Detroit Preflection

“Have fun in Detroit!” a friend said to me today. Then added, “I never thought I’d say that.” I laughed and thought, “I never thought I’d hear it.”

In one week, I’ll probably be eating lunch in that infamous American place: MoTown, The Motor City, The D, former home to the Arsenal of Democracy, and the historical heart of the global automobile revolution. Today, it’s a bleeding heart, to be sure, but it’s a crazy American story and I’m ready to see it for myself.

•••

I don’t remember the first time I heard about Detroit. I don’t think it really factored into my elementary, middle school, or high school educations. If it did, it wasn’t a prominent stop along the way.

Actually, I think my first connection to Detroit was in the movie, The Jungle Book (1967). As King Louis sang “I wanna be like you,” the rhythm of Motown filled my young ears. It’s a somewhat dubious scene in the movie, but a good example of Disney capturing the musical genre that Detroit sold to the world. It would be most of my life before I would even begin to consider it’s context or implications.

I didn’t grow up dreaming about Detroit, but I’ve always been interested in cities. This particular city has been calling my name since I first read Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis for a class five years ago. As I read Sugrue in horror, I learned about the racism and violence that ruined the city in the twentieth century. My classmates and I watched a moving documentary, “Goin’ to Chicago,” that introduced the story of the Great Migration and its role in changing many northern cities (definitely click the link to watch the video if you’ve never seen it). The following summer, I had a layover in the Detroit airport and talked to a woman who told me that she was proud of Detroit despite it’s national perception, but then added that she preferred to live in “nearby” Windsor. I remember the airport was pretty cool too.

That same summer, my boss at Partnership for Smarter Growth gave me a copy of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape as if it were a coming-of-age ritual. She said that someone had given it to her and now it was time for me to have it. Around that time (or earlier), my parents enthusiastically told me about the documentary “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” and I later watched and was amazed. Here’s a link to the trailer. What a place! This music changed the world, but many of us forget it or were never taught in the first place.

For the next few years, I spent almost all of my time learning about Richmond and New York City. But last summer I watched (and really enjoyed) Eminem’s movie Eight Mile and was reminded of my fascination with the city. More overcoming, more amazing music, more fight, more attitude. I have to go there.

Last year, I started to read the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and once again I became incredibly interested in the story of the Great Migration. The title is not hyperbole. The story is epic. It’s a huge book and I had to put it down, but I’ll finish it some day. It’s impossible to understand race in Detroit without understanding where everyone came from. This is the story of African American migration from the rural south to northern cities such as Detroit.

I have seen three brief videos that have connected me to Detroit in different ways. First, the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, “Imported from Detroit.” I was totally moved by the gospel choir, dramatic shots of the city and phrases such as, “you see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.” It was bombastic, yes, but you can’t deny that attitude. It is unique. You could not make a video like that about Richmond, or Austin, or San Francisco. More recently, I watched the trailers for the documentaries Burn and Detropia, both jarring insight into the reality of Detroit’s profound decay and loss. I continued to feel the drama of this city from 1,000 miles away.

I recently stumbled upon one last video that I have grown to love over the past year. It’s a beautiful piece about the Michigan Central Station in southwestern Detroit titled, simply, “Michigan Central Station.” I like this video and I choose it to conclude this post because it’s not sad, but it’s a real portrayal of an abandoned place. It’s also connected to a Web site, “Talk to the Station,” where we’re encouraged to share “ideas and love” for the dilapidated structure. The ideas are great and the energy is exciting. Fifteen ideas in the last two weeks!

As I look forward to my visit, I am most excited about this kind of creativity and stubborn ingenuity in the face of a raw and bitter history. My pilgrimage has been brewing for almost five years and I’m ready to see the place for myself.

Detroit, I’m on my way.

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