Monday, January 11, 2010

Going Back to Dearborn

For most of the 16 years that I lived there, I couldn't wait to get out of Dearborn, for a few reasons

1) It was boring and unattractive, a typical outer ring Detroit suburb. It was more urban than today's McMansion-filled sprawl in that I could walk to local businesses. I would have preferred either a real city or a more bucolic country setting, but I came of age in acres of post-war housing and used car lots, instead.

2) The people could be so hateful. When my family moved to the east end of Dearborn in 1981, most of our neighbors were white, elderly, long-term residents who were obsessed with maintaining their front lawns. They didn't like having a bunch of kids around and they definitely didn't like seeing a lot of Arab American families moving into the neighborhood. These were the same people who had proudly kept segregationist Orville Hubbard as their mayor for 36 years. After he died and Dearborn began to get way less white, the 80's got to be a very ugly time in my town. The statement "I'm not racist, I just hate Ay-rabs" was commonly spoken among all the white people I knew. Fortunately, my mother raised me well enough to know that that's completely fucked up.

3) Unfortunately, my parents had also raised me to believe that life was immeasurably better in our previous home, that mod and marvelous metropolis known as... Buffalo, New York.

It makes sense in hindsight. United Airlines laid off my father in '81. His best option was to take a much lower paying job with the company and move the family to Dearborn. In Buffalo, my parents owned a bigger home in a neighborhood they loved, where they could afford to send their kids to the Catholic school down the street. Life in Dearborn meant a bungalow for eight (which turned to nine when my little brother came along), neighbors we never really knew and public schools. So even though I had the vaguest recollections of life in Buffalo - and by my siblings' accounts, it was not such a great place for kids - I grew up thinking that we had a golden life there, and that Dearborn was more like stainless steel.

At age twenty, I left Dearborn to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Turned out that I hated UM, but much was happier living in Ann Arbor. I stayed there for nine years before moving in with Dan in Detroit. By that point, I had long tired of Ann Arbor, and though it had once seemed like a much superior alternative to Dearborn, it never felt like home to me. So when economic realities convinced us to move back to Washtenaw County, we chose Ypsilanti over Ann Arbor.

I love Ypsi. It's the only town that makes me consider staying in Michigan after Dan completes his doctorate. It combines the down-to-earth, working class sensibility I associate with Wayne County, with the more progressive values and verdant landscapes I associate with the Ann Arbor area.

But I also like that Ypsi living puts me closer to Dearborn, not just geographically, but psychologically, too. Ann Arbor is its own planet, a polished little bubble. It has its charms, but it isn't for me. Detroit, conversely, is a cold bucket of reality thrown in your face - at times disturbing, but also refreshing. Places like Dearborn and Ypsi are somewhere in between, both being former industrial hotspots that have managed to hang on despite a long series of economic blows. And geographically, the two towns are just a half hour distance along Michigan Avenue, a road that has been just around the corner of four residences and 20 years of my life. I guess that's why I have this sense of coming full circle.

Last Spring, my mother bought a house in Dearborn Heights. Between that and some intense cravings for middle eastern food, Dan and I have been spending a lot more time in Dearborn. I'm really happy to say that Dearborn has changed.

I can't help smirking as I write. "Dearborn has changed" used to be code for "There are too many brown people in this town". Here's an example, overheard at Dexter's Pub in 2003 - "We used to live in Dearborn and it was so wonderful. They had the best city services, but that old neighborhood just isn't what it used to be. Dearborn's changed". I nearly tore my hair out when I heard that. It was an affirmation of everything I was so eager to leave behind.

I'm sure that many people say it still, especially those who felt compelled to move away. But the sentiment seems much different among those who chose to stay. When I talk to people who live in Dearborn now, they seem proud of their integrated community. There's a lot to be said for living with people who don't look like you. I remember the preppy white girls at Fordson high school shrieking "Kiss emick!" (Arabic for "Your mother's vagina") the way other white girls scream "Oh my god!" Many of those girls' parents would never let them date an Arab boy, but I'm guessing the grandkids won't be so tightly guarded. That's a good thing.

Another major positive development in Dearborn - black people now live there. That definitely didn't happen when I was a kid. I remember there being a black kid in school twice, on different occasions, but their families didn't stay for long. The city government and cops were notoriously racist (the common code amongst the white residents was "people from Detroit" as in "The City had to cancel the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Festival because too many people from Detroit were coming to it"). Well, I happen to know that there are lots of black people now living in Dearborn. On our last visit to our favorite middle eastern restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see several white, black and Arab American families dining, as well as some Dearborn cops. That combination of people peacefully sharing a public space simply didn't happen in 1987.

So I'm feeling way more comfortable in Dearborn these days, but I have to admit that my change in attitude is largely personal. So many of my unhappy childhood memories have to do with my family and the house where I grew up. I guess I took all that bad feeling and stretched it to the city limits, because I used to have nightmares about moving back to Dearborn. I decided that I will never go back to that house (my sister still lives there) and now that my mom has her own place, it's very easy for me to stick to that resolution. I guess that's cured me of my bad attitude toward Dearborn.

I also figured out that my parents' nostalgia for the old life in Buffalo put a spell on me. Funny how those childhood influences can taint your adult perspective, because honestly, I had long felt like a failure for not having left Michigan. I'm ecstatic that I broke free of that mindset.

I still see Dearborn for its history of racism and general intolerance, and though wouldn't care to return to it, I no longer scoff at anyone for wanting to live there. I also feel a pleasant sort of pride and, yes, nostalgia when I return. I choose to not live there, but I no longer have nightmares about it.

1 comment:

  1. CORRECTION - Dearborn is an inner ring suburb, meaning that it borders Detroit. I knew that, of course, but I was confused by the terminology. "Inner ring suburb" sounds like an oxymoron to me, as in "that inside outside thing". But, that is the true term.