Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Traveling to Detroit, the Hometown Where I Never Lived

by Aaron Hamburger Jan 18, 2013

These days, when I travel to Detroit it’s mostly for football games or funerals.

I suppose it’s odd to call myself a “traveler” to Detroit, the place where I was born and where I lived until I was 22.

Actually, let me take that back. I was born in a Detroit hospital; however, I grew up in the suburbs, and in my entire life have probably only spent a total of a few days below 8 Mile Road — yes, that is a real road, not just the name of the movie about Eminem.

Even when I fly to Detroit, I don’t actually enter the city. My plane lands at Detroit Metro airport, which is in Romulus, and then I take a taxi to my mother’s house, in the northwest suburbs, where I grew up. If there’s a football game, we drive to Ann Arbor. If there’s a funeral, we go to the cemetery in Birmingham.

Last summer, I was surprised to hear a friend of mine in New York tell me that he’d gone to Detroit for the weekend with his boyfriend. On a vacation.

And they’d enjoyed it.

I’ve been reading about artists moving to the city, to take advantage of Detroit’s low rents and about plans to turn Detroit’s vacant lots into a network of local, organic farms.

“But what did you do there?” I asked, incredulous.

They’d gone to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Motown Museum, and they’d had brunch at the Whitney, a restored historic mansion.

“Detroit’s great,” he raved.

As a Southeast Michigan native, I’m completely baffled by others’ fascination with my hometown, the very same one which I and all three of my brothers were only too eager to leave for “real” cities like Chicago or Washington, DC or New York. And yet, according to Chrysler ads featuring Eminem and Clint Eastwood, Detroit is coming back.

(I wish I could believe it, but I’ve seen the Detroit-is-coming-back movie too many times.)

It’s true that the car industry has been doing better these days, thanks to the well-publicized government bailout. At the same time, I’ve been reading about artists moving to the city, to take advantage of Detroit’s low rents. I also keep hearing about plans to turn Detroit’s vacant lots into a network of local, organic farms.

In fact, Detroit’s state of ruin has become an industry in itself. The recent documentary Detropia took me on a gracefully shot tour of Detroit’s decaying grand edifices, while a hot new book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Rolling Stone reporter (and my fellow University of Michigan alum) Mark Binelli, details the history of the city’s decline.

I was glad I saw Detropia, but I was even happier to have read Binelli’s book, which explains in detail a lot of the information that the movie presents in a more artistic but frustratingly elliptical style.

In addition to learning from Binelli’s careful research, I appreciated the candor with which he shared details of his experience growing up outside the city and looking in. Specifically, I found myself nodding in recognition when he wrote, “When I was growing up in the eighties, though, the riots were invoked with the compulsive regularity of a fresh grudge. This was in the suburbs, of course, where the grudge was not always expressed politely.”

Like many white kids of my generation who grew up in the suburbs, I too had heard my share of terrifying stories about the riots in Detroit, which I more than once heard referred to as “the jungle.”

Though my parents and their cohorts had all grown up there, they had never gone back to visit the streets where they used to walk to school or ride the trolley to shop at the flagship Hudson’s department store.

The few times we drove downtown to see a play, a baseball game, or an art exhibit, my father always made sure to lock all the car doors, and when we got off the highway, he’d sometimes run red lights to avoid stopping. Every time we passed under a bridge, I used to cringe, fearful that someone would drop a heavy rock onto the roof of our car.

All this took place more than 20 years ago, yet even in recent years, I’ve been at family gatherings where I’ve overheard well-meaning suburban parents and grandparents chastising their children for daring to sing the city’s praises. “Detroit,” they sigh and roll their eyes.

These things are not pleasant to confess, but they are important to confront and to try to understand. Because if there’s to be any hope of a genuine Motor City comeback, it will have to involve the people who live just beyond the city limits, the ones who, when asked where they’re from, pause just a little before answering, “Detroit. Well, not Detroit exactly, but…”

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