I was born in The Motor City. I graduated from U of M, and headed West to seek my fortune. I’ve lived in Seattle for over thirty years. It was love at first sight, it’s the home of my heart, and where my children were born…
…but I still feel unexpected tugs on my Midwestern roots.
Detroit is where my parents and grandparents are buried.
In French ‘Detroit’ means ‘channel or strait connecting two bodies of water.’ That would be the Detroit River that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron.
That would also be my Aunt Loena, who connects me to my mother–through memories, blood ties, and love. Last spring I returned to the river that spawned me.
We did a drive-by shooting of the old neighborhood…with a camera. We took shots of the little house I grew up in.
Many other houses were already pretty well shot.
Across from Newton School, a woman kept cranky geese in her yard, but the geese were long gone, and so was the house.
My high school was for sale. It was named for Thomas M. Cooley ( 1824-1898), a local boy done good. He started out with a small law business and ended up on the Michigan Supreme Court. In The Cooley Doctrine, he wrote “local government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot…take it away.” Cooley must be spinning in his grave since Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder gave himself the power to take over cities, remove locally elected officials, install puppet governments, and destroy labor unions. Not in Russia. Not in North Korea. This is happening in the United States of America.
Yes, there are financial woes: the economy and tax base of the area were dependent upon the auto industry. Highland Park, a town engulfed by Detroit, fought to stay independent despite the bigger city’s efforts to incorporate it. Ford closed its Highland Park factory in the 1950s and Chrysler pulled out in 1993. The population, once over 45,000, has decreased to 11,000. Now it’s ‘The Detroit of Detroit’, so poor Detroit doesn’t even want it anymore. My grandparents’ Highland Park house was gone. So was the school across the street.
If not for this sign, I wouldn’t have known Highland Park still existed.
But there must be better ways than total dictatorship to save the city. We went to Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River, halfway between Canada and the United States. It became a city park in 1904, and in 2014 it became a state park to avoid operation costs to the city.
There used to be an elephant house, a bandstand, and a boathouse. I learned to canoe in its waterways.
Honey Buckets are probably cheaper to maintain than the elegant brick restrooms…
…a compromise so the park might be used and enjoyed.
There was still beauty.
The Belle Isle Aquarium was built in 1904. As kids we watched the electric eel touch an underwater wire in its tank to light up electric light bulbs. It was the longest continually operating aquarium until 2005 when, after 101 years, it closed its doors due to lack of funding.
But in 2012 the aquarium was reopened–Saturdays only–and is run completely by volunteers from the Belle Isle Conservancy. Admission free.
Next door is the Whitcomb Conservatory.
My folks used to turn seven kids loose in there; we played Tarzan, and our Johnny Weissmuller jungle calls bounced off that glass ceiling.
At the Detroit Institute of Art we found culture, art, and history.
As kids we loved the shiny suits of armor in the great hall.
As adults, we admired the Diego Rivera mural, a powerful statement about Detroit Industries. In 1932 it was scandalous that workers with black, white, and brown skin were depicted working side by side. Members of religious communities thought it blasphemous, and called for it to be destroyed. But Edsel Ford, who paid the bill, said he thought Rivera captured the Spirit of Detroit.
“Watson and the Shark,” my favorite painting from childhood visits to the museum, told a true story. Copley portrayed a multiracial crew rescuing their shipmate from a shark. Painted in 1777, a time of revolution against tyranny, artists began to depict common people as heroes. At least in Michigan, where the sharks are still circling, it is still a relevant message.
I was saddened to read so many hateful bigoted comments when researching this sculpture honoring Detroit boxer Joe Lewis.
In Detroit there was and is despair and poverty, racism and anger.
But I also saw positive action, innovative ideas for bringing life and art back into the city. Are you a writer? Want a free house? Check out Write-a-House. This organization buys abandoned houses, renovates them, and gives them to artists willing to come live in them, practice their art, enrich their community. There are pea patches growing where, on my last visit, I saw burned out houses.
The Spirit of Detroit is still strong.
In its past, present, and its future…
…I saw soul.
I saw the future in a city park, where kids were playing.
At the conservatory I saw cactus blooming in the desert, a public park taken over by volunteers who made it available to the public.
I saw open hearts.
In the most unexpected places.
Detroit still has plenty of room to grow, room for hope.
All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck