Through a horrific half-century of decline, Detroit has become one of the most blighted cities in America. It has also become one of the most misunderstood — a victim of misread history, media clichés, self-serving racial rhetoric, corporate and political indifference, and crime and corruption that can still get downright rococo.
But lately there have been encouraging signs that people are starting to get Detroit, a necessary first step if the hoped-for renaissance is to take place. Not only do these people understand what the city means and what happened to it, but they’re able to believe that the city has a future beyond bankruptcy, abandonment, and physical decay. There is not a Pollyanna or a Romantic in this crowd. Nor is there anyone willing to succumb to despair. They’re a reminder that Detroiters are, first and last, survivors.
One of the freshest of these voices belongs to Mark Binelli, a native Detroiter whose 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, debunked many of the myths about the city’s past while offering a clear-eyed assessment of its current disarray and future prospects. No, Binelli points out, the 1967 riot — or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion — did not start white flight. And no, Mayor Coleman Young did not singlehandedly bring the city to its knees any more than a handful of white hipsters are going to singlehandedly get it back on its feet. Considerably darker, but also free of worn-out assumptions, was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy from 2013, which didn’t hesitate to pick at the city’s abundant scabs, but also offered strangely heart-warming truths like this: “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is.”
Then there was Paul Clemens’s 2005 memoir, Made In Detroit, which tells what it was like to grow up white in a city that became predominantly black in 1973, the year Clemens was born, the year Young was elected the city’s first black mayor. Among the book’s many insights is that Detroit has always been a raw place, no matter what color your skin happens to be or who happens to be in charge. He invokes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night: “After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline’s restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter, he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: ‘It was even worse than everywhere else.’” And that was in the 1920s, when the city was booming.
The latest addition to this growing body of wised-up writing is a scintillating new collection called A Detroit Anthology, published by Rust Belt Chic Press (which has also brought out companion volumes about Cleveland and Cincinnati). It’s a lively stew of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, personal essays, and fictionalized observation. There is no cheap nostalgia or breathless boosterism. There are remarkably few mentions of cars, but plenty of talk about sports, race, families, neighborhoods, music, and history. In fact, the book’s greatest strength is the various ways the contributors acknowledge that understanding Detroit’s history is the key to understanding its current condition and its possible ways forward. In Detroit, more than most places, the past will never be past.
This is brought home in Steven Pomerantz’s essay, “Fort Gratiot,” the heart-breaking story about the hardware store his father and uncle, the sons of immigrant Russian Jews, ran on the city’s east side from 1948 to 1979 — years that neatly bookend the city’s peak and its slide. Pomerantz writes knowingly about the symbiosis of Jewish merchants and their black customers in the inner-city, a dance as old and itchy as America itself:
This much everybody understood, and it formed the basis for an uneasy alliance — they needed each other too much to let their mutual dislike get in the way. But as always in these types of things, it was more complicated than that. The neighborhood black community was made up of my father’s friends and enemies. They were the source of his livelihood and the bane of his existence.
When flames and rage engulfed the city in July of 1967, many black merchants spray-painted badges on their buildings — SOUL BROTHER and AFRO ALL THE WAY — in the hope that arsonists would pass them by. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. In any event, the Jewish hardware store on Gratiot remained untouched, for reasons that will never be known. “My father attributed this to his good relations with the black community,” Pomerantz writes, “but it could have been just dumb luck.” In a bitter irony, the business failed not because of racism or crime or white flight, but because Pomerantz’s uncle spent years embezzling money from his own brother.
This book also offers many small grace notes as counterpoints to such big moments. The essay “Turner Ronald Carter the Third” by Kat Harrison is a touching story about a black girl’s awakening to the shocking realization that a white playmate regards her as inferior. This hits home the day the boy, always friendly, marches onto her front yard, unzips his pants, urinates on the shrubbery, then runs home without a word. “In later years, my musings about Turner’s defiant and deviant act led me to think that he was the weapon his parents used to register their displeasure with the arrival of unwanted colored neighbors,” Harrison writes. “How sad and cowardly it was to use a child to insult another child, neither of whom could have possibly understood the motivations and bigger issues at play.”
In “Awakening,” Maisha Hyman Sumbry is rescued from the boredom of waiting for the school bus by a magical blast of Run-DMC, courtesy of a passing Dodge Charger with a powerful sound system. And in “Playing Ball,” J.M. Leija explains her love for her hometown Tigers this way: “The people, the city, it’s all just a little bit easier when we’re playing ball.”
The contributors to A Detroit Anthology range from first-time authors to seasoned professionals, which gives the collection its free-wheeling, anything-goes feel. But it’s not flawless. In the essay “I’m From Detroit,” Shannon Shelton Miller writes scornfully about how suburbanites (that is, white people) know virtually nothing about the city or the people who live there (that is, black people). There’s some truth to the point, but it’s part of the tired old merry-go-round that helped bring Detroit low in the first place. It comes out of territoriality, provincialism, tribalism. It’s about us vs. them, and in Detroit there’s an almost laughable abundance of such dividing lines: city vs. suburbs; black vs. white; labor vs. management; Republican vs. Democrat; foreign vs. domestic; even west side vs. east side. To Miller’s way of thinking, 8 Mile Road is the great line in the sand, the DMZ between the city and its northern suburbs, between the courageous few who chose to stay and the multitudes who opted to flee. But as Steven Pomerantz knows, it’s more complicated than that.
I have lived north of 8 Mile and I have lived south of 8 Mile – I have lived all over the world, for that matter – and I can report that vice and virtue have nothing to do with geography or race. Zip codes and skin color confer nothing.
This harping on geography — and its subtexts — reminds me of a common encounter I had when I lived in the South. When Southerners heard my flat Midwestern accent — no syrup, no drawl — they often asked a question that was not altogether friendly: “Where you from, anyway?” The subtext was obvious: You’re not one of us, so you’re automatically suspect. Asking me where I was from was the wrong question. The right question would have been: What are you made of? Or better yet: What’s in your heart?
But “I’m From Detroit” is a rare misstep. The consistently high tone of A Detroit Anthology can be credited to Anna Clark, the book’s editor, who grew up in western Michigan and has lived in Detroit since 2007, working as a freelance journalist. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about who lives here, what happens and what doesn’t happen here,” Clark told me in a telephone interview. “But the thing I wanted to do with this anthology was get past the stance that we’re going to explain this city. I wanted to get the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters — diverse and true and candid conversations people have at a dinner table or in a bar.”
By that measure, the book is a thrilling success. It gives voice to people who now live or once lived in this fascinating, tortured place, the survivors, good people who know what pain is, people who understand that the city exerts an undying pull on them. Or as Philip Levine, the great poet of Detroit, once put it, Detroiters are people “who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or “No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’”