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when i think about the d, it’s bittersweet

March 4, 2011

I was born and raised in Detroit. I lived downtown for the first thirteen years of my life, up until my family was forced to move when they closed down our apartment building. I went to Burton International (what’s now the Burton Theatre) from 1st to 8th grade, and probably would’ve attended Cass Tech if we hadn’t moved to Warren. But even after moving, I continued to hang out and work there before finally leaving Michigan in 2004. My last job was downtown, right across the street from where our old building used to be, in fact. So when I think about ‘Detroit,’ that’s the Detroit I usually think about.

From my point of view, there are good and bad things about Detroit, and I still think about it every now and then. Sometimes fondly, but often with sadness. Let’s be honest, as far as cities go, Detroit is in pretty bad shape and has been for decades. Sure, New Orleans isn’t doing that great, but they got hit by a hurricane. Detroit’s ‘natural disaster’ was decades of mismanagement, corruption, urban sprawl, and building its economic base on a single industry, motor vehicle and parts manufacturing. Crime and poverty seem to be a perpetual problem, as well as drug abuse. And when I was growing up, I was often exposed to some of the more unpleasant aspects of Detroit, events and memories that’ve helped give me a fairly negative view of the city over all.

When people talk about how great the city is, I still think about those deserted city streets in the 80s, before the two stadiums were built; my aunt’s house near Trumbull, a neighborhood full of drugs and poverty; the endless sea of abandoned houses that were often torched on Devil’s Night. I know all of Detroit isn’t like that, and things are changing, but it’s still hard to forget.

Maybe it’s just me, but I even found the atmosphere oppressing. I never noticed it until I left, but when I finally did, it just felt so bleak in comparison. I visited New York, then travelled across the country to eventually settle in Oregon. After experiencing more of the US, I was finally able to compare Detroit to other cities like New York, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, etc., and while all of them had their good and bad points, none of them had the same level of decay or the same oppressive atmosphere as Detroit. Even the people seemed different, happier, friendlier. I’d always heard about how mean people in New York were, but I felt more comfortable there as a stranger than I ever did in my own home town. And going out west, I felt even more at ease.

I’ve often wonder why this is, and I sometimes think that it’s because these cities are livelier and thriving. I’ve also noticed there doesn’t seem to be the same level of animosity between these cities and their surrounding suburbs like there is in Detroit. There’s a lot of hatred in Detroit, and from what I’ve heard, it’s been that way for a long time, especially after the riots in ’67. The racism and bigotry of that time has been left to fester, and I don’t think Detroit has been able to come together as a real community because of it. I think that’s changing, but Detroit still has a long way to go before it’s finally healed from those old wounds.

Truth be told, I find myself agreeing with critics of Detroit most of the time because I, too, think it’s a bit of a shithole. I think it’s your experiences of a place that ultimately colour your perception of it, and growing up in the heart of downtown, with its desolate streets, and around some of its seedier parts (my aunt’s neighborhood near Trumbull immediately comes to mind), I can’t help picturing it any other way. For me, Detroit was a big and lonely place that was slowly dying right before my very eyes.

Nevertheless, things weren’t all bad (and probably not as bad as I’m making them sound). I still like to remember the good times I had there, especially all the awesome people I knew (and still know). I make it a point to visit my friends and family at least once a year, and deep down, I’m proud to be from Detroit, especially because it has such a badass reputation. Detroit is a tough place. It’s made putting up with hardships in other cities a lot easier, that’s for sure. When people in Portland complain about the weather or how terrible they think Portland is, it just makes me laugh and appreciate how much a place like this has to offer compared to Detroit (except when it comes to sports teams).

And while I have some pretty harsh opinions about Detroit, I don’t hate the city, and I really hope that Detroiters can turn it around. It’s an uphill battle, for sure, but I think they can do if they put their hearts into it. I know it won’t be easy, though. Due to a combination of things like outsourcing, foreign competition, and little else for the economy to fall back on, there’s not as many good paying jobs as there used to be; and with no real public transportation system to speak of, just trying to find a decent job can be a struggle in and of itself. There also needs to be a lot of outside investment, which is hard to get when you don’t have much to offer right up front. People just need to be willing to take a chance on Detroit again.

Still, Detroit has a lot to offer, I can’t deny that. It’s home to great people, wonderful architecture, incredible music, and an amazingly rich history. Downtown is starting to come back to life, and I’ve heard they’re doing wonders with the riverfront.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m starting to feel a little nostalgic, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad place after all. I still remember catching my first fish at Belle Isle (a tiny rainbow trout). I still buy Vernors whenever I’m sick (it cures everything). I still sport my Tigers hat, and I find myself rooting for the Lions even though they’re arguably the worst team in football. I even like watching Detroit 1-8-7 just so that I can see some familiar places. I guess when it comes down to it, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Detroit. It’ll always be that old flame I never quite got over.

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