Essays - Winter 2017

Tales From Motor City

Left for dead yet pulsing with life again, Detroit survives as a place of inconsistency and contradiction

By Laura Bernstein-Machlay | December 5, 2016
Stock Detroit/Michelle & Chris Gerard
Stock Detroit/Michelle & Chris Gerard



Back in 2013, when out-of-towners begged for stories of my gone-to-wild city, what they really wanted to hear was how my neighbors would shoot their guns into the sky on holidays. Instead, I’d tell my guests about the family of hawks that nested on the roof of my house, how we watched through the skylight as they tore some small furry something to red shavings. The terrible thrill of it. I talked about fox sightings, about pheasants come home to roost, the wild turkey in a standoff with my dog on our daily walk. But then I had to explain the other dogs, packs of abandoned mutts come together for comfort, wandering the edges of my edgy city, living off garbage, the occasional squirrel, the feral cats my old neighbors fed when they weren’t shooting guns into the sky.

I was born here in Detroit, have been back for two decades, and have moved three times during that period, all within my city’s confines. A few years ago, after the reelection of our notorious criminal mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, I swore myself done, told the neighbors so long, farewell; told Husband-Steven and Daughter-Celia to quit watching Lost on Netflix and get out the boxes, get to packing our 1920s brick-under-stucco house, round up the dog and cat and gerbils (oh my), and move the whole caboodle to the suburbs once and for all. But, surprise. It’s years later, Kilpatrick is languishing in prison—and here I am, a white middle-aged poet still at home in this city of white flight, this city of urban pioneers and new-age farmers. Of single moms getting by. Of grandmas raising grandkids.


Strangers still like to tell me about my untethered city, my city in flux, in decrepitude, even as it’s staggering awake, shaking the dust from its eyes. My hungry city, city of ghost houses melting in the rain—even as we scored a Whole Foods in Midtown, as some of the derelict buildings are slated for knockdown. Never mind the unofficial residents who were scooted back to their digs beneath overpasses, by the sides of highways.

Strangers on the radio opine about my city of retirees who lost their pensions, about the paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts we nearly sold to pay a generation of debts. They preach about our legacy of riots—or is it rebellions? (I’m not smart enough to explain the difference in an easy sentence.) And although all of this is true, I want to say what else is true: Praise His Name Beauty Supply, Holy Discount Bible Outlet, Johnny’s Ham King, Wig Palace, Stop and Grab Dollar Store! I want to say a thousand little pot shops, graffiti kids, music men, gangsters, hipsters, hucksters, at least two other Jews, ambulance chasers, muralists, inner-city farmers, payday lenders, poor people, poorer people, homeless guys.

Homeless Guys

All ages, all races, all sizes of homeless guys. Each has two good legs, or two bad legs, or one leg. Or they are legless, suspended in their ancient wheelchairs. Beautiful and hideous, patient and pissed as hell, stoned if they’re lucky. Even now, post bankruptcy, they’re overflowing the shelters, sprawling in the wide streets. Hundreds, thousands, they perch at the mouths of freeways, bed down by train tracks, sway in the August sun, overload soup kitchens in church basements in the winter, hover like lightning bugs in parking lots of gas stations and beauty supply stores, mumble to themselves, out of tune, out of time. Carry signs blessing me, telling me, Help, Hungry, Family Man, Elderly, Veteran, Out of Work, Out of Luck.

Often enough I drive past without stopping, my battered Nissan bouncing like a broomstick on the potholed streets of my city. I’m pretty broke most of the time, but I know that’s relative. I give when I can, a buck or two—who cares where it goes. I’d drink and drug, too, if I were them. I give when I have a few minutes, when I have a few singles in my purse, when I notice, when I’m carting my daughter from place to place, when I hit traffic right, when I’m in the mood, when I recognize the face. Lately it’s the faces of guys at Woodward and 8 Mile, which often enough looks like a refugee camp. A couple miles from my house of a lifetime in this crazy city of missed opportunities. Of snatched opportunity at last? Don’t know yet.

I don’t know how they divvy it up—that revolving series of homeless men—on that corner of Woodward and 8 Mile. How they decide whose turn it is to work the postage stamps of property at the light and beside the bridge. The youngest at the moment is long and lanky, dark-skinned and tall even as he hunches his shoulders or leans into the guardrail at his back, and good-looking under his scruff. He’s just the type I’d have gone for in my 20s. As I hand him a couple bucks or some of the protein bars I buy in bulk at Costco, I wonder, who is missing this man? Who, somewhere, looks at his photo and touches the face of it, tenderly, and thinks about him?

Then there’s Bill with his Irishman’s beard, Bill who’s grizzled to his bones, the crags on his cheeks like a street map visible from a block away. He’s no song-and-dance man, doesn’t even carry a sign, just stands there watching cars go past. I ask after his bad foot. He tells me it’s getting better. Does he have enough food, water? Yes, he says, yes.

Dotted Outlines

I live here, so I can say this: I sometimes hate my city with its throwaway humans, my city of bulletproof glass, shuttered factories. City of Downtown and Midtown newly thriving, alive with millennials in their shiny condos. With businessmen buying up all the good buildings, so we say, Thank you. Thank you so much. The rest of the city still scrabbling along as usual, because that’s what people here know how to do. My former Paris of the Midwest, former City of Trees, before all the elms died.

I hate the ugly house down the block where a former councilwoman crept after jail and lurks in the dark. I hate the empty gaze of the train station on Michigan Avenue, the old men and women who go on walking my good neighborhood with big sticks and cans of mace just in case, the fields in the disappeared neighborhoods where homes used to stand, where in spring the lilacs grow wild as hope around heaps of illegally dumped tires, which will catch fire come summer.

And those homeless guys near my house—do they go on hoping? Why else stand out there every day? Why not lie flat on the concrete till snow comes and swallows their dotted outlines? I drive south on Woodward Avenue; on the corners men are standing, or slouching, or sitting. Everyone is upright. But if I thought they’d hear me, I’d tell the out-of-towners, the strangers, that I’m fretting because a spotty dog is limping along the side of the road. Because I haven’t seen Bill for a while, because Young Guy is looking more exhausted every day—because their stories have endings I will never know. Even as the newspaper and magazine reporters and the broadcasters on the late-night news have come and gone—as they gripped on with all their claws to tell the story of my city, then skedaddled out of town. Never mind that they got it wrong again and again. Because they don’t know us, the citizens of Detroit. Because they need us to conform to their preconceived narratives, that we’re complicit denizens of some hellscape on earth. Or, perhaps even worse, that we’re simple, helpless, passive, useless, their words spraying like bullets into the sky, changing nothing.

Urban Pioneers

Which doesn’t mean we’re not changing nevertheless. Mark our progress in bulldozers and cranes and scaffolding in certain select neighborhoods. In murals spreading across vacant storefronts. In guitars that roar from secret clubs down alleys: in rhymes and beats that pound the nights into a million splinters. In the poorest boys who go on rebuilding their cars so that come Cinco de Mayo, low-rider Buicks and Caddies will strut down Vernor Highway, and we will all cheer.

Politicians speak words like district renewal or inner-city revitalization, and I want to tell them about Adam and Elise, who live on Farnsworth Street and who sculpted their house from the bones of an old Victorian, painted it a patchwork quilt. About how they heat it in winter with a wood stove that Adam built, sweat together through the long summer without air conditioning. In place of a yard, Adam and Elise and their two girls created a farm from fields where houses and shops once backed their own. They grow strawberries and asparagus, squash and beans and rainbows of peppers. Kids come for the lettuce harvest and go home to their moms, their grandmas, with bulging bags of greens. And when I’d bring my daughter to spend time with Adam and Elise’s girls, Elise would fetch me nutty bread heated on the body of her stove and spread with honey from bees she keeps in her fields.

She and Adam also keep a dozen cats. And they keep chickens for the eggs, for the merry squawk, a revolving circle of gals regularly picked off by wild mutts and easily replaced. A single rooster that crows the mornings into light. Maybe, one day soon, a goat. I never asked them why they do this, but I guess they love it. Like their neighbors who also farm this Farnsworth island, who farm other islands on the east side of the city, or the west side, or the north—these island-folk in my city of separation. They are better people than I. I like my air conditioning and easy access to Costco. I prefer the historic, unbroken neighborhoods in my city where mothers bring their children by the carful on Halloween for the high-end trick-or-treating, where homeless guys gather on well-trafficked corners.


Mostly I see men alone, standing at my Woodward corner. But lately I’ve noticed women. Couples spelling each other, the girlfriend or wife resting in the shade of the overpass while the man takes a turn. Or they bear it together, one guy sucking on a cigarette, his sign telling me, Wife 8 Months Pregnant, while she lolls at his feet, her enormous belly twitching beneath her hand. The light changes red to green, but I stay idling in the road. The air is thick with oncoming rain, and I ask if they’ve got a spot indoors for the night.

“We left the shelter,” he says, and she nods. “There was a shooting last week, and we can’t be living like that.”

I nod like I get where’s he’s coming from and pass over some protein bars, dig in my wallet. I only have change, quarters for parking, dimes and nickels and pennies. I don’t want to give pennies.

“If you don’t mind,” he says, “we’ll take those too. For the baby’s piggy bank, when we get a place.”

I nod like I understand and drive toward downtown in my city that ties itself in knots, along a Woodward Avenue that’s torn to shreds for the soon-to-be-coming public transit. And if people honestly wanted to know, I would tell them this story I’ve just told here. I would tell them I love my city for all the reasons I hate it. It depends on the block, the mayor, the rhythm, the harvest. On the latest batch of saplings that survived the winter, on whether Bill’s at his accustomed place, on how much the DJs and their listeners just bashed us on all-night call-in radio shows. I would say if you don’t live here, you don’t have a clue. Easy target city, city of cheap shots.

I say Renaissance City, backed into a corner—home of the Joe Louis fist. My city of we are still here, of storefront churches, holy rollers, hallelujah choirs. City of gardens, of spray paint flung wild onto a breathing canvas, of dogs singing at the new moon, of enough hope to flood the Detroit River.

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