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Bankrupt Detroit: Memories of a Guilty Bystander

by Aaron Hamburger Jul 21, 2013

A FEW YEARS AGO, a friend of mine mentioned that he’d just come back from Detroit.

    1. “On business?” I asked.

“No, for vacation,” he said.

“Are you joking?” I replied.

The very idea of a vacation in Detroit dumbfounded me. Especially when my friend said what a great time he’d had, visiting the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of the Arts with its splendid Diego Rivera murals, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and the Whitney Mansion for brunch. His trip did sound like fun. In fact, it sounded like a visit to a city I did not recognize, even though I was born there.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I remember an English professor telling our class that one of the essential, unique qualities that marked a person as being from the Midwest was the desire to escape it.

This has certainly been my family’s experience of Detroit. I’m one of four brothers who grew up in the Metropolitan Detroit area. None of us live there now. None of us want to return.

Repeat that story 10, 200, 100 times, and you have just one tiny factor out of many that have led Detroit to the state it’s in now — namely, bankruptcy. The headlines hurt to read. Yet another black eye for a city whose recent history has been marked by a series of ever worsening humiliations.

It’s a place I’d grown accustomed to being ashamed of. In fact, when asked where I was from, there were many years I avoided saying Detroit. Instead, I’d say I came from “Southeast Michigan,” which elicited the confused response, “Where’s that?”

One of the essential, unique qualities that marked a person as being from the Midwest was the desire to escape it.

And yet, though I’m technically not from the city, my childhood and young adulthood were marked by my relationship to it. I left DTW long ago, but it has never left me.

One of my chief memories of Detroit is that as long as I can remember, it has been on the verge of some new comeback that never quite materialized, starting with the Renaissance Center, a building named for an urban rebirth that ended in a miscarriage.

There was the People Mover, an elevated train that went in only one direction and was supposed to serve crowds of tourists and convention-goers who never materialized. Then came legalized gambling, urban farming, artists in search of cheap rents, Whole Foods, and perhaps the latest, saddest idea for a Detroit revival: as a theme park for fans of ruin porn. Even our city’s professional football team, the Detroit Lions, have failed to make good on their promise to “Restore the Roar.”

Another, more shameful memory I have of Detroit is as an exotic destination, a place of danger, a city that had been taken over — so I was taught — by members of a race of whom members of my own race frequently expressed implicit and explicit disapproval. Any expedition across the borderline of Eight Mile Road involved hurtling down highways at top speeds with locked doors and eyes peeled for dark-faced pedestrians who might hurl rocks down from highway overpasses.

On the night before Halloween, my friend and his father used to cruise around the city hoping to see Devil’s Night fires. Once I went with them, and I remember driving around in the dark, feeling a bit petrified and then a lot more mortified by what we were there for. At the end of the night, we slunk back across Eight Mile Road, having found nothing.

“It used to be such a beautiful city,” I’d hear people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations say in a mournful tone, “and then they ruined it.” There was no need to define the antecedent of the pronoun “they.”

As a white middle-class kid from the suburbs, I cannot speak from a place of “inside,” but from the outside; I can say that we in Detroit’s suburbs did our part to build and perpetuate an image of the city as a haunted house of ruined hopes and dashed dreams.

Of course, we are not to blame for the collapse of the auto industry, which is now doing better while leaving the city behind. (Or, perhaps, it’s doing better by leaving the city behind?) Nor are we to blame for the legacy of the riots in the 1960s, years of municipal government mismanagement, the digital revolution and the decline of American manufacturing, or the myriad other complex factors that have brought this long-declining city now to its knees.

Yet, each time we traded jaw-dropping Gothic stories of the city’s decline, we recited a kind of prayer that made that decline more real. Even if the facts were true, the sense of awe and fascination as we reported them smacked of the kind of delight with which some people watch horror movies.

Now may not be the ideal time to start feeling proud of Detroit, but it’s also not a time to gape or wag fingers or click our tongues or look down our noses.

We were so quick to judge in the past. Now, in this difficult time in our hometown’s history, can we be equally ready with our empathy?

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