Prose by John G. Rodwan, Jr. + Photos by J. Gordon Rodwan
Both Detroiters and Detroitists populate Detroit. Perhaps every city has residents as well as people who not only live there but are also its vocal advocates and voluntary ambassadors. Given Detroit’s unique cultural, racial, and class dynamics, however, Detroitists assume a special challenge: telling the city’s complicated story in ways that highlight the many reasons for passionate local pride without ignoring or downplaying the city’s numerous problems.
Few cities became shorthand for failure the way Detroit did. Economic collapse. Racial conflict. Industrial demise. Population shrinkage. Poverty. Crime. Corruption. In so many ways, Detroit’s story can be spun as a guidebook to all the ways things can go wrong for a city.
And, all too frequently, that is the way the story gets told, much to Detroitists’ dismay. If all someone with no firsthand experience of the place ever learns about it are the many unfortunate highs—high murder rates, high unemployment rates, high school-dropout rates, high insurance rates, and so on—then he or she might not be aware of the great things about Detroit. Those great things don’t completely counterbalance or erase those depressing highs but, Detroitists insist, they are very much part of the story, and city dwellers’ lived experience, too.
I was a Detroiter in the 1970s and most of the 1980s, when I grew from childhood into adolescence and had no say in where I resided. I was a Detroiter when I moved back to the city after college in the early 1990s, mainly because I’d won a fellowship for graduate studies at a university in the city. If I became a Detroitist after I returned to the city in the second decade of the 21st century following an extended absence, I did so as someone who came to appreciate many remarkable things about the place while simultaneously wishing much about it was different.
I’d guess that if people from elsewhere have any idea of what Detroit looks like they would envision abandoned buildings. Photographs of certain moldering hulks circulated widely, contributing to an impression of the city as collapsing factories alternating with dilapidated houses.
Yes, the city did produce a surplus of such sad structures.
Yet it also has plenty of awe-inducing architecture. One man’s architectural firm alone designed more than enough buildings to make the city’s architecture a cause for Detroitism. Albert Kahn’s impressive credits include the former headquarters for General Motors and, right across the street, the glorious Fisher Building as well as the Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservancy and the Detroit Athletic Club, not to mention multiple automobile plants, apartment buildings, and newspapers’ headquarters. (GM eventually left the elegant building Kahn created for it and moved into the Renaissance Center, the so-called Ren Cen, an unfortunately prominent, aggressively forbidding glass fortress on the Detroit River; presumably the company had reasons that outweighed aesthetic sensibilities.)
Yet it’s not the various Kahn buildings around town, or even the Art Deco masterpiece known as the Guardian Building downtown, that convinced me that Detroit has some of the best buildings of anyplace in the world.
Instead, it was the houses.
Perhaps the houses in which people grow up affect, either positively or negatively, how they think houses should be. In my case the childhood house experience was wholly positive. My parents bought a house on the northwest side of Detroit in 1970, when I was a little over a year old. That’s where I lived until I went away to college. It’s where I’d go to see my folks when I was in town after I’d moved elsewhere. It set the standard for what I thought I’d want in a house.
When my wife and I bought a house about four decades after my parents bought theirs, it was in a nearby neighborhood with similar English Tudor, Italianate Spanish Mission, French Provincial, and Federalist style homes.
There are grander Detroit houses than those in the neighborhood where I grew up and in the neighborhood into which I later moved. Once on a group bike ride, I overheard some cyclists express wonderment at the houses in the Palmer Woods neighborhood. “I had no idea there were houses like this in Detroit,” one of them remarked. “It’s like we’re in Grosse Pointe,” he continued, referring to a tony area east of the city (where Albert Kahn designed a mansion for the Ford family).
There are more modest houses than mine, like some of those built quickly during the Great Migration when workers were moving to Detroit for jobs in its factories. These too display a commitment to craftsmanship and attention to detail that undoubtedly contributed to pride among both those who built them and those who bought them. Like my childhood home, they are the kinds of places that children could hope to have when they became adults.
I didn’t think about buying a house until after living in cities other than Detroit. After many years of renting, my wife and I first considered buying a place when we lived in Brooklyn. We got pre-approved for a mortgage and started looking at places we could afford, which turned out to be the equivalent of where we lived at the time: a two-bedroom apartment, not the four-bedroom, three-story house the same amount of money would have bought in Detroit. (Of course, years later, those Detroit houses would be far cheaper, at least for a few years. But even before the crash that sent Detroit house prices spiraling downward, the city was cheaper than New York. Our rent in Brooklyn was more than four times higher than what we’d paid a few years earlier for a similarly sized place in Detroit.) One of the things I disliked about renting was living in buildings with other people. In one brownstone where we stayed, a couple would argue, loudly and frequently, in the hallway just outside the door to our apartment. This was the kind of thing I wanted to get away from, not something I wanted to commit myself to enduring. I wanted a house, a house like those I’d known in Detroit.
And when we got one, it felt right in a way I knew a Brooklyn condo or co-op never would have.
It would be disingenuous to discuss housing in Detroit, or virtually any aspect of the city, without addressing the topic of race. It’s truly unavoidable.
Sometimes the barriers that divide people are metaphorical or psychological, as when people refuse to cross a certain road or consider going to a particular place because of prejudice or fear.
Sometimes the barriers that divide people are physical and concrete. In the 1940s, a developer envisioning an all-white neighborhood on the city’s northwest side convinced the Federal Housing Administration, a promoter of homogenous zones, to back mortgage guarantees and approve loans by building a six-foot wall separating the subdivision from black Detroiters living in nearby houses. Long after the houses on both sides of it became occupied mainly by black families, the Birwood Wall continued to stand, with parts of it covered with civil rights-themed murals.
Several decades after the construction of the wall parallel to Birwood Street between Pembroke and Eight Mile Road, a family bought a house in a Detroit historic district not far away from it. After they put up a six-foot wooden fence to enclose the yard, some neighbors questioned whether the fence complied with the Detroit Historic Commission’s rules. Others questioned whether some people could flout such rules, while others most definitely could not. Still others wondered if the family wanted a wall separating themselves from those around them. I don’t know whether or not the family received approval from the Historic Commission, and I don’t know their motivation for building the controversial fence. I do know that the fact that it went up around a house purchased by a white family in a mixed but predominantly black neighborhood influenced the conversation and speculation about it.
Sometimes the barriers that divide us are simultaneously symbolic and actual.
The invisible barriers may be the most insidious: the ones that somehow make certain restaurants or other businesses located in a majority-black city into places that only white people patronize, that make residents believe certain people can wholly avoid consequences for actions that would certainly lead to punishment if performed by other people, that perpetuate the idea that skin color still determines whether or not people belong or not.
So the story of housing in Detroit involves people moving out or moving in because of the colors of skin, or weird notions about the significance of those colors, which is both tragic and absurd.
Marvin Gaye, who added social commentary to songs he made for the previously apolitical Motown label, once lived in a house fairly close to the Birwood Wall.
Detroitists can go on and on about Detroit’s remarkable musical history. While other cities gained fame for their music, Detroit distinguishes itself not only for its numerous superb musicians but also for their contributions to so many kinds of music, some of which originated in the city.
Sure, Chicago has the blues, New Orleans knows its jazz, and Nashville is synonymous with country music, but Detroit spans multiple genres. Though perhaps best known for the Motown Sound of the 1960s and 1970s and R&B royalty Aretha Franklin, Detroit also sparked proto-punk pioneers like Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the MC5, precursors to the gruff hardcore of Negative Approach and the deconstructed blues of the White Stripes. Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and associates created techno in Detroit. J Dilla, Royce da 5’9” and Eminem are just a few of the hip hop artists associated with the city. Not only did jazz titans like Marcus Belgrave, Donald Byrd, James Carter, Ron Carter, and Teddy Harris come up in Detroit, but the city is the site of the world’s longest-operating jazz club (Baker’s Keyboard Lounge) and every year hosts the world’s largest free jazz festival.
Perhaps Memphis comes closest in musical range to Detroit, with the variety represented by Sun Studio and Stax, but several of those Stax artists, like Isaac Hayes, actually recorded some of their stuff not in Tennessee but at Detroit’s United Sound Systems studio, where George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic made their sampled-ever-after tracks.
John Lee Hooker recorded there too.
As a character in Scott Lasser’s novel Say Nice Things about Detroit muses, “you could argue that what the Motor City really made, the thing that would last long after the Ren Cen crumbled into the river and the world no longer needed cars, was music.”
Detroit can be a frustrating place to live, trying the mettle of even the most determined Detroitist. Fundamental things that residents of other cities can take for granted residents of Detroit cannot.
At a literary festival in Arkansas an author, upon learning I was from Detroit, wanted to know if a story she’d seen was true. “Are there really no grocery stores in Detroit?” she asked. For some reason, at the time, the factoid that the city had no national chain grocery stores (those adjectives are important) was frequently repeated in stories about how tough it was to survive in Detroit. Of course, there were some grocery stores, even if they weren’t part of widely recognized large companies. But it was also true the in some parts of town people either had to depend on party stores (what people in other places might call liquor stores), which are deservedly not known for their fresh fruits and vegetables, or make their way to other neighborhoods—or to the suburbs. In the years since that conversation, it did become easier, as more stores opened, including a Whole Foods. Even so, compared to other places I’ve lived, Detroit remains a place where it’s more complicated than it should be to buy groceries.
And it’s not just groceries. During the early to mid-1990s, I lived in an area known as the Cass Corridor. One day while I was out walking I was stopped by a couple of out-of-towners in a car who wanted to know where to go for shopping. I had no answer for them.
Perhaps they came from one of those cities with a central business district with plenty of well-known stores. Detroit was not that kind of place, and its residents often relied on suburban shopping malls as sources for clothing and other basics.
Decades later, the area where I formerly lived boasted all sorts of shops, including purveyors of high-end leather goods, vinyl records, and stylish clothing. The downtown area also started to see the opening of more retailers, including the kind of well-known chains commonly found in other big cities.
But all this means is that there are some Detroit neighborhoods in which necessities (as well as luxuries) are readily available to people who live in them. Most neighborhoods aren’t like this, however. Very few Detroiters can find all they need or want with a few blocks’ radius of where they live like I used to be able to do in Brooklyn.
Detroit’s limited retail development spurs many a Detroitist to make the extra effort to spend their dollars in the city. It might not be as easy as in other cities, but it is possible to get all your provisions in the city if you’re willing to make the effort and take the time. Far from being a mere economic transaction, spending money becomes a gesture of solidarity. Buying things in Detroit means supporting the city, its independent business owners, and their employees.
And supporting Detroit, even when it’s not simple to do so, is what Detroitists do.