had to step over bums and broken crack pipes to get into his hotel, how the sound of bullets flying kept him up at night, etc. None of this was the point of the story; the writer simply needed his character to return from somewhere, and maybe Detroit felt right (the point being that the Midwest is always a departure point but never a destination, perhaps?), and the writer plugged in whatever two or three things he thought he knew about Detroit and hurried on to the next scene. As a writing teacher, I tend not to intervene on my students’ content. I feel that students can and should write whatever they want, and my role is to help them with structure and mechanics. But I’m a human being too, and Detroit is personal to me, and so when we discussed the story in class, I asked the student if he’d ever been to Detroit. “Just the airport,” he said, “once.” (Detroit Metro Airport is actually in Romulus, about forty-five minutes west of the city.) I proceeded to give him my Detroit speech: the music and restaurant scene, the beautiful new lofts going up downtown, the DIA, the DSO, Riverwalk, home to four major sports teams (yes, we know about the Lions), the fact that Detroit’s over-reported problems with crime and poverty are in no way unique to Detroit but are to be found in every industrial town in the Midwest—there are slums in Cleveland, there are slums in Pittsburgh—but because Detroit is perceived as a black city, those problems are magnified through a racial lens by the media and accepted by people who aren’t curious enough to give the matter a second thought.
Okay, maybe I didn’t say all that. But when I was finished, the student asked what I would’ve thought about his Detroit references if I hadn’t lived there when I was younger.
I said, “You’re a good writer, so I probably would’ve believed you.”
This is the dangerous power of language.