Thriving and Striving

Introducing our newest Daily Scholar columnist

Flickr/Joyce Pedersen
Flickr/Joyce Pedersen


Summer has crashed into Detroit like a small planet, squashing the bejeezus out of spring as it hit. In a night we went from shivering walks through our pretty neighborhood to shrieking sun and air that drapes over the houses in great, damp sheets—all of this punctuated by sudden downpours. This leaves everyone sluggish, slumped in our own skins. So when my daughter Celia begs me to drive her the four blocks to her babysitting gig—It’s so hot it hurts! And it’s gonna thunderstorm again, I know it—I feel her pain in my melting bones, and wrench myself off the couch and take her there.

Celia’s 16, and this is her first job. She’s watching Henry, offspring of the fortunately named Youngblood family—among many new arrivals to our neighborhood. This is quite a turnaround from the old days, only a few years ago, when you couldn’t pay many suburbanites to cross 8 Mile.

Reality #1: You can’t discuss Detroit without referencing its suburbs—the awful divide between us, even as we’re inextricably stitched together. A decade ago, I met a guy at a suburban coffee shop. This fellow with his gelled fauxhawk and beatific cheekbones who, after five minutes of chatting, declaimed he’d never, Not ever, not if you paid me a million bucks! step foot within Detroit’s borders. That’s a lot of money to turn down, I told him, stating the obvious, but he remained adamant.

I wondered what he thought we’d do to him, if he held his breath and tiptoed over that line? Turn him black? Or Mexican, or, lord help him, liberal? Make him listen to rap or sing in a Hallelujah choir? Blast his comfortable misconceptions into shards? I asked him, but he didn’t respond. I guess some answers aren’t so easy, after all.

Reality #2: It’s going a little crazy right now in my Comeback City, and in the University District where I live with my husband, Steven, and Celia. In this community of trees and too many squirrels. Of splendid homes from the 1920s and ’30s, lots of them three-storied, with servants’ quarters used nowadays as nurseries and exercise rooms. Until recently, few people outside Detroit knew such communities existed within our city limits. But they do, plenty of them, from thoroughly mansioned Palmer Woods to Boston Edison and Indian Village, etc.

(Bitter) Reality #3: But you can’t brag on these neighborhoods without mentioning the struggling places. Where foreclosure is a daily event, where scrappers lurk like bats in the sepia’d margins, poised to tear plumbing and heating systems from abandoned schools and houses and churches, till nothing’s left of former communities but shells for possums and stray cats to skulk beneath, to wait out the rain. So property values plummet.

Then there are the goner areas—massive tracts of prairie where neighborhoods once thrived, nearly 40 square miles of Detroit by some estimates, half of that by others. But still, mindboggling amounts of vacant space. Block after block burned or gone lopsided from decay, till it all crumpled like paper, dissolved into earth, into scrubland inhabited by wild creatures. Where maybe a few folks homestead in the odd houses still upright, some of them growing crops because Detroiters are resourceful. But no one wants to talk about these areas, not now, when we finally have some hope in our pockets.

So back to my neighborhood, the University District, because it’s lovely here. As a result, houses are trading hands like playing cards, moving vans regularly blocking our wide streets. Where old-timers—often black, sometimes poor—slowly disappear from view as new—often white, comfortably middle class—families move in. Families like mine, though we’ve been here 15 years.

Families like the Youngbloods, who came two years ago, who’ve been renovating their massive Tudor with its turret and stained glass (and secret gun tucked into the rafters, so Leslie Youngblood screamed when she found it, and Jerry Youngblood whisked it to the cops, who didn’t want it. So he hid it again). I like Leslie—pretty and cool, working at one of the new downtown ad agencies. Like all of us, Leslie is seeking her place in quick-changing Detroit, and not so long ago said to me, I came for diversity. I came to be part of the solution, but after living here awhile, I’m not sure what that is anymore.

I nod. I get that, I told her. Because there’re no obvious answers, not in this twisty city of illusions and shifting sand. This is Reality #4, sort of a surreality.

I also understand why some Detroit long-timers are decrying Reality #5: gentrification. But nobody can claim my neighborhood’s gentrifying. We’ve always been gentry, thank you very much. There’s been no sinking into blight for us, no descent into the anguished horror show that outsiders associate with this city. Never mind that during the last, bad recession, we frayed some at our edges—it happens to the best of us, after all.

(Happy) Reality #6: Don’t forget to mention the positive changes, Steven reminds me. There’re too many to name, I say. But okay, a few highlights. Arenas. Being named National Geographic’s “top unexpected food city.” There’s shiny-new Spirit of Detroit Plaza and Beacon Park and back-from-the-dead Belle Isle Aquarium. There are the QLINE streetcars, which, like their older sister, the People Mover, don’t really go anywhere. But never mind. Because downtown’s got dance clubs, restaurants, and new businesses to the limits of its usable building stock. Corktown’s got artists and hipsters galore, Midtown’s got oodles of museums and condos. Don’t forget the vegan Coney-dog place in Brush Park, says Steven. Nope. Not forgetting.

(Personal) Reality #7: Yet I’m still fretting. Because of white guilt, perhaps, though this can be instructive. Or because of Detroit’s entrenched School Problem or Jobs Problem. Or maybe because my parents scrammed to the suburbs after the ’67 riots (or were they rebellions, and how is one to read the difference except through prisms of race and class and history and despair?), and now I’m here in my pretty slice of the city, sending my girl to suburban schools—because I can.

All of which leaves me flummoxed. Because for Detroit to thrive, it needs a tax base, which comes from suburbanites and businesses relocating to select neighborhoods, then, hopefully, fanning out to other nooks and niches of our 139 square miles … and leaving old-timers to throw up their hands, vanish into memory. Never mind the retirees who lost pension benefits in our municipal bankruptcy. Even as our Detroit Institute of Arts got to keep its paintings—a marvelous thing, of course. But it still isn’t fair, that some people have to fail for our city to succeed.

Reality #8: The upshot: everything about Detroit is a kaleidoscope. Twist it one way and the fragments fall like this; twist it again and it’s a wholly different landscape, mirages layering shadows, so nobody’s sure what’s solid or broken, or what to do about it. About this heat gripping us, the rain that fogs all the windows and creeps through the casings—so everyone’s damp and dizzy, stumbling about the place.

But, okay. Breathe. Then breathe again. Because like all weather, this will pass—into new realities, built from old ones, but not necessarily bound to them. So for the space of this summer, I’m laying low. The better to watch as transformation works all around me.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Laura Bernstein-Machlay teaches literature and creative writing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, The North American Review, and the The Massachusetts Review. She is the author of Travelers, a collection of essays.


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