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.’”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a white Republican, announced on March 1 that the state will appoint an emergency manager to try to bring the city of Detroit, largely black, largely Democrat, and nearly broke, back from the brink of financial ruin. The night before Snyder made that racially and politically fraught announcement, as it happens, I went to the Public Theater in New York to see the world premiere of a new work by a young Detroit playwright named Dominique Morisseau. The play, Detroit ’67, is set during the city’s bloody riot in the summer of 1967, and, like Snyder’s announcement, it is a reminder that the past will always be with us. Morisseau’s play could not be more timely.
It’s set in the basement of a West Side apartment shared by two siblings, the straight-arrow Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and her ambitious brother Lank (Francois Battiste), who have just received a small inheritance following their parents’ deaths. They’ve agreed to turn the basement into an after-hours nightclub, but it’s their sharply differing dreams for a better future that will drive brother and sister apart. Caught in the crossfire are their friends Bunny (De’adre Aziza) and Sly (Brandon J. Dirden). When Lank and Sly find a battered, disoriented white woman named Caroline (Samantha Soule) wandering on the street, they bring her to the basement to recuperate. The fireworks begin.
This taut drama, crisply directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, beautifully acted, produced in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre, doesn’t have to stretch to make us see it as a metaphor for the racial tensions that are about to engulf the city of Detroit and much of the rest of America. It is one of Morisseau’s gifts to be able to make the personal universal, plausibly, heart-breakingly so. Another of her gifts is the ability to see that Detroit is a city burdened with misconceptions. Among the most stubborn, as Detroit ’67 states with a wicked punch, is the myth that the ’67 riot — or “the Great Rebellion,” as many Detroiters call it — was the root cause of the city’s decline. It was not. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950 and then began declining as new highways greased the exodus to the suburbs. Meanwhile, the Big Three automakers started sending factory jobs to non-union states, a damaging trend that became ruinous with the advent of globalization. Today, the city’s population is about one-third what it was at its peak. As Morisseau’s play makes clear, the ’67 riot was just one symptom — and an unwelcome accelerant– of a decline that had been in motion for nearly two decades.
“I wanted to contribute a different Detroit narrative,” Morisseau told me at the Public Theater the day before I saw the play. “I want to write as I believe we are. A human being has many flaws. I’m writing from a place of love rather than a place of judgment. I have to show who we are, our humanity. We’re more than sound bites.”
Morisseau graduated from Cass Tech High School, alma mater of Diana Ross, John DeLorean, Lily Tomlin, and scores of famous Detroiters. After studying acting at the University of Michigan, Morisseau came to New York to pursue her career in the theater. Detroit ’67, developed while she was part of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, is laced with telling historical detail. I know much of the history because I grew up in Detroit and was a teenager during the riots, and later I spent years researching a novel set during the era. Morisseau, who was not born until 1978, knows the history thanks to family stories she heard while growing up, and to a newspaper clipping file kept by an uncle who worked as a freelance journalist.
“Then I started reading the work of Pearl Cleage,” Morisseau said, referring to the playwright, novelist and essayist whose father, Rev. Albert Cleage, was a prominent civil rights activist in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, an outspoken advocate of the Black Power movement. “That reading led me to the plays of August Wilson. I felt his overwhelming sense of pride in Pittsburgh and what the people of Pittsburgh must feel. I love writing about Detroit, and I thought I should do a three-cycle play about my hometown. I knew the riot era had to be covered.”
Morisseau has nearly completed her three-play cycle. Paradise Blue is set in the post-World War II jazz clubs of Paradise Valley, the thriving heart of Detroit’s black East Side that was bulldozed to make way for the Chrysler Freeway, an undying insult to many black Detroiters of a certain age. Skeleton Crew is set in 2008, as the recession was hitting, Chrysler and General Motors were sliding into bankruptcy, and many people had given Detroit up for dead.
As she was writing Detroit ’67, Morisseau never lost sight of the fact that she’s a dramatist, not an historian. “This play is not necessarily a history lesson,” she says in a note that appears in the program. “However creative I am choosing to be, I am not being unfaithful to the spirit of the city or the outrage that ignited the riots. The truth is, there were police units called the Big Four that would ride around the city and harass the black residents, particularly around Twelfth Street. The truth is, Twelfth Street was considered to be a ‘seedy’ part of town. The truth is, the riots began in this very neighborhood at a time when police brutality had run far too rampant and an after-hours joint (also called a ‘blind pig’) located above a printing shop got raided. The truth is, the city’s disenfranchised were becoming social rebels.”
True on every count. These truths come to life in what was, for me, the most poignant moment of Detroit ’67, which will run at the Public Theater through March 17, then move uptown to the National Black Theatre of Harlem from March 19 to April 14. Caroline, the battered white woman, has made herself useful in the basement after-hours club during her convalescence, helping make the business a success. But she has also run afoul of Chelle, who disapproves of the growing attraction between her brother and this white intruder, with her dark past and her taste for Bali Hai wine and Motown music. As flames flicker in the windows and Army tanks rumble past on the street, the two women spar over the racial divide, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that is as old as America itself, the gulf that keeps us all, regardless of our skin color, from being fully alive and truly free:
CHELLE: You and Lank can pretend to be cut from the same cloth all you want. But outside this basement tell a different story. Lank got his eye on the sky but Detroit ain’t in the sky. It’s right here on the ground. A ground with a lot of dividing lines. We on one side and you on the other.
CAROLINE: And what about when the lines are blurred? When you feel something that can’t be cut up or divided? When you know you belong somewhere even if people tell you you’re not allowed. That’s where we meet, Lank and me. Somewhere without all the zones and restrictions. Some place that doesn’t care if we dance close and enjoy the same music. Some place where we’re not stuck. And maybe that’s in a place you refuse to go…maybe you’re afraid what’ll happen if you do…but that’s the place where someone like Lank and someone like me are exactly the same. And if you don’t see that, maybe you’re the one with the blind spot!
CHELLE: I’m the one with the blind spot? You can run out of here right now. Leave town with these cops chasing you. They can harass you and bruise you and even try to kill you. That may make you the same as us. But if you survive it, you can leave. You can disappear and reappear wherever else you want, in any zone you choose. Live a new life without permission or boundaries or some kinda limits to your skin. Can Lank do that? Can any of us? Everywhere we go, the lines is real clear. Ain’t nothin’ blurred about it. You might dream the same. You might listen to the same music. You might even feel the same heartbreak. But til’ he have the same title to this world that you got, you and him ain’t gon’ never be the same! And that ain’t blindness tell me that. That’s 20/20.
Much has been written lately (some of it by me) about the hopeful signs of rebirth in Detroit — a newly bustling downtown, the rise of a young entrepreneurial class, the sprouting of urban farms, the city’s irrepressible work ethic, even the stunning rebound of the auto industry. These developments are real, and they’re worth celebrating. But as Gov. Snyder’s announcement reminds us, the city’s problems are entrenched, and they won’t be fixed by eager entrepreneurs, hipsters, or good press. The city is in desperate need of three things: jobs, people, and the tax revenue that comes with them.
But at least the city’s problems — and the historical sources of those problems — are being addressed in a clear-eyed fashion by a new generation of writers who are able to see beyond the tired cliches, beyond ruin porn and rosy optimism, beyond the finger-pointing and the exhausted racial-political rhetoric. With Detroit ’67, Dominique Morisseau has added her voice to this robust chorus. Its members include Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. And Charlie LeDuff, author of the current New York Times bestseller Detroit: An American Autopsy. And Paul Clemens, author of Punching Out and Made in Detroit.
None of these writers buys the simplistic old myths — that the riot single-handedly ruined Detroit; that the city’s first black mayor, fiery Coleman Young, was either a devil or a saint; that the racial divide can be bridged with good intentions; that the auto industry’s soaring profits will be the city’s salvation.
The truth is much more complicated than any of that. Dominique Morisseau is a young talent worth watching because she’s seeing our troubled, fascinating, resilient hometown with vision that’s 20/20.
Image courtesy of The Public Theater.