Wednesday, April 1, 2009

After the Apocalypse or An Ode to D-Town

When President Obama made his speech about the fate of the American automotive companies, I listened with great interest since I live in Michigan and nearly everyone here is affected by them one way or another. A few minutes into the speech, however, some household duty distracted me and I went into the other room.

Almost immediately, I felt the insistent tug of tiny hands pulling my pant leg. I sighed and followed Emerson back into the living room, assuming he wanted help with some dysfunctional toy or something to eat that he shouldn't be eating. Instead, he dragged me over to the television and then resumed watching the rest of Obama's speech with intense 2-year-old interest. I guess he didn't appreciate my lapse in judgment.

The first time I came to Michigan, it was on a cross-country trip from Salt Lake City where Robbie and I met, to his school in Flint, Michigan. After hours of driving through the steamy, languid southern states (we had gone through Texas and Memphis so I could meet his friends and family) I woke up in Michigan, uncomfortably aware of the temperature drop. Despite the fact that spring was in full effect at the beginning of April in most parts of the country we had been in, winter still had its icy fingers wrapped tightly around Michigan.

After a bleary-eyed conversation with his grandma (who's house we were staying in - he would never let me sleep in Flint), we were off to see one of the great wonders of the state: a coney island. For those not in the know, this is a hybrid of greasy diner and greek restaurant that pop up in various forms throughout the state. In the morning, it means a dingy storefront filled with the smell of pancakes and cheap coffee. At night, they are a haven for 20-somethings to gather and eat off their night of drinking with chili cheese fries and gyros (it's counter-intuitive, but it works). As a fan of breakfast foods - especially cheap breakfast foods - I consider these restaurants to be one of the best features of this fair state.

Anyway, sitting in a coney island for the first time, I looked around at the well-worn faces of the regulars and thought: "This is a state of real, hard-working, down-to-earth people. This is the state for me."

When I recounted this story to a co-worker a couple of years later, she laughed and said, "Yeah, everyone starts out thinking Michigan is full of salt-of-the-earth people. Then you quickly realize they are just dumb-asses."

I admit, I laughed at this comment because by then, Michigan had long ago lost its luster. We lived in a string of metro-Detroit suburbs and realized that we were most definitely not suburban people. The endless, run-down strip malls combined with Michigan's interminably gray weather had me in a deep funk. Not to mention that the reality of Michigan's economy settled in when I went from being a PR person for Utah's biggest non-profit to a secretary for the University of Michigan. And it took me two months to find that job.

Like Tom Jones, I wanted to go home:

(Incidentally, this must be what a music video looks like for a professional karaoke singer.)

Despite my growing disgust, I was determined to defend Detroit and Michigan as a whole against outside detractors. When my best friend came up from Illinois to visit, she was terrified of even driving in the state by herself because she imagined it must all be like the movie "8 Mile." Not only did I have to talk her out of this, I decided I had to take her on a tour of Detroit to show her that it did have many good points.

I told her about my plans on the phone before she came, and she was very alarmed to say the least. "You know, my friend heard that there was a hammer killer going around Detroit beating people to death with a hammer when they got out of their cars to get gas," she told me.

I laughed hysterically. "That is ridiculous! I promise you, I have never heard of a hammer killer in Detroit," I assured her.

I knew our trip to Detroit was doomed when we pulled into a coffee shop on the way there and my friend immediately pointed out a newspaper for sale that had the headline "HAMMER KILLER CAUGHT."

"Well," I stammered, "He was caught wasn't he? So there's nothing to worry about."

The trip only got worse when I let my husband drive. He can navigate himself out of any situation - unless it involves driving in Detroit. Instead of showing her all the artistic and historical high points of the city, we ended up driving in circles through the most desolated neighborhoods imaginable.

Finally, we gave up and took them to swanky Birmingham a 15-minute drive away. My friend's husband, who had fallen asleep during the drive (apparently unaware that his wife was fearing for her life) woke up as we pulled into Birmingham's glittering downtown. He blinked several times and looked around in confusion. "Did we drive to another state?" he asked.

Since this escapade, I have traveled through more of Michigan's wild beauty up North and along the coasts. I have started attending an ecumenical seminary in downtown Detroit, which has introduced me to the strength and diversity of the people who live and minister in the city. And we have moved from the suburbs to Ann Arbor to be closer to our jobs. In Ann Arbor, we finally found our yuppie, hippie-lovin' utopia. I can write several more posts about this city alone, but for now let's just say that if I could move in an ocean, Ann Arbor would be heaven on earth.

All these events combined have led me to a renewed love of Michigan.

Watching the local news coverage after Obama's speech, I could hear the anguish and frustration of people who have been dealing with an economic apocalypse long before it made national headlines. When you walk through downtown Detroit, the crumbling buildings and deserted streets echo the apocalypse feeling.

Yet despite all this, I can't help feeling optimistic and even excited about the state's future and Detroit specifically. I know that coming from an upper middle-class Ann Arborite, that means absolutely nothing, but it's how I feel. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to mobilize the creativity and passion needed to make major changes. And since Detroit hit bottom first, the eyes of the country are turning back to Detroit to see what efforts are in place to rebuild. And there are many efforts - from artists moving in and creating art out of destruction, to locals creating community gardens on vacant lots that not only provide fresh, local food for the surrounding poor neighborhoods, but also help green the city and bring up house prices.

If you are local, check out these two great organizations and get involved:
Georgia Street Community Collective
Michigan Land Bank

If you aren't local and want to see some amazing pictures and read equally incredible stories about Detroit - from packs of wild dogs to artist communities to deserted schools full of supplies left to rot - check out Sweet Juniper.

I don't "wanna go home" anymore - I do feel at home in Michigan now. And even more exciting (this is where I really cheese it up), if I make time to get involved, I can be part of something big. A new way forward. A new definition of growth.


  1. I miss the National like you wouldn't believe! Thanks for the post, we need more positive stories about MI. -Julia

  2. Hmmmm... somehow I think I am involved with this story!

    Hey it was your husband that told me about the inhumanity of the people who stole his turtle and his friends being mugged.

  3. Ah, well that's Flint, so that's a whole other story. I do sometimes wonder if there are thieves out there somewhere eating his frozen chicken, wearing his prescription glasses and using his camera to film their pet turtle...