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"..as well as Cass Corridor, where prostitutes, pimps and Vietnam veterans go to die.."
- Denise Capra
Detroit and I are forever, firmly attached
"For the two and a half million whites who lived in America's most segregated suburbs,
Detroit became The Corner writ large -- an alien, threatening wreck,
a place to drive through, if at all, with the windows rolled up and the doors securely locked.
Whites not only left the city physically, they abandoned it emotionally as well."
I have started this three times. I can only say that writing about my hometown is harder than I thought.
One thing rings true: Detroit and I are forever, firmly attached. Period.
I have never lived anywhere else. Sometimes I wish I had. I may still live elsewhere someday, who knows. I remember pulling out of the train station a few summers back in Chicago after one of many visits -- Detroit compares unfavorably with our nearest big-city neighbor (understatement of the century) -- my brain working feverishly to figure out how I could sell my house, pack up my cats, and move out to the windy city. As Chicago grew further away, however, I turned homeward. Again.
I was born in the city proper. The hospital where I breathed my first is gone, razed and relocated in a northern suburb. When choosing a college (which wasn't so much a choice for me, but the lesser of many, many evils), I picked Wayne State University, in the heart of Detroit's "cultural center." For what it's worth, the Institute of Arts and Main Branch of a shrinking public library are there, as well as Cass Corridor, where prostitutes, pimps and Vietnam veterans go to die. I came full circle without realizing it. I should have escaped as soon as I could, but I financially, I couldn't. This is the only city in the world that holds the key to my past, and I still can't bring myself to abandon it just yet. Although recently, I tried.
The last time I was in Detroit, in November of 1998, I was helping a friend move out. As I drove away from the university center where she lived, I found myself saying "I am NEVER coming back here." I clutched the steering wheel, crying for some inexplicable reason, saying a hateful goodbye to the city I once loved. Detroit's "stubborn beating heart," as Joyce Carol Oates, a one-time resident, described it, had finally kicked me when I was down. My best friend, Kris, my one contact with the "cultural center," was leaving. Detroit burned her out. I haven't been back since.
Which isn't to say my hometown hasn't been on my mind.
As I said, I was born in the city, then adopted at the age of two weeks. I grew up in the western suburbs. Slowly everyone there began to fear The City. Industrial decay, "white flight," an economy that bottomed-out in the 1970's, all led to the destruction of a world that had existed, however precariously, up until I was born in 1966. The horrible race riots of 1967 kept my case worker from leaving the city to check on my progress, due to National Guardsmen that lined the city limits of my new hometown bordering the west side of Detroit. A city that had an extremely racist mayor, Hubbard, who instructed the guardsmen to shoot any black person trying to cross "the border." My caseworker was a black woman.
I only recently found out a bit of background on my family history. My paternal grandfather was French, something I never knew before. It took a while to make that puzzle piece fit into my life. Being French, somehow, secured my roots in Detroit even deeper. Frenchman Antoine Cadillac founded the city in 1701 ("Hey!" I tell my boyfriend, Pete, whose hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, was founded in 1703, "my city's older than YO-URS!" (singsong bratty voice)...he replies, in the same childish tone, "but we had a TS-AR!" ...dang).
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