Today was Detroit’s 313th birthday, which is significant for the arbitrary reason that 313 is the city’s area code and one of its nicknames. Arbitrary, yes; but significant enough to warrant month-long $3.13 meals at McDonalds and week-long celebrations Downtown and in the Cultural Center. And significant enough to guilt me into a blog post…about Detroit, of course. (Well, it was that, or poetry, or God, right?)
I had a strange dream last night that centered around the street in Detroit where my dad grew up. In real life, I’d visited that house when his parents still lived there when I was so little I vaguely remember it at all. I have no idea where on the street my dad’s family lived, and it’s a long street. My dream last night is irrelevant, except that it got me thinking today about my family history in Detroit.
I didn’t grow up in the city. My mother’s family had relocated to Farmington Hills when she was a kid, and we lived in that city until I was 4, when we moved out to the boondocks (now exurbs) I lovingly refer to as “the woods I crawled out of.”
But I moved to the city as an adult, landing first in Palmer Park, which is at the northwest corner of 6 Mile (McNichols) and Woodward. Unknowingly, I had arrived in an area full of my family’s history.
Not far away was the hospital where I was born, where my older sisters were born, and I think where my mother also was born. The house where my grandmother grew up, where my mom also lived till she was a year old, is gone now, but was off 7 Mile between Woodward and John R, the area now known as Chaldeantown. When my grandmother was growing up, her aunt and uncle also lived next door, and her aunt played the organ in Detroit’s famous movie houses in Grand Circus Park. (Her brother, my great-grandfather, was a church musician. Such a musical family. Alas, I didn’t get those genes.)
One great story, from that ancestral house I never saw, involved my grandfather. After my grandparents married, they lived for a little while in a trailer in my great-grandparents’ backyard. My great-grandparents’ house didn’t have a basement, but they wanted one. My grandfather helped his father-in-law dig out a basement under the existing house. In true Detroit fashion (see how long this sort of thing’s been going on?), they didn’t bother getting permits. Instead, they worked at night, digging from behind the house, and dumping the dirt around the city to hide the evidence. And this was when there were fewer places to dump dirt, or other things, without being noticed. But I don’t know whether they were working so stealthily out of paranoia, or if the city was on top of such things more than it is now.
My mother has said that when she was little, after her father’s job was transferred out of the city, they used to come visit her grandparents at that house. She and her sister would be taken to play in nearby Palmer Park, or they would ride the streetcars downtown to shop. One time she was visiting me, and at the corner of Woodward and 6, she looked around and said, “I have dreams about this intersection.” It looked completely different, of course, but was apparently still recognizable enough—but not a little disorienting, either.
While we were living in Palmer Park, some friends and I bought an abandoned house in the area around 6 and Livernois. Later, I learned that my great aunt (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband had lived on a street just several blocks down.
On the other side of the family, I learned from my dad’s mother that she had him baptized at All Saints Episcopal Church on 7 Mile near Woodward. She was Catholic, and my grandfather, an agnostic who had been raised Christian Scientist, wouldn’t let her have their baby baptized in a Catholic church. My grandmother was always a good, pragmatic ecumenist. She told me the Episcopal Church is “like the Catholic Church.” Now, I had just become Episcopalian, and telling her about it was the occasion for her sharing this story with me. Naturally, I teased my dad (who is Evangelical) that he was really Episcopalian. Although we don’t actually think about baptism in sectarian terms. But still.
Now, at this point, I could venture off into the suburbs and tell you about how I grew up attending a church on 6 Mile in Northville, or how, when I was 14, my femur was broken by a drunk driver on 6 Mile in Livonia. So much of my life has happened on or around 6 Mile…and I live just off 6 Mile now. That’s where I’d rather take you, dear reader: to a place called home.
No, not that place called home. This place:
I never felt such a sense of belonging anywhere like I did when, in my 20s, I arrived (back) in Detroit. And now I’ve been away for almost nine years, and am back yet again, and that sense of home has remained—so much that I’ve got the city’s logo tattooed on my wrist, where you find my pulse.
There’s a part of me—probably the part that’s a poet—that wants to think the same place to which my ancestors gravitated had somehow called me too. But if that’s too mystical-sounding, I think it’s still a perfectly good metaphor for the spirit a place can have. A place, a home, isn’t just a map imposed onto a blank canvas (even if it’s drawn up on a blank piece of paper). Place, say all the scholars who work on the subject—Casey, Sheldrake, Gorringe, and others—precedes space; we’ve gotten so used to the geometric abstraction of place that we forget it’s an abstraction. Place is storied: it has a history, a name, memories, even legends. Many would say it has a sort of personality—a “spirit”—as well.
Without anthropomorphizing the city, however, it’s not hard to notice that some themes do recur in Detroit’s history. From the founder of the city on, it’s a place where people have come to forget the past and reinvent themselves. People have often flocked here for opportunity: first, French settlers, who heard of the “paradise” of fruit trees and good vegetation; then English-speaking Americans from the East Coast, who came for opportunities in the city’s early industries and in the distribution of Michigan lumber and farm products; and later, people from the US South and all over the world, who came looking for work in the automobile industry. Now people are coming for cheap real estate and the opportunity to start their own businesses; others are coming here specifically to be in a place where they can make a noticeable difference.
It’s been a contested place. Detroit’s location was chosen by the French for strategic reasons—strategic, primarily, for controlling the fur trade along the Great Lakes. But first, it was populated by native tribes such as the Hurons and Wyandots. Later, it was valued as a strategic military site, and changed hands several times (the French, British, and US flags have all flown here; and under the French and British, Detroit was part of Canada). The original French settlers were pushed to the margins by English-speaking settlers from the US East Coast. Various immigrant groups would coexist with mixed success, as in all US cities. Race riots occurred from time to time—1833, 1943, and 1967. Racist policies in government, housing, and business—not least of which involved the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—along with “white flight” to the suburbs changed Detroit to the largest majority Black city in the US. It’s also a city where you can find a Polish or (historically) French church with Masses in English and Spanish.
Early French settlers were known for what the later English settlers thought was an inordinate love of music and dancing—and, more recently, Detroit has given the world the musical genres of Motown, punk, and techno, and many talented artists in hip hop, rap, jazz, blues, folk, gospel, and rock’n’roll. Not to mention the world-famous DSO.
We’re an industrial center. Before cars, we made stoves, ships, train cars, and just about anything you could make by bending and stamping metal. Industry is an obvious part of our civic character. Currently, we’re making clothing, watches, bikes, food, and lots of arts and crafts.
Farming may be another theme. Detroit’s earliest settlers grew their food here, and, once they had enough to satisfy their needs (the land was generous, it seems), they enjoyed the good life. (The later English settlers called that “lazy.”) During an economic recession in the 1890s, mayor Hazen Pingree launched a program of urban gardening whereby Detroit’s poor could farm vacant lots. It earned him the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree,” but it worked (eventually). And now, as everyone knows, urban farming has returned to Detroit. Local farmers (in and around the city) provide produce for local restaurants and stores.
Remember the recent bad mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was driven out of office in disgrace? So was the city’s first leader, its founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (though not for quite the same reasons).
And, if you followed the above link about Pingree’s potato patches, you might have noticed words like “insolvency” and the city’s treasury being “almost empty.” I really don’t have to say more about that.
Our motto is all about things burning down, which they’ve tended to do rather frequently here. I hope that’s not part of the spirit of this place. Speramus Meliora—Resurgit Cineribus: “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” We’ve rebuilt this city before.
I hope if you’ve noticed other themes in this city’s history, you will share them in the comments. So far, it seems to me we can characterize this city as a place whose people, whatever their ethnicity, whatever language they speak, work hard, enjoy the good life, make music, suffer hardships, reinvent themselves, and keep hoping and rebuilding.
Does that sound like Detroit to you?
It sounds like home to me.
313 years is still young in the grand scheme of things. Happy birthday, Detroit, and many returns.