A Day in the D
Growing up in The Thumb, the same digit of Michigan’s “palm” as Detroit, it was impossible to keep the city from being a part of my life. Mornings started with Channel 7 Action News. Childhood field trips were to the city’s museums or to Comerica Park. Even my mother’s participation in the Detroit music scene meant many late nights spent in dim venues as we watched her sing. The cool parts of Detroit were always accessible, and it was then when the hour-long drive didn’t seem so long. We’d talk about Detroit with pride,like we’d always been a part of it. But when there was another murder, arson, or another politician’s affair, we were able to distanceourselves; after all, we were an hour north of Detroit. “Detroit’s so messed up,” we’d say. “Glad we don’t live there.”
But I can’t deny wanting to be able to take pride in Detroit, despite the fact that I didn’t grow up on her streets. So when I learned my class was taking a field trip to the city, I was conflicted with a sense of aloofness (“Pff. I’ve alreadyseen Detroit”) and a sense of curiosity (“Well, what else can I see?”). It was with this ambivalence that I boarded the bus to spend the day in the D.
The weather perfectly paralleled the supposed vitality of the city: a dismal rain, spitting and spiteful. As our distance from Ann Arbor increased, the quality of the landscape did the opposite. The expanses of forlorn lots and abandoned buildings started popping up as if the texts we’d read in class had been enchanted and brought to life. The way the city appeared to be in some sort of post-apocalyptic state made me aware that our readings had no reason to exaggerate, for it was all real.
Our first stop was at Earthworks Urban Farms. Next to a hoophouse behind a chain-link fence, we met Robbie, a man (appropriately dressed in earth tones) active in the city’s flourishing urban agriculture movement. Robbie, like the plants he cared for, had roots in Detroit; his family had flocked to the city during the Dust Bowl. He gave us a brief history of Earthworks: as Brother Rick, one of the Capuchin friars of the neighboring monastery, was writing his shopping list one day, a boy came up to him and asked, “Which gas station are you going to get those from?” Realizing the need for fresh produce, Earthworks Urban Farm was started in an old parking lot, and slowly grew along the street in the forms of gardens and orchards.
I found the history as interesting as any overtired post-Saturday-night student could at eleven a.m. I didn’t get a glimpse of that elusive Detroit pride until Robbie started talking about the true meaning of a garden in a dying city. “I think this is about survival,” he started. “What do we do about this system that is killing us? I know too many folks that are suffering from this…this system…to say that’s it’s all just a game.” His voice cracked with what I assume was exasperation and fervor and I was moved. He wasn’t even Detroit native, yet here he was, standing in her dirt and wanting to nourish—literally—her back to health. It occurred to me that what Detroit needed was people, like Robbie, who were simply vehement about making a difference in the city. It’s not like the city could tell the difference, or give a damn, about where you were from.
After we bade farewell to our friend Robbie, we made a stop at the Heidelberg project. It’s like a demented Dr. Seuss story: an entire lot completely overcome by frightening baby dolls, a telephone pole adorned in sodden, washed-out stuffed animals, a harlequin house covered in polka-dots. I try not to question art, for it knows no boundaries. But I struggled with this sentiment as I stared at a bent, fluorescent orange pole with a tire rung onto it. I struggled with it as I stared at giant pile of old shoes in the grass. I struggled with it as I stared into the soulless eyes of a charred baby doll. The art I was looking at was made of garbage; it was nonsensical; it was ugly; I had to force myself to look at it. And then I drew a connection: maybe this was all an allegory for Detroit. Like Detroit, it was there, in front of me, tangible and demanding to be recognized, because when I went home to comfortable Ann Arbor and wrote about my experience, it would all still be there, plastic eyes glinting in the cold moonlight. It was this disturbing thought that left me feeling obligated to be part of the city even more. The dolls’ eyes and city alike wouldn’t be so frightening if they were dealt a little attention.
After a chilly lunch, we took a bus tour along Belle Isle, as if there was something to tour. It was suggested to us that we try to pretend like we were in a different time; I suppose “the past” was the intended “different time,” but I couldn’t help but feel we were in the future—too far into the future. The island was void of people, the fog was heavy, and all around us was the dense lushness of nature. It was an ominous foreshadowing; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; a glimpse of a future that Detroit seemed to be hurdling towards if somebody didn’t pull the brake soon.
The pensive discomfort that Belle Isle had prompted in me was temporarily relieved as we pulled up to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The rigid marble edges of the building played a sharp contrast to the asymmetrical lines of crumbling buildings and overgrown lots we’d been experiencing all day. We were told to roam the building as we pleased. In pursuit of productivity, I told myself I’d try to focus on art pertaining to Detroit, as a sort of supplement to what I was learning. But I became blissfully spellbound by what the museum had to offer: Degas, Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh. The art’s prestige rivaled that of museums of metropolises like New York, so much so that I nearly forgot which city I was in. But I was quickly reminded where I was as I exited the museum and a woman handed me a small sheet of paper. In greyscale, it loudly protested the possibility of city council selling the art in order to pay off debt. I felt as if Detroit was sending up a flare, asking not to let the grandeur of the museum veil her plight.
Our final stop was at Michigan Central Station—central to what, I don’t really know. It was a giant skeleton of a building enclosed by a barrier of barbed chain link and hush; indeed, I felt like we were visiting the grave of some forgotten hero. A “No Trespassing” sign hung on the fence to the train station, suggesting that nobody left the city, and nobody came to it. Despite the grim scene of crumbling stone and all-but-three broken windows, there was hope in a few pots of pink flowers and construction machines parked to the side.
At the end of the day, I had experienced and reflected upon more of Detroit than I had bargained for. I was often overwhelmed by not only a sense of helplessness, but of guilt, not unlike the one I often felt in the past when I was selectively proud of Detroit. Here we were, young, relatively-affluent and educated people, popping into Detroit to take pictures of its ruin like it’s some sort of novelty and then popping back out to write about it for a grade, while it and its people continue to live in desolation. For a while, the shame I felt further distanced me from the city, far beyond the means of an hour’s car ride.
But meeting Robbie, witnessing the urban agriculture movement, seeing the effort put into the Heidelberg, and even learning of the crusade to save the D.I.A. made me realize that it was Detroiters’ passion that united them andthat was what they were proud of. They didn’t have the means to be ashamed of their city; they only had the means to be passionate about how to make it better. I didn’t have to be born, or even currently living, in the heart of the city to take pride in it, I only had to be passionate about it. I could choose to work in Detroit or I could choose to support its programs and people, but no matter what, it’s that passion for the city that allows us to say that “Detroit is messed up, but it’s cool,” rather than the other way around.