Detroit: Summer of 2017

Driving Toward the Breach

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Woodward Avenue, the Dream Cruise, and the QLine

Cruis'news Magazine/Flickr

By Laura Bernstein-Machlay

September 1, 2017


 

 

I drive all the time—because I’m a Detroiter, because of inadequate public transportation, because I can. I drive north to my daughter’s suburban school, south to the Midtown art college where I teach, and to dozens of pinpoints between and beyond. Due to my house’s location on the map, I’m constantly riding Woodward Avenue (aka M1). Interestingly, Woodward—wide and multi-laned, bisecting both Detroit and its northwest suburbs—began life as a Native American footpath, and was named not for forests in the distance, but for Mr. Augustus Woodward, who planned the road after Detroit’s massive 1805 fire.

Woodward (the street) starts south in Pontiac—a city also battling blight and general decrepitude, also revitalizing its heart out—and finishes in Motown. Between these urban bookends you’ll find suburbs ritzy to trendy. At 8 mile, (trendy) Ferndale becomes Detroit, where my family and I live, off 7 Mile, nestled amid a cluster of charming homes and neighborhoods.

At 6 Mile (still on Woodward, now) you’ll cross into Highland Park—one of two little cities swallowed whole by enormous Detroit, home of Hank Ford’s Model T. Home of ruin porn galore. Look it up, if you haven’t already.

Better yet, keep heading south and find yourself back in Detroit proper. Where you’ll drive past Boston Edison mansions and smack into Big-Time Revitalization, complete with cranes and earthmovers and all the Tinkertoy stuff of construction. Pass booming Newtown and Midtown, till you reach our roaring downtown, where Woodward stops dead at Jefferson—the Detroit River and Canada just a hop and skip beyond.

Woodward also happens to be home to the Dream Cruise, an oncoming locomotive of an event celebrating classic cars, cruising culture in all its retro glory, and, peripherally, Detroit’s auto legacy. I dread it more every year, how it clogs Woodward to its busting seams (the suburban portion of it, anyway—but more about that in a bit) with self-satisfied Caddies, Thunderbirds sleek and finned, whale-sized Chargers, Mustangs polished to an inch of their metal skins … With swarms of onlookers encased in folding chairs and sun visors. All those enraptured faces.

I say humbug! Enough already, with the worship of the combustion engine, the sluggish traffic for days leading to the actual affair—third Sunday in August. So my friend Anita, who lives along its route, once groused, I love to sew, but I don’t trap everyone for miles around and make them meticulously admire my every damn stitch.

My husband Steven is torn. He likes the cars well enough, but one year our family blundered into the slowpoke parade and were unable to change lanes, much less locate an open side street to escape the madness. Between the utter stuckness, and the cheering throngs looking askance at his rattletrap van, he was done. Never again, he grumbled, and just the other day noted the upcoming Cruise on the calendar—to remind us to stay away.

Then there’s Celia who appreciates a good party. I like how it brings out so many people, she says. Then she thinks for a moment. Even if they’re mostly white. Even if they’re mostly suburban.

Even if it stops before it hits Detroit, I say.

Yeah, that, says Celia. Because most Cruisers don’t even reach 8 Mile before turning around—God forbid a car orgy of such magnificence should creep a wheel’s width into the Motor City.

Maybe they’re scared we’ll jack their rides, says Steven, joking of course. Because what else can you do?

Or maybe it’s still the tired, old feud between city dwellers and our suburban cousins—the breach lasting 50 years now, since Detroit’s infamous ’67 uprisings. Or blame the very source of that conflict, the area’s enduring racial and cultural and class rifts (because such trauma doesn’t disappear in a wink along with a city’s debt). This, despite all the visitors currently claiming their slice of the new Detroit—its restaurants and sports, its music and art scenes expanding by the day.

Despite all of it. Even still.

Or consider the QLine, which Celia, Steven and I have been meaning to ride one weekend, because why not? Detroit’s currently celebrating these new streetcars, which run along Woodward from Grand Boulevard to Congress—a whole 3.3 miles. Mind you, the route as first envisioned was considerably longer, but like lots of swell ideas around here, this one fell short of funds. So now we’ve got a handful of fancy streetcars that don’t reach our still-struggling neighborhoods. So we’re left with sometimes rickety, often unreliable DDOT buses, which quit at our city limits (while wealthy Oakland County, which borders Detroit, refuses to consider merging the systems—Ew! Work with Detroit? No way …). Thus, riders must transfer to suburban buses, which don’t run in some affluent communities because they’ve opted out.

As for the QLine, it doesn’t even stretch to beleaguered Highland Park, much less 8 Mile, so it’s useless for delivering Detroiters to better-paying suburban jobs, or suburbanites to the ever-expanding wonders of Detroit—leaving us, again, gawking dumbfounded at the gap between us.

Or, put a bit more positively, we’re reaching toward each other. We’re just not connecting, not yet … It comes down to this: a significant portion of city residents remain fixed in poverty, in not-yet-improving neighborhoods, while some suburbanites still refuse to cross Motown’s borders. Two separate landscapes, lonely in their isolation—even if they don’t know they’re lonely. At the same time, Detroit is thriving compared to a measly four years ago, when we were flailing in the mire of bankruptcy. We’ve got urban renewal perking by the second—a whole lot of it in some locations—and real conversations occurring, or at least commencing, across boundaries that once seemed impenetrable.

So as the summer of 2017 ticks toward autumn, I’m here to report that Detroiters are poised and ready for whatever the heck comes next. So what if we’re dodging potholes, or not always moving at the same speed. At least we’re finally heading in a good direction.


Laura Bernstein-Machlay teaches literature and creative writing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry Northwest, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. She is the author of a forthcoming book of essays called Travelers.


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