Detroit’s fall lingers in its harsh winter

“I still believe in the 3-1-3, where street culture reigns supreme: Buying a bag of shitty pot through the window of a 20-year old Oldsmobile with a tin can supporting its muffler – that’s a kind of culture you can’t find anywhere else.” – Cassandra Koslen

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If one thing speaks for the state of affairs in Detroit, Mich., it’s the utter vacancy of the Detroit-Wayne International Airport a few days before the World Auto Show.

The Motown Store at the end of my terminal blasted a favorite B-side into the empty corridor; the Brooks Brothers across the hall looked like a front, given the lack of business inside.

To get from the airport to my house takes about 45 minutes. Within 20 minutes, corporate skyscrapers edge in, the number of houses multiplies. Industrial buildings line the side of the highway; abandoned warehouses are prevalent.

Take a quick turn north on I-75, and for a few miles things look worse. Years of graffiti peel off the large cement barricades lining the freeway. Houses I have looked at my whole life seem sadder, more worn. Within 10 miles we cut off the highway, minutes from home. This is when the real shock begins.

“Detroit is a hundred-year city,” my dad keeps saying, his point exemplified by the rampant deterioration outside. “A hundred years ago, this city was just getting started.” He is referring to the consequent boom that began in 1896 when Henry Ford built his first automobile in a garage on Mack Avenue. Within 50 years, Detroit would become one of the wealthiest places in the country, dubbed the Renaissance City, compared to Paris, France. In another 50 years, Detroit’s population would be rapidly thinning as economic and racial tensions escalated.

Where I grew up is an old farm town converted to a small city by way of severe white flight. The town sprouted faster almost than it could sustain. In typical Midwest fashion, growth called for strip malls, and strip malls called for bulldozing. Small trees are planted far apart from one another. The only remnants of the thick woods that once populated the area are small plots of undeveloped land scattered amid cookie-cutter subdivisions and chain stores.

The impact of fiscal disaster is evident even in the short drive from the exit ramp to my street. Never in my life have I seen it so bad.

In the late 1980s I remember watching the homeless people in our town walking, some pushing carts and strollers, along the main road where we used to live. A girl in one of my classes was living with her family out of their car. I was young then and had never known anything different. Maybe the lack of opportunity escaped my eyes then. But not now.

As a child, I knew from school and adults that the city was “dangerous,” but I never understood quite why so many people I knew rarely went there. New York, where my mother’s family lives, was its own kind of dangerous in the ’80s, and it didn’t seem to stop anyone from enjoying the metropolis. Violent crime rates are a skewed way to judge a city, because so many of those crimes are related directly to hard drugs and poverty, not to mention egregious educational standards. When I was in second grade, there were more than 300 homicides in Detroit, as compared with 12 across the river in Canada. Both were record highs.

It doesn’t make sense to me now, as it didn’t back then, why many people’s solution is to turn their back and avoid the problem. Certain people will get together and try to fix things on a local level. Many won’t. Many who might in the suburbs would never think of doing the same in Detroit proper just few miles away. Where I grew up is about as far from Detroit as Beaverton is from Portland. Bigotry is the norm. In school, I was taught to be proud of the role Detroit played in the years leading up the Emancipation Proclamation. I had to learn about the race riots, spurred in part by an influx of Southern blacks, at home from my parents and the papers. Very rarely were they mentioned in the classroom. Almost never did a teacher contrast the standards of living from where I was with those 10 miles away.

We went into the city when I was a kid. I know what poverty, poverty even more drastic then my family’s own, looks like. It’s terrifying to me that people drive through every day ignoring it, to the point where the sight of other people’s suffering becomes routine, mundane. And it is scary to see that hell enveloping the very blocks I used to ride my bike down. Abandoned malls and empty houses, evident by rotting plywood boarding up windows and doors, are stark against the white wash of a snowy, grey sky. Storefronts are boarded up; shops are covered in signs proclaiming: “EVERYTHING MUST GO NOW! 50-90% OFF!!!”

Detroit is a beautiful city built of old brownstones, mansions, Art Deco skyscrapers and sweeping entertainment halls. It is a city of houses, a place where growth could stretch outward, as opposed to vertically confined cities like New York. Many houses are large, even majestic. It was the hometown of the American Dream. Not that long ago, Detroit was considered a cultural hub. But what was there then is still present today; all that is missing is awareness. There are flea markets, festivals and celebrations of holidays and ethnicities such as Polish and Vietnamese.

Detroit has a great art museum, awesome bars and tons of history. Some of its graffiti is true art. Gospel music on a Sunday – a full funk band getting down for God, that’s a beautiful kind of culture. Detroit is soul food, great live music, street art and midnight poetry readings.

It was single-digit temperatures and sunny the day Dad and I went to Eastern Market, a combination outdoor/indoor farmers’ market where local vendors gather among food providers from neighboring states and Canada to sell their wares. It touts itself as the largest historical public market in America, and I think it’s the best way to spend a Saturday morning in the Metro-Detroit area.

On any given Saturday the place is so packed you can’t see end to end, much less find decent parking. All sorts of people – of every race and income bracket – rub shoulders. Here my mother buys eggs from an 80-year-old man who uses only recycled cartons (you have to bring your own back if you want Leonard to approve when he recognizes you).

For holidays and special occasions there is a small butcher inside selling meat that, quality- and price-wise, ought to make supermarkets ashamed. The walkways are lined with flowers, produce, cider and coffee vendors. In the spring there are tulips peeking out of their bulbs, in winter mistletoe and holly.

As long as I can remember, there has been a dearth of grocery stores inside Detroit city limits. The insurance is too high for most to consider, especially because rates are significantly reduced within a 10-mile radius. Although this makes shopping difficult for people requiring the fluorescent convenience of mainstream supermarkets, it also has encouraged a rise in the number of independent food providers. Detroit is hardly just black and white; the large Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian populations in the vicinity also add to the food scene.

Dad and I talked a lot about race and about how our neighbors deal with the disgrace of living on the cusp of a foundering metropolitan nexus. We talked about the de facto racism that exists, a destructive segregation spurred by willful ignorance. We discussed how 50 years ago, when he was born, the city’s population was almost 2 million, and how now it is half that.

I found out that my father’s parents were the second Jewish family to live in their town. The neighbors across the street from where my dad’s family lived were the first and had moved to the more affluent borough just a year before. “The Realtor showed my parents the house across the street on purpose,” Dad tells me. “It’s by suggestion, you know.” Here he looks at me over his glasses. “That’s how these things work.

“In 1890,” he goes on, “this was all nothing. There was shipping, but this was just another small town. Then there were cars, and then there was World War II, and then Detroit was just riding the dream. It turned around in the ’60s, but even before then there was white flight. People don’t want to talk about it, but there’s a reason things are the way they are here.”

Dad drove me to the Pontiac Manufacturing Center, where he worked for a short stint in 1978. At its height, the plant assembled millions of vehicles each year. The complex is a square mile with outlaying warehouses, bearings and parts shops, and paint plants. At the time, he says, he was one of 14,000 employees, Pontiac was a 24-hour town and the lots were always full of new cars and trucks, already purchased. I was born a few miles away, in a house that has long since been demolished.

Now, the plant is empty, many of the lots left unplowed, leaving 12 heavy snows to accumulate like weeds over a neglected grave.

General Motors, of which Pontiac Motors is a subsidiary, began closing plants shortly after my father quit. Long emptied of their prized vehicles, some unused buildings have been converted into commercial spaces. Others have been left to shelter whomever breaks in; crack and heroin suppliers have set up shop. We passed storefront after vacant storefront, some boarded up, some boasting faded signs in their broken windows. Right off the main drag in Pontiac stands a forsaken office building not yet complete, relinquished in the middle of construction.

In 2005, the Census Bureau reported Detroit as the most impoverished major city in America. In April 2008 the Detroit Rescue Mission Missionaries counted more than 5,086 homeless, with 940 transitional housing beds available in the city. By November, the Michigan chapter of the National Health Care of the Homeless Council estimated that 16,000 people, along with 11,000 in the bordering town of St. Clair, were without housing. Three months later, the Rescue Mission estimated 18,000 homeless people in Detroit. The mission’s statistics in April 2008 estimated that 26 percent of the homeless population consisted of families. Less then a year later, that number has jumped to 49 percent.

There are whole blocks in Detroit with only one or two occupied houses. There are buildings in Pontiac that were aborted before completion. Faded signs of extinct businesses are covered in feet of snow, dustless squares marking spots in windows where “For Rent” signs have been recently removed for lack of hope. People have lost their jobs, the banks foreclosed. And all there is to show for it is a family in the cold and an empty boarded-up house, or worse, a quarter acre of dead switch grass where a house used to be. Welfare is a joke, unemployment a fiscal catastrophe. Whole families live in unheated tenements that once were grand Victorians. Wrap-around porches are littered with broken glass and broken lawn chairs.
At an airport bar, waiting for my connecting flight back to PDX, a couple of drinking businessmen told me that the current housing crisis is former president Clinton’s fault, by way of the Community Reinvestment Act. “A liberal Congress voted out redlining,” the talkative one says. “Banks were forced to give people loans they couldn’t afford.”

The Community Reinvestment Act was passed by President Carter, long before Clinton. It aims to encourage financial institutions to meet the credit needs of borrowers in all segments of the local community, within safe and sound operation. It does not force lenders to make high-risk loans but requires that cases be judged fairly on an individual level. Nor does the law mandate penalties for non-compliance. The need for such an act arose from racism and classism: Poor people, primarily non-whites, were being charged higher rates with faster payment plans for no reason.

“Trickle-down economics works,” the businessman said. “When have you ever seen money bubble up from the poor?”

At Eastern Market you do. How about Motown Records? Detroit is in the worst shape I’ve seen in my life, yet the city is still alive. Money is doing something there; if it’s not bubbling, at least a little bit is circulating. It may not be a lot, but it’s all local, and no one’s rich. Recently, a few movie studios have taken advantage of all the cheap, large spaces available and shot some films there.

The businessman’s point was that wealthier people are necessary for job creation. I disagree: People are needed for job creation. Obviously, startup capital is helpful, but you don’t have to be rich to create jobs. My father’s a landscaper. He has employed people before. My aunt, a gardener, does too. My uncle installs floors. He refuses to join the union, contradicting the businessman’s claim that blue-collar laborers are union-humping fanatics who brought the economic crash down on themselves via lobbyists.

The businessman told me he keeps hearing about a wealth gap and doesn’t see it. Well, I do. I can see it. I can see the difference even between my own personal poverty as a single freelance writer struggling to find a day job in Portland, and the teeming unemployed living on a block surrounded by vacant lots and buildings in Detroit. Abandoned houses have been stripped of every sellable component – screens, utility fixtures, copper pipes. My dad and brother have bought locking gas caps to stop neighbors from siphoning gas out of their cars overnight.

At my request, Dad and I went to Belle Isle, one of my favorite spots in the city. Even at a shadow of its former grandeur and in the frigid cold, it’s beautiful. Located in the Detroit River, southeast of Lake St. Clair, Belle Isle sits between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, and was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Families go here to play, connect with the community and enjoy nature. The swing sets and slides are old yet still well-loved. The fountain in the center, just over the bridge leading onto the island, doesn’t get turned on much anymore, but it’s clean. The aquarium, once world-renowned, has been shut down for years.

By chance, I have been in the yacht club, once the height of elegance, now old and rusted, empty and left much the same as it was 50 years ago, dated at the apex of Detroit’s prosperity. I liked its run-down appearance. Being inside was a bit like taking steps backward in time, as though a trace of its former majesty could leak through the thick dust and grime covering all the surfaces.

On our way home one day, a man approached my dad and me. “Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t mean no harm or disrespect, I was just curious if you got any pocket change you could spare.” Dad and I smiled and met his brown eyes. They were cheerful.

“Sorry, sir,” I said. “We don’t have anything.”

“S’alright,” he said, still smiling. “Times is tough.”

by Cassandra Koslen

3 responses to “Detroit’s fall lingers in its harsh winter

  1. Pingback: Cassandra Koslen hits up PoMotion as a regular contributor « PoMotion: production of poetry

  2. ken traczynski

    one great article!didnt realize you being so young ,yet so observant,could hit that nail right on the head and drive it home so eloquently

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