Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Another native son explains the real Detroit

Detroit on Thursday became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, as the state-appointed emergency manager filed for Chapter 9 protection.
Detroit on Thursday became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, as the state-appointed emergency manager filed for Chapter 9 protection. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's carbon and monoxide
The ole Detroit perfume.
It hangs on the highways in the morning
And it lays you down by noon.

Sweep up, I been sweeping up the tips I've made
I been living on Gatorade, planning my getaway.

Detroit, Detroit
Got a hell of a hockey team
Got a left-handed way of making a man sign up on that
Automotive dream, oh yeah.

-- Paul Simon’s Papa Hobo

Growing up I always hated the suburbs north of Detroit because my parents didn’t move out after the ’67 riots. Everyone else we knew got the hell out. They had a name for it: "white flight." It’s one of the reasons Detroit lost its tax base and the population dropped from nearly 2 million to 740,000.

My folks refused to leave, believing in their city – my father’s shoe store was there, too — and I got to feel "cool" by staying urban tough (see Mailer’s The White Negro), proud to be one of 4 white kids in my MacDowell Elementary class. I really resented those that did split, flying in their cool Motor City-made convertibles to live in flat, mall-to-mall subdivisioned towns just over the 8 Mile Road line.

White suburbanites just used the city without giving anything back—“here we are now/ entertain us.” They drove in for pro sports or plays at the Fisher Theater and concerts at the Henry Ford Auditorium. They slummed by boozing at various “ethnic festivals” held downtown by the Detroit River all summer. (Did you know you have to go south across the river to get to Canada? Google Map it, baby!)

Now having just returned from a Michigan visit to the suburbs of Detroit where my relatives all live, I found the place practically idyllic: lush green hills and 2-lane country curves leading to black water lakes in Oakland County towns like Wing Lake, Cass Lake, Walled Lake, Lake Orion. What’s better than a home on a lake? Okay, a home on the sea because in Michigan there’s a jillion June bugs splattering your windshield this time of year. But to drive through deeply shaded neighborhoods of Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Woods, and Grosse Pointe Shores, to get to a gleaming blue-green Lake St. Clair -- it may not be a Great Lake, but it is so big you can’t see Ontario on the other side — is to understand the appeal of Midwest summer thunderstorms and money. In Michigan, you can brag about being the home to more lakes than Minnesota. That’s right! Minnesotans may wear “Ten Thousand Lakes” on their license plates, but Michigan goes to 11,000.

One suburb at the edge of the city, East Detroit, changed its name to “Eastpointe” in an effort to sound more impressive and less, well, Detroity.  And how did that work out? According to a real estate website, Eastpointe home prices dropped by almost one-half between 2000 and today, from a median price of just under $100,000 to $50,000. And prices dropped another 10% in the most recent quarter.

Starting my radio career at the age of 17, I was lucky to land a job at WJR 760, a clear channel station known as “The Great Voice of the Great Lakes,” broadcasting from “the golden tower of the Fisher Building.” Right next to GM Headquarters. That section of Detroit was known as The New Center.  It’s not so new anymore, and neither is “New Detroit,” the organization formed after the 1967 riots.

So what we need is a New New Detroit. And the suburbs, as I say, have their good points. For instance, the 88-year-old Broadway diva Elaine Stritch just moved from NYC back to her hometown of Birmingham, north of Detroit. She told me she was looking forward to being closer to nieces and nephews and was excited about the new documentary about her life showing at Michael Moore’s film festival in northern Michigan’s Traverse City. (When I offered to drive Ms. Stritch "up north" for the screening, she said, "I’m quite sure Mr. Moore will be sending a car.")

So there’s one woman who can go home again. I also find hope in the words of Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, whom I heard on KPCC this weekend:

“One of the things that I learned from my father is that a crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. That's in the Chinese characters. And how you take advantage of the opportunity of the crisis rather than become despairing because of the danger and fearful is something we're facing all the time, particularly at this time. And it's a philosophical approach I think that is very much needed and also alive here in the city of Detroit.”

But back in 1990, a poem appeared in the New York Times by Donald Hall that starkly pointed to what was strangling Detroit, describing a breakdown in communication and misunderstanding between urban and suburban dweller. But is it still true almost 25 years later?

Poem with one Fact, by Donald Hall

At pet stores in Detroit, you can buy

frozen rats

for seventy-five cents apiece, to feed

your pet boa constrictor

back home in Grosse Pointe,

or in Grosse Pointe Park,

while the free nation of rats

in Detroit emerges

from alleys behind pet shops, from cellars   

and junked cars, and gathers

to flow at twilight

like a river the color of pavement,

 

and crawls over bedrooms and groceries   

and through broken

school windows to eat the crayon   

from drawings of rats—

and no one in Detroit understands   

how rats are delicious in Dearborn.

 

If only we could communicate, if only   

the boa constrictors of Southfield   

would slither down I-94,

turn north on the Lodge Expressway,   

and head for Eighth Street, to eat   

out for a change. Instead, tomorrow,

 

a man from Birmingham enters   

a pet shop in Detroit

to buy a frozen German shepherd   

for six dollars and fifty cents   

to feed his pet cheetah,

guarding the compound at home.

 

Oh, they arrive all day, in their   

locked cars, buying

schoolyards, bridges, buses,   

churches, and Ethnic Festivals;   

they buy a frozen Texaco station

for eighty-four dollars and fifty cents

 

to feed to an imported London taxi   

in Huntington Woods;

they buy Tiger Stadium,

frozen, to feed to the Little League   

in Grosse Ile.

 

They bring everything   

home, frozen solid

as pig iron, to the six-car garages

of Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods,   

Farmington, Grosse Pointe

Farms, Troy, and Grosse Arbor—

 

and they ingest

everything, and fall asleep, and lie

coiled in the sun, while the city   

thaws in the stomach and slides

to the small intestine, where enzymes   

break down molecules of protein   

to amino acids, which enter

the cold bloodstream.

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