Detroit, Michigan 1984
The park was only ten houses down the street, so my parents let us go without an adult. Instead we went with our cousin Robin, who would have been about twelve. As we were leaving, a dark blue car pulled up to us. Robin instinctively grabbed onto me with one hand and my sister with the other. A scruffy looking young guy leaned out the window, blowing a smoke ring in our direction. “Want a cigarette?”
Robin tightened her grip on our hands as she said it. “Run!” And the three of us raced home. That was the last time my parents let us go to the little park by my great-grandfather’s house. I was five years old.
I grew up just outside Detroit, and my family lived in Detroit for many many years. My mother, my grandparents, and even a couple of my great-grandparents grew up there. Because many of my relatives were city firefighters and cops they were required to live within city limits. After the riots of the late 1960’s, many workers moved out to the suburbs with their families while sending their paychecks to (cheaply rented) apartments in the city. However, my grandparents lived there until my grandfather retired; they lived in the same little ranch for over forty years.
For as long as I can remember, Detroit was a dangerous place. Even the “good” neighborhoods had a lot of problems with crime. Arson was a huge problem. Halloween and Devil’s Night were a nightmare for cops and firefighters. Detroit was notorious for riots after Red Wings games, win or lose. Basically, there was always an excuse for crime, and what was once a thriving city became a city that everyone feared with constantly rising crime rates and a dwindling population.
We were always hearing that Detroit was going to be rebuilt, but somehow that never happened. Aside from The City Center and the DIA, nothing ever got renovated. Companies continued to leave Detroit, and new businesses didn’t move in. Instead of people moving back, more and more people left. Even my family members retired and moved out. Meanwhile there was massive political cronyism during the Coleman Young years that left the city with even fewer resources to rebuild and regroup. (Many of his associates ended up in jail, so cronyism is the exact right word here.)
A friend of mine spent a few years going to Wayne State and living in Hamtramck. (For those unfamiliar with Hamtramck, it’s the neighborhood pictured in the movie “Gran Torino”. It’s a tiny city that’s bordered almost entirely by Detroit.) From time to time, I would go to Hamtramck to hang out with her and her boyfriend. Occasionally we would walk to a bar that was in Detroit proper, but just a few blocks from her house.
The first time my husband (a native New Yorker) went with me, he was appalled. “Christy, it’s 10 o’clock on a Friday night. Isn’t this a major metropolitan city? Where the hell are the PEOPLE?” And he was right. We were the only visible people on the entire block.
After numerous break-ins, my friend also moved out. The city my grandparents grew up in no longer exists. Instead, Detroit has become a history lesson, the poster child for racism, fear, economic depression, police brutality, drugs, squatting, political graft, extreme poverty, and crime.
It’s gotten to the point that Detroit Police are actually telling people not to go there, that people are entering at their own risk. I don’t even know what else to say. It just saddens me really, a little piece of history gone. Farewell Motor City. Farewell to what was once a thriving city, as well as the heart of American made vehicles and American ingenuity.
What threads of history do you hold onto?