The Fragments of Yesterday

The other day, I was fishing through the drawer in my kitchen that contains my recipe binder, looking for a recipe I thought I had in hard copy. My recipe binder is one of those tony, commercial binders with custom designed pages and matching tabs for major meal courses—appetizers, salads & soups, sides, entrees, desserts—and even has conversion tables, etc. I’ve copied some of my favorite recipes into the custom print cardstock pages, but as is the dark reality of so many of our lives, the binder is something of a jumble of media clippings, internet printouts, hand done copies from friends, stuffed in like the Home Ec binder of a distracted middle schooler. (In my own defense, each of the tabs has a pocket for loose pieces. So I have a lot of loose pieces.—No comment, please.)

As I was flipping through the collection of recipes that caught my eye at one time or another but haven’t yet met the timeless cut, I happened to stumble over a newspaper clipping from my home town paper in the early 90s. One side was a recipe, the other side was most of an article about a Detroit lawyer, a woman, on her struggles and advice for women pursing professional life. There was a picture of her holding her young child.

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Maybe it is The Bankruptcy, Charlie LeDuff’s book, the handwringing in policy circles about the exodus, but lately, I feel like Detroit has been on my mind a lot for a city I’ve never actually lived in. I did visit Detroit a number of times in college and in the years afterward for professional purposes, but the closest I ever came to living there was five-ish years in East Lansing.  Which, the Lansing crowd would tell you, Lansing is not Detroit.

When I think about Detroit, I realize my sense of the place, my memories, are formed around things like that newspaper article, Motown, the TV news. My sense of Detroit goes back to my earliest memories as a little kid. We did as a family take at least one trip to lower Michigan when I was little, but we didn’t go to Detroit. Even then, it wasn’t exactly a garden spot. That in and of itself was a big switch from even fifteen years earlier, a family trip to lower Michigan would have at least had a day pop-in to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, catch a musical or play, or something.

The reality was that Detroit was the center of the old Industrial America. As Detroit died, it was like a torso dying and the limbs with some life left in them, zombie like, reaching and grabbing for something to hold on to. The death of Detroit was kind of like a slow-burn version of what World War II did to a lot of Industrial Europe. Instead of standing on a distant hill watching the whole thing go up in a night, those of us on the outskirts have spent half a lifetime watching what was disintegrate in front of our eyes. You would think the slower pace would mean that there would be some way to change it. You would think.

It’s not like “the provinces” didn’t try. Trust me, late to the game as I was, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and even my great, great-grandparent’s generations tried. Oh they tried. (OK, maybe by the time my parents came along, people were starting to give up.) Yeah, everyone thought Detroit was important, everyone knew it was important. It wasn’t the only thing that was important, though. So maybe Thank God my parents generation finally said, yeah, time to focus on ourselves.

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When I was really little, I remember going into the grocery store in the late spring and the smell of berries was overwhelming. Strawberry season had arrived with little pressboard containers topped with a loose string elastic bag. The berries were really red and tasted and looked like the one’s my mom brought home from the pick your own places and I liked to play hairnet with the elastic net top. (OK, I was a weird kid. I don’t really know what playing hairnet was about except too much imagination and the boredom of being an only child. Or maybe it came from school.) The rest of the year there were always a few containers of strawberries somewhere in the produce aisle, they were orangey and didn’t smell and came from California.

One spring, I was old enough to remember, young enough to be excited by a trip to the grocery store with my parents. The store didn’t smell the way it was supposed to, and the strawberries were in plastic. They weren’t as orangey as the rest of the year, they didn’t smell, they were from California. Mom didn’t want to buy them. After that, strawberries came from the pick your own. No more berries from Michigan.

When I moved to Michigan, I remember visiting a grocery store with another student from the state. The berries in Michigan were from California. I asked him about Michigan berries. He shrugged and said, “yeah, well,” and turned away.

I’m not sure, but I think the moment someone decides to leave Michigan is the day you can’t shrug and turn away.

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Well, what happened in Detroit? Here’s a blatant plug: Read Charlie LeDuff’s book, Detroit An American Autopsy. From the stories I heard in college from the kids from Wayne County and the region, this is a good starting point. Of course, much like myself, Mr. LeDuff is late to the game, Generation X, the Zombieland Generation. He has good lore, though, legacy of a childhood. And I think “what happened in Detroit?” is a lot about what you aren’t going to read in most history books, so a starting point.

I suppose, you could say, “Who cares? So, Detroit’s a mess, so are a lot of American cities.” Yeah. Let’s wax Socratic: Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?????

Setting aside Socrates, my own response: Yes, It’s not the only city that struggled post-World War II, but it is largely considered to be the most problematic, because of its former size, because the struggle has been so intractable. Because whether anyone else in Michigan wants to admit it or not, the rot has spread beyond the City into the Region.

There’s a famous quote from Henry Ford II, from, like, 1977 or 1978. “Detroit has finally hit bottom.” To a generation raised on the 80s Crack Wars, this sounds absurd and ridiculous. Henry Ford II wasn’t Gen X. He was a World War II Generation, third generation industrialist from the area. There are still plenty of jobs in Detroit, there’s skilled trades, manufacturing and advanced manufacturing. Maybe he was right.

So again, what happened in Detroit? What happened? I consider this a family blog, so can’t really get into that, and even Mr. LeDuff’s book is highly sanitized. Job loss was part of it, but not the whole story. The death of 30 years and out, yeah, a lot people used to say, that was what was going wrong. Maybe the generational turnover was stopped on more than one track, though. The factories weren’t that great, even after World War II—why would you want to stay more than 30 years?

There’s an indie film from a few years ago, Detropia. Check that out, too. Yeah, people working in Detroit. Fighting for the City, hanging on. Listen to what they say. (I’m pretty sure it’s on Netflix . . . . It’s definitely on FaceBook.)

One of the greatest disservices done in the story of Detroit is the demonization of the black community. Black people are not what destroyed Detroit. They are, in fact, the only reason pretty much there is anything left.

Because a city is people. A bunch of buildings is a ghost town. You need people to have a city. QED.

So, when the policy community asks its perennial question, “Oh, what do we do with this problem called Detroit?” “What do we do with our cities?” Likely, the answer isn’t the same. Detroit? That’s hard. If I had the answer to that . . . . Time travel? I’m not trying to be flip. The second question—other places: my suggestion is pay attention and don’t let it get that bad. It is harder to recover a city than one might think. Jobs are important, but so are schools and population.

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A few years ago, I visited an archeological site called Hovenweep. It’s a collection of pre-Columbian ruins along a small vale in Eastern Utah. It is one of a series of settlements that migrate through southwest Colorado and New Mexico toward the Rio Grande. Like so many of the lesser known public cultural resources sites, it was pretty empty. But I did bump into two older gentlemen traveling together. I found the site overwhelming for some reason, and they felt the same. One of them was more talkative that the other, and we were chatting on a bench under a tree, taking a break from the sun. I was speculating on why the site was abandoned, it made sense that some of the population might leave if the settlement got to big, but why would everyone leave? Going back and forth with the talkative gentlemen. The quiet guy says, “It’s when grandma says this used to be a nice place. That’s when you leave.”

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Oh, a lotta heavy just went by. Funny that, because Detroit used to be a party town. At least that’s what grandma said.

If you believe in Democracy and Federalism, Detroit’s fate is in the hands of Detroit voters and Michigan. If federal programs and federal money helped, then, uh, wow. Some kind of help is the kind of help we all could do without?

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I guess I wonder what happened to that woman lawyer and her family; I wonder what happened to a lot of people that came from that city, if they are still there, where they went. Hard to say. The woman lawyer and her family probably would have been some of the lucky ones if they decided to leave, would have had money and education to fall back on. Sometimes when I hear about the persistent and growing homeless populations in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Elsewhere, I wonder how many of those people came from Detroit at some point. Even DC, there were a lot of Detroit ex pats, some in leadership roles, some in ordinary jobs, some riding the bus from a night shelter to a day shelter.

After fishing through everything in the binder twice, I concluded that I hadn’t printed off the recipe I was looking for, or if I did, it must have landed in the recycle or something. So, I found it online and printed it.

Time passes and things change.  Funny always the cracked rear view. People ask me why I save some stuff. Now you know the rest of the story.

Good and bad comes and goes. The days ahead can always be better. To better days.

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About missbodie

The Dragon Lady is a life long tea drinker. Her first coffee shops were Big Boy and the Oriental Diner in downtown Milwaukee. She lives in our Nation's Capital with three bicycles and an energetic tabby cat.
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