My Detroit

My Detroit is in my grandparents’ house on Barchester Drive, in the ambitiously named neighborhood of Vernor Estates, in the suburb of Bloomfield Hills, many miles north of the city. Here, time moves as slowly as my grandparents themselves.

As always, there are Dove Bars—those miniature vanilla ice cream bites coated in a chocolate shell—in the freezer. There’s the miniature jellybean dispenser that’s miraculously full no matter how many candies I sneak before dinnertime. And there’s the red-and-white plaid couch worn down in exactly the same place as when I was seven.

I’m glad to see that my grandmother’s rose garden is perfectly pruned and her hair is that same shade of eternal chestnut. My grandpa is still chugging away at the same academic paper, submitting it to journals as he has year after year with reliable determination. He can’t get past his obsession with the rotation of the eyeball around its axis, a movement that mimics the world itself. I know that every time we visit he’ll have another high-tech camera. By this point he’s recorded almost the whole family rolling their eyes.

We make the annual trip to Detroit early each summer, when the bubble of cold surrounding the city cracks and warm air begins to flood in. We fly from Baltimore and drive thirty minutes on the interstate to their exit. When we arrive, my grandparents’ house looks exactly like it should and Grandma has our rooms ready. She puts me in Aunt Emily’s room, my sister in Aunt Delia’s room, and my parents in Henry’s room—that is, in my dad’s childhood bedroom, still outfitted with the same carpet as when he left for college forty years ago.

For dinner on the first night of any visit, my grandmother boils angel hair—always angel hair—and leaves the choice of red sauce or pesto up to us. For dessert, it’s fudgy brownies rich with marshmallows and tucked into white paper baking cups. If it’s summer, we can expect blueberry pie the next night and if it’s a special occasion like a milestone birthday, we know there will be a platter of thin, chocolate-coated mints, each iced with words like “Joan’s 75th.” When the bakery that made the mints closed down, my grandma scoured all of Detroit until she found another place that could replicate them perfectly. It just wouldn’t be a family celebration without them.

***

The visit I took with my sister went exactly as expected. We ate angel hair and blueberry pie and sat on my grandparents’ couch discussing the latest PBS specials.

On Monday afternoon, after being swaddled in the comfortable silence of the house for two days, it was time to get out. When my grandfather was napping and my grandmother was making phone calls to my aunts and uncles, we planned an expedition to distant downtown Detroit. We had covered all of the major Detroit attractions on our other visits. The Detroit Art Institute, the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Zoo—we’d seen it all.

Judging by the search results on TripAdvisor, we didn’t have many other options. We scanned through the list of Detroit “Things To Do,” crossing each one off as we scrolled: “too far,” “too expensive,” “too boring.” We stopped when we reached #25: the Windsor Tunnel.

I don’t consider a tunnel to be a tourist destination; some commenters on the site seemed equally dismayed. “It’s a tunnel to US/Canada, plain and simple,” one user wrote. Another, in a post he titled “Ugh,” admitted that he doesn’t love tunnels, “but this is one of the worst.” A post I found particularly heartbreaking: “It gets you to Canada. What’s to say? It’s a tunnel under a river.” We realized that even if we had wanted to go to the tunnel, we couldn’t have: we hadn’t even thought to bring our passports.

Eventually, and mostly out of desperation, we chose #32, an abandoned-block-turned-free-art-exhibit in downtown Detroit called the Heidelberg Project. We knew that the street had been destroyed in the 1967 riots and had now been transformed into a public art display, but after reading the TripAdvisor reviews, it was hard to know what to expect. One reviewer described the Project as a “strange artistic expression in the middle of what is perhaps hell on Earth for the residents” that “doesn’t make much sense.” Another advised visitors to always “be aware of who is who” and have a safe escape route planned out. Yet another called it a “truly amazing experience” for her out-of-town guests.

We didn’t give these strangers’ blurbs much weight in our decision. All we knew was that we were on our way to a part of the city we’d never seen before.

***

We borrowed my grandparents’ Ford (it is Detroit, after all) and drove south on Telegraph Road, trading in the verdant suburb of Bloomfield Hills for the city of Detroit—or what’s left of it, at least.

We spent the forty minutes on the highway marking the miles by each road we passed: 9 Mile, 8 Mile, 7 Mile—all roads with no proper names. From the smooth, spacious freeway, we glanced at the familiar landscape we’d seen during every ride between my grandparents’ house and the airport: motels, run-down Little Caesars Pizzas, warehouses advertising cheap car parts, and small, square houses.

We drove by the street my grandfather used to take to his job as an ophthalmologist at the Wayne State University eye institute. Later, we passed the house where my grandmother had been raised in the middle of the city. Her parents were also Detroiters, two prominent residents who had lived in the city in the boom days. Her ancestral home, once in the heart of the most affluent place in the nation, still stands, surrounded now by shuttered windows and yellowing lawns.

We took the exit for downtown and parked near the Project, no escape route in mind. It was a warm, bright Detroit day and as we strolled down the streets, we shielded our faces from the burning sunlight and squinted our eyes.

The streets of this once-abandoned block looked like the site of a turf war between two bands of traumatized kindergartners. As we wandered down the sidewalks, we stared at rickety houses painted white with scratchy polka dots and surrounded by horror film props: dolls’ heads speared on sticks in the yard, wooden siding covered with juvenile, manic scrawl, and toilets overflowing with rusted hub-caps. Brown and misshapen stuffed animals hung from bare trees. Cars coated in chipping acrylic paint and graffiti sunk into grassy lawns. Three kitschy Santa statues, precariously positioned atop a rotting wooden fence and blackened with bathroom-style graffiti, stood watch over sidewalks that had been chalked with geometric faces.

As we passed other tourists like us, walking around with cameras around their necks and yellow ball caps on their heads, I wondered why the city’s abandonment had become its attraction. With Detroit barreling towards bankruptcy, morphing into a dumping ground, and setting records for homicide rates, was there was no other option but to put its deterioration front and center, to use the desperation to elicit the mercy of others?

It was too simple, I decided, to conclude that only destitution that was on display. After all, the abandoned houses were no longer simply abandoned houses; they were now works of art. Here my sister and I were, walking around in an area of Detroit we never would have seen otherwise. Still, I wished that people—people like myself—would care about an ailing city without having to view it as art or a tourist attraction. I wished that this block were a neighborhood, not an exhibit.

But that’s not reality for now.

We circled back down the block and were met by one of the two artists. We gave him twenty bucks to make ourselves feel better, got into the car, and sped back past the same exits we had never taken and most likely never will.

***

When I ask my grandparents about the changes they’ve noticed in Detroit, the answers are straightforward and unemotional: foreclosed houses, empty storefronts, and fewer children enrolled in private schools. They’re just as unfazed by the decline of their city—a city that hasn’t felt like their city in decades—as they are unimpressed by their neighbors’ excessive displays of money.

It’s not that they don’t care about the fate of their city. It’s that my grandparents’ Detroit is as small as my own.

There will always be trips to the Jewish Community Center library and errands to run at Costco, visits from the grandchildren and jars of candy to refill, roses to preen and new cameras to eye. New babies will be born. Friends will pass away.

The city grows and the city declines. Life continues.

***

Detroit is not so different from my native Baltimore and I’m not so different from my grandparents. There are areas of my hometown that I’ve never seen and probably never will. There are abandoned blocks that I wouldn’t recognize as being part of this country, let alone my hometown.

I’m starting to see how easy it is to self-remove. It’s easy to be content never going east of a particular street. It’s easy—maybe expensive, but still easy—to pay a landscaper to build man-made ponds and Zen rock gardens in lawns ten miles north of crack houses. It’s easy to drive to the grocery store, to my friends’ house, and back home again and let that be my world.

But before it gets to that, before my Baltimore shrinks to the five-mile-radius circle surrounding my parents’ house, I’d like to see what I’m giving up. I need to come face-to-face with the parts of the city that, through my inadvertent ignorance, I’ve deemed unworthy of my time and the government’s resources—these areas of Baltimore are just as much a part of the city as my own neighborhood.  These places may not be beautiful and they may not be tourist attractions (nor should they be), but I need to make an effort to remember that abandoned blocks were once populated and that those people don’t just disappear. They inhabit little spheres just like my own and just like my grandparents’.

Maybe Baltimore needs its own version of the Heidelberg Project to serve as a starting point for suburbanites and tourists looking to engage with the city. As for Detroit, as long as there are still green lawns in my grandparents’ neighborhood and Dove Bars in their freezer, I’ll keep visiting the city—or what I know of it. With each new visit, hopefully I’ll learn a little more.

 

Sarah Jampel was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, where she doesn’t like to eat crab-cakes or watch football or drink Natty Boh. Poor Sarah. Send her an email at sarah.jampel@yale.edu

 

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