Grand Trunk Pub

Grand Trunk Pub and restaurant, August 2013

In the days before rail service was consolidated under Amtrak, different lines were run by different companies, often using different stations. The Grand Trunk Western Railroad line passed through Detroit (not to be confused with Michigan Central), and its station was located on the Detroit River at Brush and Atwater, near where the Ren Cen is now. Railroad lines used to operate a separate ticket office in the business district, and the Grand Trunk operated it rather close to the station—first, at Woodward and Jefferson (where One Woodward Avenue, formerly known as the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company building, a Minoru Yamasaki design, now stands); and then at 612 Woodward Avenue in the Traub Brothers Jewelry building.

Grand Trunk Pub

Currently, that building, and an adjoining one, houses the Grand Trunk Pub, formerly known as Foran’s Irish Pub.

Interior of pub/former ticket office

The pub has plenty of atmosphere. Its owners have done some restoration, with sensitivity to the building’s history and an interest in the railway theme.

Restaurant interior

The restaurant side is a little hole-in-the wall spot, but the good kind. “Gourmet pub grub” is what the menu says.

Veggie burger

Foreground: Veggie burger with grilled onions and a side of Better Made chips (and one fry stolen from the other plate).
Background: A shaved turkey sandwich with a side of fries.

One of my favorite things about their menu is that they source much of the food locally, and include Detroit classics and favorites, such as Better Made potato chips as a side, Faygo to drink, or Sanders Hot Fudge on the “Michigan Mud Pie.” The prices are also quite good.

As a vegetarian, I often don’t have a lot of options in this sort of place, where the fare is primarily sandwiches and burgers. However, the Grand Trunk Pub has a unique approach: you can substitute a veggie burger patty on most of their specialty burgers, or you can have a basic veggie burger with the toppings you prefer.

Screen shot 2013-08-22 at 12.15.53 AMThis is a snapshot from the menu on their site. Click on it to visit their online menu.

For dessert, the bread pudding with whiskey caramel sauce is pretty good (especially for $4.25!), but I prefer the Michigan Mud Pie (just $5). Pro tip: We ate dinner at the Grand Trunk Pub, then went over to the Riverwalk for a while, walked around there (as you do), and returned to the Grand Trunk for dessert!

Michigan Mud Pie

Michigan Mud Pie, shown here with a scoop each of vanilla and chocolate ice cream. We were given a choice.

Bread Pudding

Bread pudding with whiskey caramel sauce.

 

Detroit’s new Meijer

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Meijer has dipped half of a pinky toe into the city. This is big news. Old news, yes, but I finally got to see it for myself.

I’m not normally a fan of big-box stores, but I do love Meijer. Maybe it’s just from growing up with it (I’m old enough to remember it as “Meijer Thrifty Acres“)—although I also grew up with K-Mart (a Detroit original, based in Troy) and could take it or leave it. Meijer did have its full one-stop shopping long before Wal-Mart and Kmart ever introduced grocery departments.

Meijer is a Michigan-based store, headquartered in Western Michigan just outside of Grand Rapids. They claim to be the original “one-stop shopping,” and many stores host smaller shops (independently run), or “services” inside, from banks to shoe repair to barber shops to dentistry. Most, if not all, of their stores are in rural or suburban locations. The Detroit store breaks that pattern, but, more importantly, it could be a show of faith in the city: that a Michigan-based company like Meijer is willing to open in Detroit is, to my mind, as big a deal as Whole Foods opening in Midtown.

I say Meijer dipped half a pinky toe into Detroit, though, because the new store is located on 8 Mile—on the Detroit side—at Woodward, and it faces 8 Mile, thus facing the northern suburbs. So it’s just barely in Detroit, and it seemingly can’t bear to look.

To be fair, though, it is the anchor for a strip mall (also not the norm for Meijer).

The layout is completely different from the old Meijer stores I grew up with, or even the slightly newer or remodeled stores. Happily, they offer pamphlet store directories when you enter:

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(Temporary note: I’ll add a picture of the inside of that pamphlet later.)

The look of the store is somewhat stark and cold, if clean—mostly white, letting the products be the color. (This is reminiscent of Farmer Jack’s “Future Store” built in Canton in 1988-89. I guess they were right about the future.) We were only there for a brief time, with a few items to pick up, so I don’t know how it would feel to shop for a long time surrounded by so much white paint (my least favorite color).

I wanted some Michigan cherry wine and some Faygo. In the wine section, there was a spot dedicated to Michigan wines of all varieties:

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Since I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is near Napa Valley, I thought the wine section overall was a bit small, but it was bigger than your average grocery store, even in California. Pictured here is just the Michigan wines. (And the bottles missing on the bottom shelf are the ones I purchased.)

I couldn’t fit all the Faygo in one photo, so here’s a side shot of the Faygo section:

FaygoI picked up some diet Rock ‘n’ Rye, Red Pop, and Creme Soda, 20-oz. bottles 2/$1.

One difference from most Meijer stores is that this location is only open from 6am-11pm, whereas most are 24 hours. This location offers a gas station, a pharmacy (with a drive-through pick-up window), a bakery, and deli, along with all the usual departments. In addition to the store’s own services, Huntington National Bank has a branch inside the store. Meijer’s one-stop shopping means you can buy motor oil, a bed pillow, fresh produce, and a digital camera all in one place—or whatever other odd combination of stuff you might need. And speaking of produce, Meijer usually has some of the best produce compared with local grocery stores. Meijer also normally has a great selection of products, especially in grocery, including locally made products, ethnic foods, vegetarian/vegan selections, and more. The store brand (meijer) is almost always of excellent quality. (We also picked up some store-brand Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream—theirs is, in my opinion, the best brand of that flavor.) The prices are quite good, as well.

Even though I sing the praises of this chain (and, living in California, actually dream about it from time to time), I hated working there back in the early 90s while I was in college. It wasn’t as bad as some places, and in fact can offer excellent advancement opportunities within the company, but there were definite issues you would expect to find for workers in a big-box store. We were unionized, though, which helped.

It will be interesting to see how things go with this new Detroit location. Will the store maintain its clean appearance? Will it expand or contract its hours? Will its customer base be from the city, or from Ferndale and other nearby northern suburbs? (There is a Royal Oak store which will probably continue to draw most of those northern suburbanites.)

I hope things go well for the store, and for all the stores in this (choke, gasp) strip mall. As much as I hate strip malls, it’s good to see businesses investing in Detroit, and they provide much-needed jobs as well as options for shoppers in the city.

Checkouts at Detroit MeijerThis photo, taken from just inside the main entrance, shows an overview of the 30 checkout aisles (including self-checkout).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the store’s employees were unusually friendly; even when just passing us in an aisle, they’d greet us, ask how we were doing, and wish us a good night.

So far, it seems to be a very pleasant place to shop.

Motor City Brewing Works

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Motor City Brewing Works is a brewery in Midtown, at 470 W. Canfield, across the street from TJ’s (Traffic Jam and Snug). It’s been there for years now, but I’d never been. We ate there last night.

I’m not a beer drinker, so I can’t comment on the beer. But I had a great pizza. The pizzas are about the size of your average dinner plate, and they’re perfect for one person. Since they’re not in the least bit greasy, they don’t make you feel overstuffed. I opted for the “build your own,” and had carmelized onions, roasted red peppers, and spinach on mine:

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The veggies were only 75 cents each to add to the pizza. Between the two of us, we had 2 pizzas, a beer, and a Diet Coke, and the bill was just over $20. Not bad for dinner!

MCBW has a great atmosphere and very friendly waitstaff.

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Here’s a look at their menu:

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Othering, Eight Mile, and Original Sin

Earlier this week, a Detroit pastor was shot dead while asking his partying neighbors to keep the noise level down. I read the online article from WDIV, channel 4.

I know better, but as with any bad habit, I did it anyway: I read the comments. They rivaled the story itself as examples of heartbreaking failures of love. Some commenters brought up the Zimmerman trial, decrying the “liberal” media for playing up white-on-black violence but ignoring black-on-black violence; others called for gun control, implying that the primary issue here was someone’s possession of a gun; still others baldly asserted that this is simply how black people behave; others used the opportunity to badmouth Detroit. The politicization and racism in the comments section is as predictable as inner-city violence itself has sadly come to be. Where is the compassion for a family and a community so senselessly devastated? Where is the respect for the man of God murdered at the young age of 46?

Nevertheless, I think the comments, nasty and unhelpful as they are, stem from two very human impulses: our instinctive drive to figure things out, to solve problems by analyzing them; and our equally instinctive need to distance ourselves from tragic situations, to assure ourselves that such things happen to other people. Both these impulses are ambivalent gifts of evolution. They both serve to keep us alive and functioning.

But both impulses also work against us. In particular, the second—the urge to distance ourselves from danger—constantly warps our ability to analyze: if a problem belongs to other people, then surely my safety lies in disconnecting myself from (certain) others…right? (In Detroit, that’s generally symbolized by Eight Mile Road.)

The Christian doctrine of “original sin” serves as a warning against trusting those base instincts unquestioningly. Our instincts were, as far as we can tell, forged on the fly in response to certain conditions our ancestors—human and pre-human—faced. The goal, or more accurately, the mechanism, was survival. One way to think about original sin, then, is to consider that we, as individuals, but also as a species, learned to do wrong before we’d become moral agents. Just as selfishness, generally, considered a vice in most ethical systems, is necessary to a baby’s survival, behaviors we now consider morally reprehensible actually got us here, as a species, in the first place. But now, as spiritual and moral beings who ought to know better (what Bruce Cockburn called the “Angel Beast“), our task is to transcend our animal instincts, testing them and keeping what is good, but learning to control and move beyond those that actually harm us.

Central to any ethical system is the consideration of others. Our instincts will mostly serve us well if our goal is personal safety, the rest of the world be damned. But humans are social animals. As spiritual social animals, our ethical obligation, and also our health, consists in opening ourselves to each other, to the universe, and to God. Our task is to grow into greater interdependence.

Sadly, our culture itself works against that growth. Consumer capitalism, American “rugged individualism”—these forces, or, as the Bible terms them, “principalities and powers,” are bigger than any of us, and perhaps than all of us; they discourage our growth into interdependence. The market needs individual, mobile workers and consumers. Consumer culture has so pervaded our lives that we identify ourselves with our brand loyalties, including political parties and religious affiliations. The more labels we are willing to wear, the more we are drawing lines between ourselves and those like us, and others who are not like us. Even “family values” have been co-opted by this thinking, becoming a means to delineate an “us” vs. “them” and to camouflage self-interest with the patina of religiosity.

Indeed, self-interest is entirely at home in American Christianity, which, historically, has largely been moralistic and private. Our spiritual practices, like our consumer habits, are predominately individualistic. In the religious realm, our animal survival instinct concerns itself with what will get me into heaven, the rest of the world be damned. This is an exaggeration, of course; I hope very few, if any, American Christians consciously adopt that attitude! But that attitude is seen wherever “sin” is only conceived in personal terms—epitomized in our culture at the moment by sexual behavior—while ignoring social sins such as institutional racism and environmental degradation. In America, too many Christians honestly believe all is well with their soul as long as they abstain from certain individual behaviors, believe the right things about God, and ask Jesus to forgive their sins. And this is seen as perfectly compatible with, say, unquestioningly benefitting from race or gender privilege, or buying clothing made using slave labor, or making comments like those attached to the article referenced at the beginning of this post.

A father, a pastor, was murdered for asking his neighbors to keep the noise down. This wasn’t an isolated and bizarre action by a disturbed individual we can easily other. What took him wasn’t just a gun or a person’s anger, but some kind of twisted thinking where one’s own enjoyment is more important than the very life of one’s neighbor. That thinking is endemic in America, from the Koch Brothers who are in the news now for dumping their pollution on Detroit, to the food industry using cheap, unhealthy ingredients, to for-profit prisons, to corrupt politicians stealing from the People, attacking minority religions under the guise of freedom of religion and freedom of speech—why would that kind of thinking not also be at a party next door to a pastor? Until we really start to believe that our neighbor’s well-being is as important as our own, all this sickness and violence (literal and economic) is just going to escalate.

All of us are implicated in this shooter’s belief that his “right” to do what he wanted was of more value than his neighbor’s life. Ours is a culture that idolizes the weasel words “liberty” and “freedom.” And however well-meaning we try to be, our actions as consumers and as citizens of this representative democracy constantly privilege our own comfort, wealth, rights, and freedoms over whatever neighbor needs to be othered in order for our privilege to remain intact. I know this from experience; I try and I fail all the time.

It’s human instinct. It’s original sin. It’s bigger than any of us as individuals and it’s bigger than all of us lumped together, at least in our sub-cultures. And sometimes it’s how we survive. But it’s also what we’re called to struggle against.

But what if Christians really believed that their personal salvation depended upon the well-being of their neighbor? If that seems a scary prospect, don’t go asking Jesus precisely who your neighbor might be.

Chances are, they’re on the other side of Eight Mile.

MLK

Here are some questions to consider:

How often do I secure my own interests at the expense of someone else’s life, health, happiness, security?

What might repentance look like? How would it really affect my daily life, including my consumer choices?

How can I use my spheres of influence to encourage growth into interdependence in myself and those around me? How can the wider culture be transformed, and what might be my role in that?

A Psalm for Detroit

As Detroit enters bankruptcy, this Psalm comes to mind.

Let all who rejoice at my ruin be ashamed and disgraced;
let those who boast against me be clothed with dismay and shame.
Let those who favor my cause sing out with joy and be glad;
let them say always, ‘Great is the LORD,
who desires the prosperity of his servant.’
(Psalm 35.26-28, from the BCP Psalter)

Earlier in the same Psalm, the psalmist declares:

My very bones will say, ‘LORD, who is like you?
You deliver the poor from those who are too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them.’ (v. 10)

Pundits will say all kinds of things about my beloved hometown, and some even salivate at the misery of our people. I won’t wish all kinds of nasty things upon them like the psalmist does (especially in the bits of the Psalm I didn’t quote), but I do wish they’d shut the hell up.

Our motto is my prayer today: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. Amen.

The story of Detroit’s “Nain Rouge”

Nain-nain nainnainnain! My city’s demonic harbinger of doom can beat up your city’s demonic harbinger of doom!

What? Your city doesn’t have one?

Well, it kinda figures that Detroit does.

The Nain Rouge (French for “Red Dwarf”—but not that Red Dwarf) has become a sort of mascot for the city…a pet, even. But when Detroit’s first white settlers plunked down their little fort, church, and ribbon farms with the highest of hopes, the “Demon of the Strait” was a fright to them.

As far as we know from the lore, the first Frenchie to encounter him was Detroit’s megalomaniac founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (mentioned in a previous post). On his way to Detroit, ol’ Antoine attended a party in St. Louis, Québec. A mysterious fortune-teller, mistaking this history for a fairy-tale, showed up uninvited and proceeded to tell people’s fortunes. When she got to Cadillac, she rightly guessed that he was on his way to found a city. According to the legend, anyway, she foresaw both the Battle of Bloody Run (Chief Pontiac’s attack in 1763), the War of 1812, and the fact that Detroit would eventually become U.S.: “In years to come, your colony will be the scene of strife and bloodshed, the Indians will be treacherous, the hated English will struggle for its possession, but under a new flag it will reach a height of prosperity which you never in your wildest dreams pictured.”

Her vision, apparently, only went so far as, oh, let’s say 1883, when the book that quotation comes from was published. But that’s not bad, considering this exchange happened in 1701. Cadillac pressed her for personal information: would he leave a large inheritance to his children? As every good fairy-tale hag has ever done, she offered him some foreboding advice: Should he encounter a fuzzy little demon with beady red eyes and terrible breath, he should avoid poking it with a stick. (OK, she just said not to offend the Nain Rouge. Apparently, he didn’t ask, “the what?!?”) Should he offend the creature, he would lose his fortune and reputation, and die penniless. Or sou-less, or centime-less, or whatever currency the French were using in Canada at the time. Cadillac, like every decent tragic hero ever, found this advice entertaining. The prosperity bit he could understand, but this demon talk was hilarious—er, amusant. He amused his wife with a retelling of it later, since she wasn’t at the party. But as downfall legends go, a spouse has to be let in on the secret.

So Cadillac went on to found Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit on the northern bank of the strait between lakes Erie and Huron. One lovely evening, he was out for a stroll with the woman who had been foolish enough to marry him, when a hideous creature appeared in their path. Non, Kwame Kilpatrick wouldn’t arrive for another 300 years, give or take. This was the dreaded Nain Rouge! Standing only a few feet tall, covered in reddish black fur, with glowing red eyes and rotted teeth, it was enough to make Mme. Cadillac gasp and remind her husband not to do anything stupid. At this point in their marriage, sans doute, he did not actually need to impress her, and even if he did, ignoring her advice was likely to have the opposite effect. So for no reason evolutionary psychology could have predicted, M. Cadillac struck the creature with his walking stick, laughing at it and telling it to go away. Which, apparently it did. To scheme perhaps. In the end, Cadillac did lose his reputation and died penniless, with nothing to leave to his would-have-been heirs. But something tells me that might have happened anyway.

CompatriotsThere’s no physical resemblance at all,
but they do have the same effect on Detroit.

And no one’s ever seen them together in a room.
Just sayin’.

The thing is, it’s unclear whether the Nain Rouge causes misfortune or simply turns up to (a) warn about it, or (b) revel in it. A few more sighting stories will illustrate that ambiguity.

Detroit’s first First Couple weren’t the only ones to see the Nain Rouge in those early days. One farmer claimed to have seen him on the roof of his barn, frightening the horses. Impish behavior, oui. But quite unworthy of a harbinger of doom, non?

But as time went on, the Nain Rouge found Detroit to be an excellent location for indulging in whatever his hobby was. In 1763, he was spotted the day before the Battle of the Bloody Run. In 1805, the city burned, and the Nain Rouge was seen dancing in the flames (although other reports say he was simply out for a stroll in the city the day before the fire). During the War of 1812, Gen. William Hull claimed that the Nain Rouge was grinning at him as he surrendered the city to the British in 1813.

William_HullGen. Hull was later executed for military incompetence.
(Who surrenders to the British? Geez.)

In the 20th century, the Nain Rouge made an appearance just before the ’67 Uprising, during which much of the city burned again. (Somehow he seems to have missed the ’43 riots—or no one noticed him, poor fellow.) In 1976, he was spotted by two utility workers who were eating their lunch in their truck. Seeing what they thought was a child near the top of a nearby utility pole, they ran out of the truck and called for the child to come down. He leaped from the very top of the pole to the ground and ran away. Presumably at some point they were able to see that it was, in fact, the Nain Rouge and not some kid we should’ve been sending to the Olympics. The next day there was a severe ice storm. Bad, but hardly worth a Nain Rouge sighting. It’s Michigan, after all. We get ice storms. Nearly every winter.

Later “sightings” are completely dubious (assuming earlier sightings aren’t). In recent decades, one couple claimed they saw the Nain Rouge trying to break into a car downtown one night. The couple were, at the time, leaving a bar. He was supposedly seen by some Wings fans leaving Lafayette Coney in the wee hours of the morning, yelling “Awooo!” and smelling particularly foul. The Wings fans tossed him some change and left, only making the (improbable) connection later. Another person claimed to have seen him outside Dutch Girl Donuts muttering something like “cruller” under his breath. He’s also been reported trying to volunteer for “Angel’s Night” (better known as Devil’s Night), busking at Eastern Market, and one local claimed it was the Nain Rouge who went around tagging TRTL in the ’00s.

He’s up to no good, that’s for sure.

These days, the Nain Rouge is better known as the unwelcome guest of dishonor at the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, a huge party celebrating Detroit’s history and possibilities.

So what is this thing, this Nain Rouge? A demon, a cryptid, a figment of imagination?

In older texts, he’s been linked to a mythical creature from Normandy (where Detroit’s first settlers also came from), the lutin. Remember the story of the farmer’s frightened horses? That sort of impish behavior is typical of a lutin, but the lutin also tended to be helpful to French farmers, doing silly but apparently useful things like stirring their food to make it taste better or pinching their children’s toes when they misbehaved. They also braided people’s hair and horses’ manes. The Nain Rouge seems hardly like a lutin to me, although it could be a category French immigrants from Normandy might have used to interpret or recount strange experiences.

Also, according to that Wikipedia page, they abhor salt, and Detroit is located atop extensive salt mines.

Being Catholic, they also might have used the category of demon, especially when (a) dealing with what seemed an evil presence, or (b) trying to evangelize (or “evangelize”) the locals—the Native Americans, mostly Wyandot and Huron in Detroit at the time. Old stories even claim that the Native Americans warned their new friends to beware of the “demon of the strait.” It seems unlikely the Hurons or Wyandots would have used the word “demon” (or “démon“), unless perhaps they were speaking in French and it was the only French equivalent they could find for whatever it was they were trying to describe. Some have proposed that, at least in the Native Americans’ eyes, anything like the Nain Rouge would be a land spirit, and his appearances before tragic events should be appreciated as friendly warnings.

I’m inclined to believe that the Nain Rouge is a melding of these myths, perhaps reflecting the collision of different cultures in the area. I would love, some day, to do the kind of cultural analysis of this that my late academic advisor, Alex García-Rivera, did in his book on St. Martín de Porres. (Seriously, read that book.) At any rate, it has been suggested that the Nain Rouge was a manifestation of racism against the “Red Man,” or Native Americans. The recent “sightings” in which the supposed nain was seen busking, breaking into a car, or mumbling by a Dutch Girl could reinforce that theory—the racism being transferred to African Americans and the homeless poor. It’s hard to tell from anonymous email accounts (see the link to Model D below to read them).

Detroit is not defenseless against its demon, however. Historically, the Nain Rouge was seen being chased by the spirit of early Detroit resident Pierre Livernois, a.k.a. the “Spirit of Detroit.” The statue known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” located in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building (a.k.a. city hall), was never actually named, but, given his popular name, can be identified with Livernois, shining the light of God on a family (meant to represent all human relations). Maybe the Nain Rouge is now warded off by this statue. It was dedicated in 1958, but there wasn’t email back then, and Detroit is rather large; it could be the nain didn’t stumble upon it till much later, when, let’s say, he was so scared he ran up a utility pole.

When Livernois isn’t busy chasing the Red Dwarf, he enjoys rooting for the local sports teams:

Seems the Nain Rouge has gotten the upper hand in the Stanley Cup playoffs the past few years…

Read more about the Nain Rouge:

http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/seeingred.aspx

http://www.michigansotherside.com/articles/TheNainRouge.htm

http://archive.org/details/legendsofledtr00hamluoft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nain_Rouge

A story of Detroit as told by its street maps.

 Satellite view of Detroit and Windsor, showing Lake Erie (bottom) and Lake St. Clair
Detroit’s street map has often been described as a palimpsest. I’ve called it the broken hub of a wheel dumped beside the river (which isn’t really a river; it’s a strait), but my metaphor actually leaves out most of the streets. How the map came to look as it does today is a story of…well, palimpsest, really: the occasional plan, destruction, expediency, and economic interests. (Neglect and decay affect the look of the map on Google Street View, but so far don’t seem to play a huge role in altering the map itself.)
 
Detroit lies on the northern side of the Detroit River, a strait (in French, un détroit) running between Lake Erie (a Great Lake) and Lake St. Clair (a Still-Decent Lake). It’s the only city in the US where you head south to get to Canada. That means that Canada is beneath us. On a map, anyway.
Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit was founded in 1701 by a rather colorful character, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, whose achievements also include (in no particular order) inventing a fake noble lineage (the “de la Mothe Cadillac part)—complete with a fake family crest, a simplification of which you can see today on the Cadillac next to you in the parking lot; losing his entire fortune (reputedly by ignoring a fortune teller’s admonition to not do anything foolish like poke the Nain Rouge with a stick); and moving to Detroit’s younger, more popular sister, New Orleans. Couldn’t stay put, that Antoine. Physical and social mobility, and reinventing yourself were things you could do quite easily in the “New World” where no one knew you. They became popular hobbies in Detroit, where people came for opportunity and left when it dried up, often reinventing themselves in the process.
 
 A statue of Cadillac in Hart Plaza. On the right, he stakes his claim on a Lexus.
I took these photos in 2008, I’m not too proud to admit..
 
The city’s original white settlers brought with them from their native Normandy a method of divvying up land. That method was to lay out “ribbon farms”: very thin, long strips of land that gave each farmer his own access to the river. The oldest roads in Detroit mostly reflect the locations of the ribbon farms and/or are named for their owners. That’s why so many of Detroit’s streets have funny French spellings, despite no one pronouncing them in French anymore.
 
Ribbon farms: Notice they did the same thing on the other side of the river, too.

 

Fast forward about a century, and in 1805, Detroit stakes its claim as a city by doing what all cities do at some point in their history: burning to the ground. (Just ask Chicago. Or San Francisco. Or London. It’s a cliché, really.) Two major Detroit tropes occur with that fire: (1) the Nain Rouge is seen dancing in the flames, the bastard; and (2) Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the Catholepistemiad (later sensibly re-named the University of Michigan) and priest at Ste. Anne de Détroit Church, said something along the lines of “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus,” which, being translated, means, “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” Whatever language he actually said or wrote it in, it was such a great line it was eventually made into the city’s motto, and has been kept ever-relevant by generation after generation of Detroit pyromaniacs (the bastards).
 
Detroit city flag, incorporating the motto and the 1805 fire, as well as the three national flags that have flown over the city.
 
In 1806, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory Augustus Woodward produced a plan for rebuilding the city. He laid out broad avenues in interlocking hexagonal patterns with parks or plazas at the intersection points. The plan was supposed to have been expandable with the city’s future growth: just add more hexagons! (W. Hawkins Ferry calls the plan so French in its geometric precision.”) Woodward’s plan inscribed a new pattern over the surviving traces of the old ribbon farms. Residents hated it at the time, because they no longer recognized their hometown.
 
The Woodward Plan. Grand Circus Park makes more sense now, doesn’t it?
 
Someone drew up this image of what the interlocking hexagons would have looked like,
had Woodward’s plan been expanded.
 
Woodward’s plan was never expanded, though, despite the city’s growth. Through the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was taking place throughout the U.S., and Detroit was no exception. Thanks to its location in the Great Lakes system, Detroit became known for ship building, making stoves, and doing all manner of things that involved bending or shaping metal. (That eventually proved useful when the automobile came along.) As the city expanded, thanks to industry, it did so according to the demands of economic interests. Detroit was not alone in this. There was a growing sense throughout the U.S. that its booming industrial cities were dirty and unpleasant, organized as they were around industry rather than civic life. In Detroit, for example, the river front was crowded with shipping yards, with no public recreational access to the river.
 
 
In the 19th century, most U.S. architects trained only by apprenticeship. The few that did pursue academic study had to go to Europe to do so. Even then, most of them didn’t bother to finish their programs; a diploma was simply not necessary to their practice back home.  The fashionable place to study was the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which urged a return to classical architecture, and other things you can read about on Wikipedia.
 
But something happened at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair’s Director of Works Daniel H. Burnham saw an opportunity to showcase his ideas about making Chicago the sort of place people might want to live in, so that the Midwest’s nouveau-riche might settle there (i.e., spend their money there) rather than just pass through on business trips. So he assembled a team of artists, architects, and landscape artists and had them apply the Beaux-Arts aesthetic and ideals to the fair’s site on Chicago’s lakefront. With this project, Chicago’s lakefront was beautified and reclaimed, Chicago’s reputation for its architecture began, and the City Beautiful movement spread like a cliché through the nation (but one that renewed rather than destroying cities).
 
The Beaux-Arts style prefers to give its buildings and statues a great deal of “look space.”
 
Today you can drive (or ride a train) from Chicago to Detroit in about 5 hours. Apparently it took the City Beautiful movement nearly two decades to make the trip around the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, Detroit’s mayor, Philip Breitmeyer, founded a City Plan Commission, which immediately set about bringing Daniel H. Burnham and his similarly-middle-initialed associate, Edward H. Bennett, to Detroit to do some much-neglected city planning. Nothing much had been done since the Woodward plan (which was designed for a population of 50,000; Detroit had reached 700,000 by the time of the Burnham and Bennett plan) other than Michigan Governor Lewis Cass’ 1830 development of old “Indian trails” into military roads radiating out, outstate even, from the city’s center: Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, and Gratiot Avenue. (Poor Fort Street, only a street…) 
 
 I can’t find any images of the Burnham street plan, so instead, enjoy this photo of Daniel Burnham, left, and Lewis Cass, right. Burnham’s eyes look so sincere, but surely he’s hiding something under that moustache. Cass is either reaching for his wallet or having chest pains.
 

The Burnham plan, completed in 1915, emphasized parks and public spaces, much as Woodward’s had done. Detroit’s Cultural Center, which boasts the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, the main branch of the Public Library, and the Detroit Science Center (and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul) is credited to the Burnham plan. Not much of his plan actually was implemented, though. For example, Burnham planned two major avenues radiating river-ward from the Cultural Center: one leading to Belle Isle, and the other to the then-new Michigan Central Station (completed in 1913, abandoned in 1988, and currently being stabilized, finally). 
 

 
 I took this photo in October, 2012.
 
By the early 20th century, Detroit had an extensive and efficient streetcar (trolley) system—at its peak, in some locations, streetcars arrived every sixty seconds! But with the popularity of the automobile and the even greater popularity of moving to the suburbs, the streetcar system fell into disuse and was closed in 1956. It is rumored the streetcars still operate in Mexico City, which purchased them from Detroit. (No, San Francisco, which has the hobby of collecting other cities’ steetcars, doesn’t have them.)
 
 >sigh<
 
Also with the rise of the auto industry, the need for efficient freight transit into, out of, and across the city led to freeway building. As with many other projects, from the Michigan Central Station to general “slum-clearing” (read: corralling non-white people and poor white people to less desirable locations), the freeways saw the city exercise “eminent domain,” condemning buildings and displacing many people from their homes, and disrupting or effacing historic neighborhoods.  I-75 famously had to go right where Paradise Valley, the Black cultural center of the city, was, destroying world-famous jazz and blues clubs among other important sites. Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, was widely razed for the Michigan Central Station and its Beaux-Arts requisite of a really big park in front of it to set it off. Freeways also disrupted Corktown and neighboring Mexicantown, the latter of which has also had to put up with the Ambassador Bridge dumping ¼ of the commercial traffic between the U.S. and Canada right into its residential areas. But thankfully, both neighborhoods are seeing renewal in recent years.
Children enjoying the fountain by the Ren Cen on the Riverfront on a hot and muggy summer day, 2008.
So, as with any city, the street map will continue to change, as will the landmarks and features on that map. Happily, in recent years, the riverfront has been transformed into delightful public space, where children play in fountains or ride the carousel, and people of all ages bike, walk, take lunch breaks, just hang out, or even fish in the Detroit River. All while looking down on Canada.

 

We’re watching you, Windsor.

(Actually, I have nothing at all against Canada. Vive la Windsor!)



  
 


Sources for this post include:
  • Having lived in Detroit
  • Ferry, W. Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History.Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
  • Historic Detroit
  • Herron, Jerry. AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • and various websites, newspaper articles, and other sources absorbed over the years – especially regarding the city’s early history.
  • Ferry, Hawkins. The Buildings of Detroit: A History. Revised ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968; 1980.
I’ve linked to wikipedia often here for convenience. The interested reader is welcome to google other sources.
 

 

“There is No Nothing”

I won’t be posting every single day, but it seems like it’s not a bad idea at first, to get this thing going.

This poem comes from my third and final self-published book, To Kiss the Sun and Mean It. That book title comes from Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Dialogue With the Devil (Why Don’t We Celebrate?),” (© 1971 Golden Mountain Music Corp) which is on his True North Records album, Sunwheel Dance. If you don’t have that album, go out and buy it now. This blog post will still be here when you get back.

Great song, isn’t it?

If you know me, you know I have an irrational love for my hometown, Detroit. I have what I call a “chosen delusion” that when people hear I’m from Detroit, they’ll be jealous. Some of that creeps into this poem, and I think it’s related to Jerry Herron’s complaint regarding a LA Times article in the early ’90s:

“In what has become characteristic fashion, the reporter’s irony is founded on the still more ironic (if unself-conscious) assumption that a city so overfilled with human misery can be written about as if it were empty.” (AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 83)


Herron argues that the city (in general, and also, specifically, Detroit) has become unintelligible in the latter half of the 20th century, because, following suburbanization during the post-war period, the city no longer orders (most) people’s lives or scripts their (consumer) desires. Furthermore, many outsiders looking at Detroit don’t recognize anything that is central to their idea of what a “city” is, so they fail to see what is actually there. In this instance, the reporter had focused on vegetation taking over and pheasants roaming the streets.

However, this poem was written before I’d read Herron’s book, so what he says didn’t influence me directly, but I think it articulates quite well some of what I was intuiting.

Still, that’s not the whole story to this poem. Frankly, I don’t know what is. If you figure it out, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear your reading of this. I don’t know who “you” is in this poem. Many of my poems have a “you” in them, and it’s generally a placeholder, as if the poem were a template that might fit over a number of different “you”s and “me”s.

Other brief notes:

Once you’ve read enough of my poems, you’ll get the sense that I’m not fond of the color white. If you’ve met me, that won’t surprise you.

There’s a bit of a reference to Kierkegaard in the second stanza. Just a bit.

I was living in Palmer Park when I wrote this, presumably in 1999.

The lack of punctuation at the end is intentional.


THERE IS NO NOTHING

Absence is presence: the white space
that colors the page, gesturing form, forging
memories from static words and images;
Your absence is all that I have now.
A whitish light seeps in,
establishing the boundaries
of this stolid afternoon.
Life is only getting longer. This loneliness,
this treasure, hangs, useless
and empty, across this pallid room.

I believe that you faded away into night,
drawn into the womb of that becoming
by the gravity of your longing: now Eternity
illuminates the scope of your being.

Out my window, there is your shadow: my alley view,
flat-lit by stagnant sun; the same mundane scene
sprawling. Urban changelessness. Undying decay.
I want to climb down to the street,
scoop up armfuls of garbage, kiss
the liquor bottle shards, caress the brokenness
of potholes, run my fingers through the weeds
that push up from the sidewalk cracks. I want

to know the sacred absence here,
even through its suffering: these rich wounds
bleed a richer promise,
a destiny of dying
to become



PS: I should note that I sought, and received, gracious permission from True North to use that Bruce Cockburn quote for my book title. In one of life’s weird coincidences, I received the permission on a Monday (or a Tuesday – I don’t remember now) in a week when I was going to see Cockburn play the Crisler Arena in Windsor that Friday. At the show, he played that song, introducing it by saying he finally understood what it was about. I’d love to know what he’d concluded – I have my own reading. But what timing, eh? He’d been on tour for a while, presumably singing that song all along. Still, I was floored to hear it live in that moment.