Sunday, March 29, 2009

MY TOWN MONDAY: Detroit


Another voice from Detroit this Monday. The WALKING MAN, a Detroit native. Check out his poetry and blog.

Here's the story of his Detroit.

Over on the west side I went to the same school from first grade to eleventh. Then because it closed and I had failed ninth grade algebra I was a half credit short of graduation as a junior. Yes it was a neighborhood Catholic school, but I was done with school the same year that Mr. Clemens (Paul Clemens, author of MADE IN DETROIT who was born in the mid seventies) was born so my outlook is much different. The Detroit of my youth was streets shaded with ancient elm trees that formed a canopy over most every west side street, a place where doors generally weren't locked and the neighbors were more organized by what church they attended and the kids by schools, Although every street had both Catholics and Protestants living on them. The city itself was organized by ethnic areas, Poles to Hamtramk, Blacks on the lower east side, Eastern Europeans south west by the bridge, Jews far north west, southern Whites more to the Dearborn border. Italians to the far east side, and the Celtic immigrants from Canada, like my mothers family to the north west side. My fathers family helped settle the state so they have been here for centuries originally from Massachusetts.

My parents were well educated, financially stable people who birthed a tribe of five heathens, My father was a registered pharmacist and a PhD. in chemical engineering who worked in the Chrysler labs in Highland park, my mother an MSW working at what was then called Catholic Social Services of Detroit on Hamilton and Boston. She rose from caseworker to the eventual head of the agency and carried it through it's troubled history of the 90's before she was finally alloed to retire in '01. All of my brothers and sisters went on from that Catholic neighborhood school to earn advanced degrees ranging from Social Work to law with an MBA, Education and Journalism thrown in. While I went more the route of Clemens father eventually becoming a Master Auto Mechanic.

When it was apparent that my mother was dying (three years ago) I took her to her chemo appointments and coffee afterwards for months so I could gently pump her for the oral history. It was illuminating to say the least. My parents owned a house on the Telegraph border of Detroit with Redford. The Catholic church had seen that integration was going to be a problem as early as the 1962, so it went about finding good-hearted white people to stay in the city in order to make the neighborhoods integrated. While in purpose there were many families who signed on for the program, saying they would stay even if their neighbors left. In practice, like all things, the wallet ruled and as property values fell, not from blacks moving into the area but rather because the market was flooded, most of them who made the commitment left. My parents never did. Never left the house they moved to when the left the city limit.

My clan always had a black woman who would baby sit while my mother and father worked and she was never addressed by us kids any differently than any of of our white neighbors. Mrs Hollowell. She was my first close exposure to black people and to be honest there was not a warmer human being in the city as far as I knew I remember her big boobs and rich laugh (hey I was six and seven so don't go there...they were huge). When my parents had those 60's cocktail parties. The ones kids always watch through the baluster railing it was mixed group of both blacks and whites and it was in my memory a social affair, Benny Napoleon, the future chief of police, was a frequent guest as he lived up the street when he was a sergeant on the force.

But the 70's were a time of trouble, the Black Panthers and the radical element of the white student movement was firing up hot and heavy in the rhetoric department so there was always some reason to fight. I was taken down by a group of fifteen black kids as I walked home just because I was white, I wasn't hurt but it had the potential to change my view if it had not been one of my black friends who stepped in and stopped the beating. I chalked it up at the time to just being the fat kid who had been beat by the white kids for years and now it was just a different color fist taking the swing.

In '67 after the riots, I took the city bus alone three days a week through that area to my mom's work and tutored reading to grade school kids five years younger than me. One of the kids who I helped was the younger brother of the leader of a street gang called The Dragons. I was given a pass as I walked the block to CSS, never hassled once; not for being white or for being fat in that all black neighborhood. It was in that neighborhood that I learned the Detroit motto of the the time; "it's better to have your shit on you than to have to go home and get it." Meaning be armed so you can retaliate immediately. STRESS was a very real issue in that area.

I never gave much thought to skin color, neither did the others that I occasionally hung out with, we were a group of boobs who didn't discriminate in our boobery. We smoked cigarettes and pot together, ran the streets and caused trouble with petty thievery from the shop owners regardless of our race.

The very first clue I had to the fact that Detroit was changing was when the all of the shops that serviced the neighborhood closed up and the stores went vacant then the buildings re-opened as store front churches. it was mostly noticeable to me because there was this grand old church that was a church and all of a sudden church meant something else, stores with the windows whited out and some weird singing going on, on Sunday morning. It didn't matter to me though because I had been given the option of not attending any church at all when I was twelve, that was the year I stopped identifying myself as Catholic.

The second clue I had about things getting radically different in Detroit regarding race was when I went to Benedictine to finish my last year of high school. The only people I knew there were the four black kids whose parents would not let them graduate as juniors. they were all nerds, brilliant students etc but black. After the third time I kicked the snot out of a rich white boy (I had my growth spurt the previous summer and went to six foot to match my 240 pounds) who happened to be the schools favorite jock for referring to my friends as niggers, the school administration gave me my half credit and asked me to leave. I don't know if I made it harder or worse for the black kids I left behind but I am willing to bet that I at least started some conversations on the subject of being an asshole to the wrong person at the wrong time.

It was during the years of revolution in Detroit that I first started to write and haven't stopped since. I never went through the teen angst sort of poetry because I focused, like now, on a larger world view. I wish I had some of that early work but it was destroyed when I went to boot camp after leaving HS.

Unlike Mr. Clemens, I do not blame Coleman Young for Detroit's demise but rather I blame the whites who fled, no one forced them out, there was no mass foreclosure. I also blame Henry Ford but that is another story. If one takes an unjaundiced look at Young's history with an open mind to the days he lived in, his attitude is understandable. The man was a hero in the HUAC hearings of the forties ("I am not a snitch"), he was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy and labeled a communist in the days of the great red scare. He came back here, made a living and in the overall was no more shady than quite a few Detroit Politicians who came before him. Louis Mariani just to name one who served ten months for tax evasion. I also blame the great verbal war of separation between Young and Patterson. The rhetoric from both sides fueled the great divide that is 8 mile. They would both be more interested in getting column inches as opposed to working together. Neither man would suffer a slight, even a small one, from the other. No Coleman Young was black but he in no wise was racist. Not in the vein of Kwame. Young was the first mayor I voted for and I would vote for him again because I understand his history and what he was trying to accomplish. He was not of the same mold as Monica Conyers and the rest of the fools who lead this place now. They are Marcus Garvey styled black nationalists and they, like he was are idiots who will never succeed.

Unfortunately though now I live in an area where there is a vocal minority of people who follow that same idiotic philosophy, while I have neighbors that are the same as I have always had, good and kind people, I also now am told by others that this is their city. and to be honest I am tired of the racial dialog. I am tired of every question and answer being framed in terms of race. I have long been able to afford to move, I could now even catch a place in one of the Pointes but I want all the way out. It just isn't home anymore. And even if it finds a way to become something viable, a place more concerned with the people than the rhetoric, I still want out. I have spoken up, I have changed some minds, both black and white but all I want now is some peace and I am ready and willing to leave here to find it. But I will leave on my own damn terms not on those of a racist fool who screams Jesus on Sunday and hate again by Monday.

My Town Monday is the brainchild of Travis Erwin. Look and you shall find him.

17 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad you got a chance to pick up so much information from your mom. I bet you both appreciated those interactions.

Barrie said...

Very interesting, Patti. And what a wonderful childhood you had. Speaking of Detroit...Gary Dobbs is doing a review of an Elmore Leonard book on Wed!

the walking man said...

Charles...That is true, by this point in her life I wanted the answers and she was willing to supply them. They were some of the best days between us.

Barrie...Interesting is one word, that only apply looking back. At the time they were just the normal run of the mill trying to cause trouble without trying to get into any.

Travis Erwin said...

Great post. Loved hearing another take on Detroit.

George said...

Detroit has many of the problems Buffalo is grappling with: crime, declining economy, eroding population. With the Internet, do we need cities at all?

pattinase (abbott) said...

The rust belt is certainly grappling with it all. The erosion of jobs is key. All of the newer, trendier shops that came into Detroit over the last decade are packing up their bags--they have higher rents. The old, dilapidated stores go on.

Barbara Martin said...

A special inner look into Detroit. I'm glad you were able to get the information about your family history from your mother.

ARCHAVIST said...

Great interesting post. The internet certainly brings us closer together no matter where we are.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And that's the best thing to have happened in the last 25 years.

debra said...

It's so important to get stories from our elders---or the information will be lost. We're in the process of documenting stories from my in-laws.
Thanks for a look into your town.

L.A. Mitchell said...

WM...this was a tremendous window into the inspirations for your writing. I really enjoyed it :)

javajazz said...

well, its quite apparent
how passionate you are
about your city, Mark.
after spending a lifetime
there, its no wonder you
want to leave on your terms only.
kinda neat to catch some of
your family background, too...
quite a diverse bunch, no?
thanks for sharing, and thanks
to your hostess for allowing
you the space to write here...

Linda McLaughlin said...

Wow, you had a much more turbulent childhood than I did. I can see how it shaped your views, though. I'm glad you had time to get the oral history of the family from your mom. I wish I'd done more of that with my folks. Where would you like to move to?

budh.aaah said...

I am glad I got to read something that is informative and such an eye opener.
Dear traveller, yes walk on if you must, if you are too tired to fight anymore..

Erik Donald France said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this history and personal take on things Detroit from your perspective.

Cloudia said...

Walking Man:
You are just the person I felt you were through your blog and comments.
We are lucky that you "downloaded" this ultra-rich tapestry of memories for us!

Thanks for the role you have played and continue to play!
Aloha, Sir

the walking man said...

Travis...Thank you sir.

George...First I believe in cyburbia, there is much that can be done there but the body lives in real brick and mortar places. Buffalo should look to Detroit and see what can happen and stop it now.

Patti...Other rust belt cities found a way through though. they may not be smokestack any more but they have a better horizon visible to them who live there. A few jobs to replace the million or so industrial ones that we have lost over the last half century wouldn't hurt that is for sure.

Debra...Thank you. If one wants to know the answers to the questions and assumptions of why and who we all develop in childhood we better ask someone who was older than us that was there.

L.A.M...Thank you. This is similar to the letter to the editor the Detroit papers won't publish.

JayJay...I had plenty of passion and did what I could. Now the posture is more defensive. My body will leave when I am ready, my mind walks in very different places now. Yes my tribe, all followed their own desire to develop as they would. It may not have been perfect but none of us wound up in prison...well there was this one time... :-P

Linda...It was a turbulent society but it seemed pretty normal to me. I had no idea of anything else at the time. Personally I would move somewhere close to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the small town country of Virginia. The wife liked the area as well but she is reluctant for that kind of move at our age. I will just go where she wants, it makes not much difference to me. I can do what I do anywhere.

Budh...Not rising to the bait of the "if" ha ha ha ha. I am tired of here, of the problems of this place that most refuse to look at and discuss in a rational manner. There are other places I haven't been yet.

Erik...One day I hope my kids care enough to ask why I didn't leave sooner.

Cloudia...You know I failed right? Nothing much changed in the grander scheme of things. For Detroit I am not a typical white man, and the few who understood and changed their outlook weren't typical either. The view beyond skin has to change if this place is ever to make progress. BUT Thank you for your kind words they are always appreciated.