Letter From Detroit

By Ingrid NortonJanuary 16, 2012

Letter From Detroit

I WAS SITTING IN THE TELWAY DINER around the edge of midnight. The Telway is a story in itself: a chrome island built during the 1940s, floating on a blighted stretch of Michigan Avenue. Telway is staffed by the Appalachian whites who long ago moved to Detroit for work and, more recently, to the suburbs to live. It's open 24 hours and nothing costs more than $2.25. I ordered a fish sandwich and had the place to myself, except for the short-order cook, the waitress, and the cashier. A pair of bulky night workers stood in the vestibule and asked for hamburgers, heads framed by the take-away window. Then an ambulance pulled off Michigan Avenue and parked on the sidewalk outside. A stocky, balding EMS worker with reddened skin and tired eyes came in.

"How much time you got?" he asked the powder-faced redheaded woman working the counter.

"How much time you need?"

"I just watched the cops beat the shit out of somebody," the EMT said to all of us. "He was being stupid."

He ordered a large coffee with double cream, and proceeded to tell us the convoluted story. He spoke with a flat affect and blank eyes. It was a robbery/assault at some house "by the train station." He'd waited outside with the woman who had called 911. She kept telling him to go inside and help the man who'd been assaulted. "'He's spitting up, you gotta get in there.' And I told her again," he said, "'I can't go into a violent situation before the police get here, so we'll have to wait for the police.'"

It took the police over half an hour to get there, and so they waited on the sidewalk while the woman grew steadily more agitated, railing about it being the EMT's duty to save lives. She said, "I'm going in to get him! If he dies while we're waiting and you aren't helping him, I'm gonna sue the city." The EMT replied, "Well, that's a great idea, ma'am. Because in case you haven't heard, the city's broke. They don't have the money to pay my pension. They're taking away retirement benefits. I'm suing the city. So you can just get in line."

"That's Detroit," said the lanky blue-eyed counterman, with a laugh. He had white hair and was probably of the first generation of Appalachian migrants to come to the city.

The young, pale fry cook, who seemed a bit slow-minded, started saying something about a stabbing that had happened around the corner earlier that night.

"When?" asked the EMT.

"About 9:30."

"Wonder where we were ... The other day we went out to Harper and Cadieux," he said, naming an intersection clear on the other side of town. Detroit takes in a sprawling 140 square miles, just under 30 percent of which is vacant (the emptied properties alone occupy an area nearly the size of San Francisco); emergency services here have the worst response time in the nation because there aren't enough staff to cover the ground. "A guy'd been shot with an AK-47," the EMT continued. "Lying in the middle of the street. They waited half an hour — half an hour — to call an ambulance."

Fry cook: "That guy isn't alive anymore."

EMT: "Well I had better get going ... "

He took his cup of coffee, paid absently, thanked the waitress, and left without explaining how the first story had devolved into the police beating the man in the house.

As he drove the ambulance back off the curb, the woman said, "I seen him on TV."

"He's the union rep," the older, gap-toothed man explained. "That's why."

"I see him on TV all the time ... Need anything, honey?" she asked, turning to me.

What can I tell you about Detroit that isn't contained by that story? There's Telway and a score of hamburger stands and diners like it, vestiges of the gritty, working-class mid-20th century city that would have been pushed out anywhere else but that hang on here. The EMT is just one of the beleaguered, unionized blue-collar workers who bear the brunt of the violence and disorder that stalk the urban poor. It is common for city first responders to live in the suburbs themselves: over half the Detroit police force live outside the city, and the number is estimated to be higher for firefighters and EMTs. The city used to require its employees to live inside Detroit, but the law was controversially repealed in 1999, which led to massive suburban flight among emergency responders and other city employees. The current mayor, David Bing, has an initiative called "Project 14" to lure police to live in the city again with massive subsidies ("14" is police code for "return to normal operations"). Bing argues that having police live inside city neighborhoods bulwarks safety. Detroit police who live in the suburbs counter that the city — with its high insurance rates, limited services, and poor school options — is a very difficult place to raise a family.

The "train station" the EMT referred to is Michigan Central, the most renowned symbol of Detroit's ruination. It stands 18 stories tall, once magnificent and now in distress: all pocked window-frames and crumbling arches. You can see the sky clear through it. When people here give directions it's simply "the train station," from which no trains have departed since Ronald Reagan was president. That's the ghost city that runs parallel to present-day Detroit.

Over the last 60 years, the city has lost 1.3 million residents from its 1950 peak of 2 million. The continual bleed of people moving to suburbs and other regions of the country means that Detroit's current population is as low as it has been since 1910. The massive abandonment has invidious, far-reaching effects for the Detroiters who remain. Over the last year, there have been an average of 35 major fires a day in the city. A lack of maintenance funds and property abandonment mean it is not uncommon for power lines to hang low over the empty houses and cracked sidewalks. Last September, a combination of dry weather, high winds, and downed power lines caused 85 fires to break out in one 24-hour period. Five suburban fire departments were called in to help Detroit's department combat the blazes. Whole blocks were incinerated. Louvenia Wallace, a hair stylist and mother of three whose east side duplex burned, told a reporter from the Detroit Free Press: "It was like blankets of smoke were everywhere, and the next thing I knew everybody's house was on fire ... My kids couldn't sleep because it smells like smoke ... My daughter is asthmatic, so she can't be around here, no way ... I don't have the money to just move."

An editorial in the following day's paper concluded that though the 58 Detroit fire companies available worked "doggedly and admirably" they were "overmatched to an unsettling degree." The tragedy was no aberration. Plummeting home values mean few people can recover anywhere near what they paid for their houses, whereas insurance pays back the replacement value, creating a perverse incentive for home owners to burn property they cannot sell. Others simply walk away from houses they can't pay the back taxes on, leaving empty properties vulnerable to vandals, squatters, and drug dealers. The fire department has such a foreboding backlog of arson cases that a consortium of insurance companies recently partnered with the attorney general to conduct independent investigations.

Detroit is also home to "Devil's Night," a weekend of arson and vandalism beginning on Halloween eve, which peaked in the 1980s with 800 fires in a single night. Thanks to community patrols ("Angel's Night") and, this year, a citywide curfew on unaccompanied adolescents and children under 18, "Devil's Night" has slowly declined since then, with 169 fires in 2010 and 94 in 2011.

Last Halloween my friend Claire Nowak-Boyd and I participated in a community patrol, driving slowly through blighted neighborhoods in northwest Detroit with our flashers on. Passing a fire in progress in Brightmoor - sometimes known as "Blightmoor" - we saw a firefighter on a ladder silhouetted by smoke over a small single-family house. We drove down dozens of other streets in that neighborhood, where houses stand exposed and ruined, their walls marked with Xs, signaling utility shutoffs, and yards full of discarded mattresses and furniture. The city doesn't collect trash from vacant lots.

In a Free Press article about the neighborhood, African-American residents recalled the area's vibrancy in the eighties and its slow decline. The reporter spoke to Eddie Holmes, a 55-year-old woman who lives on Rochelle Street. Most of her neighbors left a couple years ago after a drive-by shooting at the drug house next door. Another drug addict moved into the house next door. She recalled having recently chased burglars from her porch. "Almost everyone is gone out here," she said. "We feel abandoned and forgotten."

Camping on Michigan's Upper Peninsula this summer, I met a white retiree who grew up in the area. He could remember that in the 1930s when his father built their house at Schoolcraft and Greenfield — a neighborhood near Brightmoor — people thought he was crazy; it was so far on the city's edge. Back then, the man said, the area was full of vacant lots being sold by builders. As a child he watched them fill with houses. That 70 years later the area should be full of vacant lots again is one of the unbearable ironies that characterize life in Detroit.

The mid-20th century explosion of industry that made Detroit a leader in home-ownership also made it a leader in redlining and lending discrimination. Recent immigrants and internal migrants — whether southern whites, Arabs, or Eastern Europeans — adopted racial hierarchies by which their status could be elevated at the expense of African-Americans. As inner-city neighborhoods integrated in the middle of the century, suburbs and townships that had carefully protected racial, ethnic, and religious profiles (often by restrictive deeds) grew around the city like an ever-replicating tumor, killing its host.

As of the 2010 census, only 18 percent of the metro region's overall population lives in the city of Detroit. Only 2.8 percent of the region's white population does. Every year since the 1950s, Detroit has lost citizens while the suburbs have grown. Over the last decade, the city lost over a quarter of its residents — the equivalent of a busload of Detroiters leaving every day — while Livingston, Macomb, and Oakland, three suburban counties, held steady or gained population. Detroit is currently more than 84 percent black, a figure that represents approximately 61 percent of the metro area's total African-American population. The rest live in suburbs: large-scale African-American flight from the inner city began in the 1990s and has accelerated with the recent real estate crisis, which opened up housing options for black families in suburbs that discriminated against them in more prosperous times. One disturbing trend of the past decade has been for white parents in the integrating inner-ring suburbs to send their children to whiter, more affluent school districts farther from Detroit. Typically, the farther from the inner city, the richer the suburbs: West Bloomfield, 27.5 miles from downtown Detroit, is one of the 10 wealthiest towns in the United States.

For every abandoned business, store, school, or church in the city, a new one has been built in the suburbs. Only 38 percent of employed Detroiters work in the city. Many suburban business names refer to streets in Detroit, though their original locations closed years ago. Telway has a second and larger location in Auburn Hills, a prosperous east-side suburb to which Chrysler relocated its main plant decades ago. Huge shopping and strip malls, office parks, and satellite downtowns mean that many suburbanites, the children of early white flight, brag about having never been into the city, while others visit it once a year to see one of the museums or attend a sporting event or a festival.

Detroit holds only 14 percent of the region's jobs. On any given day after a heavy snow, young African-American men go door to door, seeing if anyone will pay them to shovel walks. The unemployed third of the city's population roughly corresponds to the third that doesn't own a car. An estimated 36 percent of the city's residents and over half of its children live below the poverty line. Over 47 percent of the city's residents are functionally illiterate. The Detroit school system continues to lose teachers and close schools, while grade-fixing and social promotion — where failing students are passed to the next grade regardless of performance — is rampant. Parents are expected to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer for their children's classrooms, many of which contain between 40 and 50 students.

You've doubtless read stories about Detroit's burgeoning art scene: the legions of young and generally white hipsters and artists renting cheap studios and lofts in former factories and downtown buildings. The presence of artists, entrepreneurs, and students is palpable in some of the neighborhoods near downtown and Wayne State University. A couple of blocks from the defunct train station, just west of downtown, sits a trendy barbeque restaurant called Slow's where there's often an hour-long wait to get a table. It's run by an international-model-turned-Detroit-impresario named Phillip Cooley. That neighborhood is called Corktown, a sliver of a neighborhood, really, once Irish, and made up of rehabbed Victorian workman's cottages. Last autumn, I wandered through the arsoned hulk of a house, across from the train station, which had been turned into an installation called Salvaged Landscape. Artist and University of Michigan professor Catie Newell used burnt lumber from the back of the house to build a sculpture. Rooms that partway withstood the blaze were filled with murals. The house still smelled of charred wood and urine. For the opening, the artists placed a beer keg out back as well as a table laden with pasta and thin crust pizza. Musicians played on an impromptu stage. "This used to be a drug house, filled with squatters," explained Marianne Burrows, an acquaintance of mine who painted the murals. "So the exhibit is a way of providing neighborhood stabilization as well."

A recent New York Times article lauded Detroit as a "Midwestern Tribeca" of socially aware folk; but off of its bustling main drag, Corktown is surrounded by Detroit's burned-out industrial structures and houses, weedy lots, and subsidized housing. For every white entrepreneur in an inner-city neighborhood, a score of young, college-educated kids live in dense, hip suburbs like Royal Oak and Ferndale. The Detroit perceived by artists like Catie and Marianne, who are often from privileged, suburban backgrounds, is radically different from the city visible to EMS workers. I have doubts about the city's oft-vaunted creative scene, which I was part of for much of the year: to what extent were we dancing to electro-pop while Detroit burned?

On a summer night, I drove around a particularly desolate stretch of the east side. Charred foundations outnumbered houses. Grasses grew waist-high around them. On Belvidere Street, a brightly colored convenience store came into view. It had recently been refurbished: freshly painted graffiti-like letters, colorful and stylized, proclaimed it the "NEW BORN PARTY STORE," while the other wall boasted of "A MAN with a VISION ..." The words reminded me of a speech Mayor Bing gave last September. Bing's arrival came on the heels of the felonious ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and many look to him for new direction; a city official introducing Bing quoted a passage from Isaiah about the restoration of Jerusalem: "[A]nd they shall build houses and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them." Restoring Detroit, however, is a formidable task. Bing announced the first stages of Detroit's strategic plan to shrink services in neighborhoods that are too far-gone to recover mid-century population levels; but those neighborhoods are not entirely empty. I wondered about the optimist who had opened the New Born Party Store. It seemed like a symbol of the stubborn, creative resilience that somehow manages to thrive in Detroit's harshest, most decimated corners.

One of the great open secrets of Detroit is its spoken-word scene, which is among the most vibrant in the nation. Earlier this spring, I went to the open mic at Nandi's Knowledge Café in Highland Park. Highland Park is a microcosm of Detroit — a small island of a city surrounded by Detroit on every side — which resisted incorporation because of its massive wealth 100 years ago when its tax base included Henry Ford's Model T factory. Then, it was full of beautiful wide-porched houses and known as the "city of trees"; verdant elms lined its avenues. In the 1940s, the Highland Park grade school included students of more than 38 nationalities. But in the 1950s, the Ford factory closed. Chrysler, which had also built a major plant there, moved operations to Auburn Hills in the early 1990s. White flight and disinvestment decimated the city, and in the meantime, Dutch elm disease wiped out Highland Park's prided trees. Today its population is almost 96 percent African-American, 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Nandi's Knowledge Café is a local hub. On a Tuesday night, $5 will admit you to the basement where soul food is served in a low-lit, mirror-paneled room and some of Detroit's most talented poets take the mic. As with many cultural spots in Detroit, when I went I attended one night, not only was I the only white person there, but I got the feeling that I was the only white person who had been there in a long time (the MC joked that if I was from the police or the DEA, I'd better fess up). The themes of the poems ranged from thwarted love ("I'm trying to be a King/But I'm still looking for my Coretta Scott") to black media stereotypes and Obama. The most impressive performance was by a petite woman named Alfie, who looked about 25. Her hair was in tight pigtails, and she wore a pink T-shirt and acid-washed jeans. "I wrote this at work today, actually," she announced, taking the mic. Alfie unfolded a crumpled piece of lined paper and launched into her poem:


I work at a Chrysler plan-

She explained how her mother told her to get a career, not a job. But college was costing too much money. So at 22 she took the full-time plant gig in the suburbs where her high school diploma and 3.3 grade-point average "might as well be a GED." She knows she's wasting her mind: her 50-cent raise means she "made more than last year." Running around the office in high-heeled boots, she said, doing what the white managers tell her, she feels it's not so different from decades ago when she would have been "cooking their chicken" and making her own chitterlings. The refrain of the piece was that she should still be grateful when many friends and family don't have jobs at all. In her prayers, she tries to hold fast to gratitude instead of dwelling on all the missed opportunities:


But I know it could be worse
I don't mean to complain
So every night I thank Him
And He says, "You're welcome ... "

As I left the open mic, I drove the long way around the residential block that surrounds Nandi's. I made a left onto Cortland Street, full of once-lovely mid-century brick houses, the stoops of which now crumble into the weeds. My headlights illuminated the pale fur of a stray dog. Right in the middle of that block, a fire was engulfing one of the two-story houses. Flames flickered between yellow and orange in the night. I slowed my car down for a moment and watched the glow reflect on my windshield and hands. I contemplated dialing 911. But the house was pretty far gone, and the buildings on either side were both vacant. Highland Park's emergency services are so overstretched that the state of Michigan recently seized control from the local government. So I sat there and watched it burn. Whether the continued presence of creativity, hope, and resilience amid such devastation seems a triumph or a tragedy varies second by second, block by block.


LARB Contributor

Ingrid Norton is an essayist, fiction writer, and reporter. At large, Norton was last seen in Texas.


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