Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Ever since the day when locals were actually excited about Kwame Kilpatrick being America's first "hip hop mayor", the question on everyone's lips has been, "Is Detroit coming back?" Amazingly, even with all the political scandals, and the nearly 30% unemployment rate, and the poor performing sports teams, the haters cannot overcome those who envision a brighter future for the D. So the debate continues. But I say, to hell with the question. What would "coming back" constitute anyway? A return to the 1950's? The 1920's? The 1730's? What's the great ideal and when do we call it a win?

The thing is, I like Detroit right now. I'm not denying that it's a really hard place to live, or that I sometimes feel scared or uncomfortable being there. But it has very unique charms, including some of the friendliest people in the region. And since I don't often bother engaging in arguments about Detroit, and I've more or less given up trying to convince white people that they shouldn't completely avoid the place, I'm going to show my appreciation for the city by telling an occasional story about some of my favorite moments spent there.

Not a Normal City

In the summer of 2007, Dan and I lived in a Victorian house in North Corktown. It was a pretty great location for walking or biking to midtown, downtown or the southwest neighborhoods (which I did often, always during daylight hours and it was only kind of scary once). One blazing Sunday afternoon, Dan laid in bed with an unfortunate hot weather head cold. There was no food in the house so I decided to ride my bike down to the Honeybee Market in Mexican town to pick up some groceries. I was looking for some specific ingredient - basil, or something - that couldn't be found there. With Dan laid up and knowing I had nothing better to do, I decided to bike over to the other good grocery store, Harbortown Market on East Jefferson. Having ridden there in a car on several occasions, I was confident that it wasn't too far a journey.

In actuality it wasn't (just four miles), but the thing about that stretch of East Jefferson is that there aren't any shade-providing trees or tall buildings. I rode by a lot of asphalt parking lots. There was nothing to protect me from the circa solstice sun. I was holding my Honeybee groceries in a backpack and I could feel the sweat dripping down and forming a little pool in the small of my back. By the time I got to Harbortown, I was embarrassed to take off the backpack and reveal the giant sweat stain on the back of my shirt, so I guess I wasn't too disappointed that they didn't have what I was looking for.

But as I was biking home, I started feeling a little thirsty. Not enough so that I was going to seek out a liquor store or gas station, disembark the bike, find a place to lock it, and reveal the giant sweat stain. As I pedaled toward downtown, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if I lived in a normal city with street vendors and I could just roll up on this bike and buy a juice?" I tried to imagine any occasion when I had seen that in Detroit, outside of a concert or festival. That sort of thing just doesn't exist.

I rode to Campus Martius, anyway, in the vain hope that someone had just decided to set up a cart in the middle of a downtown park. That is where that would happen, right? No luck, of course. But I was only a few minutes from home, where my Brita water pitcher awaited me.

Then, as I was rolling down Michigan Avenue toward Washington Boulevard, I heard some music and smelled grilled things. I followed the sound and smell and found a street party in front of St. Aloysius Church.

St. Aloysius is a flat faced funny looking parish squished between two office buildings. It's easy to miss unless you're standing on the street staring at it. It also happens to be the church where my parents got married. That being a pretty important step toward the existence of me, I guess I find St. Al's endearing.

It was especially endearing on that sunny evening. I saw a couple dozen folks lined up for burgers, dogs and Better Made potato chips. Others were chilling on folding chairs or sitting on the grassy part of the boulevard. There was a crowd of people doing the hustle to Stevie Wonder's "My Eyes Don't Cry" in a tent. Almost everyone appeared to be homeless, and the people were having a good old time! I parked my bike and wandered toward the beverage table. A white woman with a shaggy blond mullet rolled her eyes at the disco dancers as she poured cups of orange Faygo. "Come on people, the seventies are over!" she said. I asked her what was going on. "It's St. Al's annual street fair. We like to do this for the neighborhood. Everything's free. Help yourself to food and drink."

In my happy daze I stared at the church and muttered, "My parents got married here."

She stared at me. "Do you want something to drink? Get some food, too."

I settled for a bottle of juice, which is all I had really wanted. As I rolled the rest of the way home, I felt very pleased with the outcome of my journey.


  1. Wendell:

    This is one of the reasons I'm convinced Detroit still has some fight left in it. Especially regarding our earlier discussion about the Great Lakes undergoing its own renaissance "thanks" to the changing patterns of climate change, I can't imagine how things mightn't improve for Detroit as a result--it's the only major U.S. city on an international border (I don't think San Diego actually hits the line) and stands at the midpoint of a fairly important waterway (and one of the world's great water systems). One of the uncool things about not having a car is that I can't get over there more--I think the last time I hit Detroit was in June. It almost makes me want to rethink my eventual move to Chicago (unless I find a really sweet gig in Ann Arbor, which is hilariously unlikely) and consider Detroit instead, as it could probably stand a few people willing to live outside the material parameters currently demanded by society. Stories like yours only strengthen the idea--thanks! :)

  2. The wonderful thing about Detroit is that you can do whatever you want there. We had a neighbor who raised dachshunds and goats and kept a collection of giant seasonal yard balloons in their front yard, which was about the size of a shoebox. You don't have to check with the city or the neighborhood association to do that kind of thing. As long as you don't act like a dick or endanger others, you're cool to do whatever.
    Dan designed a historic Detroit tour that he makes his students take. I've never been on the tour and he's been itching to go again. You should join us! Dan is a very knowledgeable tour guide. I'm also suddenly eager to revisit Fort Wayne. Yes, Detroit has an old military fort! They have cannons and such. It's cool.