Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Detroit - the Lure of Not Quite Home

Subrato, a friend of mine from overseas said something very interesting the other day. "When I'm here in Canada, home is huge in my mind and heart. But when I'm there, in my home country, Canada is very small and very far away." He'd come to Canada about a decade ago, for better opportunity, to make a mark, to see something of the world. But for all his successful adaptation here, Home still has a powerful hold on him.

My home town is Detroit, and I don't have nearly so close a connection to it as my friend does to his. He's returned to India almost every year since I've known him, working overtime and foregoing all other vacations to do so. Though when I moved to Toronto I found myself (purely by accident) a mere three hour drive from Detroit, I've gone there less than a dozen times in twenty years.

I once really loved Detroit. Though I left there at 5, I spent my summers there through my early teens, and I went back regularly into my mid-twenties. But by then, several years after the '67 riots that devastated the city and set it on its long, downward path, a kind of deep ugliness had begun to set in, and I just wasn't interested in being there anymore. Every other city I experienced - New York, Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, Rome - offered so much more, to my eyes. They were livelier, cleaner, saner and a whole lot safer. Because Detroit could be scary as hell. All that beautiful spirit that sparked the music and the spontaneous, party-hearty exuberance of Detroiters could get ugly and mean pretty quick. And the dull mono-culture of the car plants, where just about everybody did shift work, seemed to carve out a recess through which violence and self-destruction flowed.

I guess you could say I'm conflicted about my hometown. I'm grateful for the rich cultural stew that Detroit is. It was a mecca for Blacks from all over the South and Midwest in the early part of the 20th Century, who came there for the good jobs and freedoms they lacked at home. This included my father, who ran off to Detroit from a small town in Indiana on the night of his high school graduation. But personally, for most of my own life, I’ve been grateful not to be in Detroit.

And yet, Home has a kind of attraction. And lately, Detroit’s been reasserting a hold on me that I haven’t felt in a long, long time, if ever. Because Detroit seems to be in the process of reinventing itself. For the last decade and more, all sorts of urban experiments have been taking place there. Urban farming is maybe the most well known aspect of this exploration, but the creative innovation extends into business, the arts and ways of creating and supporting community.

As a social worker for so much of my life, I’ve done lots of working and studying and thinking about community, about what makes it work, and why it so often fails. I’ve longed to put strategies into practice. But I’ve not had the commitment, the conviction, nor the persuasive powers to be a community builder.

Now, Detroit beckons from a distance, luring me with the wide openness of its desolation.  It’s lost more than half its population over the last forty years, and – always a geographically large city – it now has a huge surplus of space, both actual and metaphorical. What are the possibilities of all this space? And what might I bring to that?  Might I be an explorer in my own home town? Might I somehow enrich that place I was born, by returning there with all my experience of other places? How might I contribute to Detroit’s Renaissance?

These are intriguing thoughts, and they have me contemplating my home city in a new and different way. Which brings me to an interaction with another Toronto friend. Sean grew up here, in the Cabbagetown, Corktown and Regent Park areas of Toronto’s downtown East side. When I last spoke to Sean, he was bubbling over with excitement over just having bought a mansion in Detroit. He got it for what would’ve gained him a shabby hovel in Toronto, and in Indian Village, one of the high end communities of Detroit that came through the latter part of the 20th century relatively unscathed.

Sean is so high on Detroit. He’s meeting people everywhere he goes, impressed by their friendliness – which contrasts nicely with the public aloofness of Torontonians. He’s engaging with the revivalist spirit he encounters, and he’s immersing himself in the music and arts history and culture. He is of course aware of my Detroit, but he firmly believes that it will die out with those who’ve survived it but won’t let it go. The New Detroit, as he sees it, belongs to those – both native and newcomer – who imagine it, have the passion and energy to create it, and who Believe!

I see this new spirit, this creative passion, in the children of cousins who remained in Detroit when I left. They are mature adults now, raising their own families, full of their own memories and intentions and dreams. One of them, Claude, has a flower business, and he works and promotes his business with a verve and passion and level of commitment that won’t acknowledge any possibility of failure. If I sometimes imagine that my own generation failed or was failed by Detroit, it’s clear to me that Claude’s generation has tossed aside our explanations and excuses and will recreate their city according to their own vision and in no way bound by our sad memories.

Claude’s brother, Edd, is equally impressive in another way. His skills are predominantly in the creative domain. He’s a writer and musician. And while I dodder along, with my fantasies of someday having my novel put into print by a traditional publisher, Edd has struck out boldly and self-published, selling his books at readings and author appearances at local bookstores, and wherever else he can.

I don’t imagine that I will ever actually return to Detroit and set down roots. I’ve never been one for going backward in that way. But even if I was, just the idea that I’d be going back tells me that I have it all wrong. My Detroit is gone, and has been for a long time. When I visit there, I’m reattaching myself to whatever memory, nostalgia and ambivalent longing can resurrect. That may sometimes amount to a memorializing of life, but it isn’t living. I’m sure that I will continue to indulge in this view of home through the rear view mirror, but I intend to cultivate a forward view as well. There’s a Detroit arising that I don’t see coming, that I can’t even imagine. And I welcome it. I welcome the fresh eyes and the new heart that it will demand of me. And, while I hope never to forget the city I have such complex, contradictory feelings about, I will invest my loving expectation, my trusting, my own believing in what may be hidden from me, but is certain to come. There’s a new and different Detroit in the making. And it will be home enough for those who create it.


  1. A home that you leave ceases to exist. I grew up in New York, and it was home base (even if I didn't always live there) until I was 32. But many of the people who made New York home have died or moved away, so if I visit New York expecting to feel that I am "home," I am visiting a cemetery or a museum. The neighborhoods I lived in are not as they were when I was there.

    A friend of mine who died in March spent the last five months of her life living in a nursing home after the surgery for a tumor in her brain left the left half of her body paralyzed and the right half unreliable. She was unable to live as she had in her beautiful apartment with her husband. An acquaintance, visiting her, asked her if she wanted to go back home. She looked at him, and responded, waving to indicate her husband, "Home is wherever he is, and he is always here."

    1. "Home is wherever he is, and he is always here."
      I LOVE that. So true.
      And my friend Subrato's reaction to this post is the same. "You didn't say WHY home still has a hold on me. It's the PEOPLE," he says.
      So yeah, my Detroit is memory and fantasy mostly. And I haven't worked to keep the relationships strong. THAT's what's missing. Not about revitalizing Detroit's community. But revitalizing my own.

  2. I love the way you write! This blog has started me thinking about my own history.

    As you know, I left my own home town Berlin in the 70's, mainly to escape from the restrictions on free movement, which the political situation of the city involved at that time. I enjoyed my freedom as a musician to be able to travel around as I pleased, and had no intentions to settle down, ever! It was not a decision I took, it just happened that there was one place, were I increasingly started to feel at home. It was not because of the Danish girl either, who came up one night and requested "Spinning Wheel", and who is now my wife - she always wanted to live in the South instead. I just liked the vibes of the country and its people.

    Subrato is right: It's the PEOPLE!

    Although today Denmark is my home without any doubt, I still feel very much at home in Berlin as well, when I go there from time to time, inspite of the dramatic changes of the past 30 years. But if I did not have any friends to visit anymore, I suppose this would make a difference.

    The same way, Inge and I would, of course, not have felt nearly as comfortable and "at home" in Toronto without you guys, and the way you accepted us as a part of your families.

    Having said this, I have one more comment to make:
    Perhaps we have been especially lucky, but during our entire stay we never encountered any public aloofness with Torontonians. Quite the reverse, we were amazed by the friendliness and sociabilty we met everywhere. If Detroit can beat this, we certainly want to go there, next time we come over.

    1. Thanks, Jurgen. It never ceases to amaze me what different experiences people can have of a place. Yes - I remember you commenting on people's friendliness when you visited us. And right in line with that is the reaction I get from so many Canadians about Detroit - especially those who grew up just across the border, in Windsor. They almost always talk about how much they loved going to Detroit: It was so alive and worldly, they were so impacted by the culture. Sometimes they mention being a little fearful at first, but apprehension was always dissolved as they interacted with people.
      And, on the other hand, I've heard so much negativity about the rudeness of the Parisien French, and of Montreal's French Canadians, but my experience of those cities has been just the opposite - I've felt welcome and have always been treated with kindness and respect. But there's absolute agreement on one point, from everyone I speak to about this blogpost. SUBRATO and LUCIE are RIGHT! IT'S THE PEOPLE!!!