I grew up in a Detroit suburb in a General Motors family. My grandfather and father worked for GM. I was born in 1971, and Detroit still had a reputation as a dangerous, volatile city. I’ve always been proud to be from the Motor City. I still own the shirt that they gave to kids at the Livonia Spring & Bumper picnic that reads “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie & Chevrolet.” I remember sitting at Buff Whelan Chevrolet to buy our new car–a Vega–and eating a bright blue sucker, shaped just like the Chevy logo. I loved the way my father’s (permed) curly hair smelled when he came home from Spring and Bumper, and sometimes when I played on the playground at school, I could smell the same odor in the air. I have since been told it is the sweet smell of cyanide. I was first introduced to politics in Detroit as a confused 5 year old; standing in line at the school cafeteria, I was horrified that my mother planned to vote for “Ford!” I always looked forward to the Detroit Auto Show, and I still have a wooden yardstick that folds into 12 inch increments. It did NOT have a sticker that said “Made in China”.
I loved going to the Fox Theater with my family, believing that I would someday wear a read wig and sing up there as Annie. I blame Peter Pan for teaching me to love rebellious boys as a teen. The Boblo Island Amusement park which closed in 1994 was as important to me and my childhood as many in Wisconsin would consider Bay Beach.
Prior to the Iran Hostage Crisis we’d go to the Eastern Market to buy giant bags of pistachios, smell the olives in the giant barrels, and ride the warehouse elevators to a store with the best lemon wafer cookies sold from giant baskets. The Iran Embargo awakened my sense of world crisis and interconnectedness; I could no longer eat pistachios, and my parents were more cautious about traveling to the Eastern Market. The world grew smaller still when Japan moved into making cars. I listened to my father’s frustration that the UAW was more focused on forcing GM to hire unneeded workers than ensuring quality auto production. He correctly predicted that without changes in production and strategy, GM would fall behind. GM’s share of the U.S. Market 46.9 percent in 1976, when the UAW went on strike at Detroit Assembly, and was 17.% percent in 2012.
Even the oil embargo wasn’t enough to make GM produce quality, fuel-efficient cars. I found myself a bit embarrassed about what was happening with auto development. It was never really clear to me how Detroit and the big three survived Japanese competition but I had the sense that it had something to do with moving manufacturing away from Detroit and the clutches of the UAW.
Detroit continued to struggle until the mid 80s. I remember taking pictures at Hudson’s on Woodward in 1982, in anticipation of the flagship’s closure. My aunt worked at AM General until it was sold in 1985. My family made fewer and fewer trips to downtown Detroit, but there were always great things to see and do there; the architecture of the old Maritime Church, the Detroit Science Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was at the DIA that Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals revealed to me that I can enjoy and understand history through the arts. The Renaissance Center, always intriguing from the outside, was hauntingly empty most of my trips into it. But by the time I was a high schooler, we ventured again into Detroit. I stayed at the hotel only once, for a college student conference. At the time, it seemed to me that I had “arrived.”
I was a bit of a punk rocker in adolescence, and I have great memories of seeing Big Black at the Graystone on Michigan Ave, Husker Du and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at St. Andrews Hall and other bands at the Shelter–which was one of the first stages Eminem performed on, though I never saw him. Looking around Greektown, I could see evidence of struggling businesses. These venues are abandoned buildings today.
Detroit had a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the country after the 1967 riots. This unrest was rooted in a multitude of political, economic, and social factors that included police abuse, lack of affordable housing or urban renewal projects–particularly for its Black residents, economic inequality, black militancy, and rapid demographic change. At a time of national promise and prosperity, Detroit’s Black youth entering the workforce were excluded from the jobs and were influenced by militant leaders. At a black power rally in Detroit in early July 1967, H. Rap Brown foreshadowed the course of future events, stating that if “Motown” didn’t come around, “we are going to burn you down”. Throughout my childhood I watched strangers stare at us with eyes like saucers when we identified Detroit as our home. As a privileged white female, I never felt the racial tensions that others made me think that I should. Perhaps my step siblings helped because they were raised in and attended Detroit schools, and shared their friends and their school events with me. They had comfortably integrated as the White minority. In fact, when my stepbrother ran for State Rep for District 4 for Detroit, a former classmate Akindele Akinyemi wrote: “Liscombe is White but might as well be African American because he was raised over at 7 Mile and Southfield.” When I chose to reside in Chicago for my professional training, I did so because I had fond memories of my time in Detroit, and felt it was important for my daughter to be comfortable with diversity. My Detroit upbringing left me ill-prepared for the extent of racial tension and animosity I would encounter in the Windy City.
In college, I took a summer job as a recreational therapy assistant. I got a chauffer’s license, so that I could take adult day treatment patients on outings. Our bus broke down on the Fort Street Bridge. On Belle Isle, we enjoyed the botanical gardens and the maritime museum but still had a misadventure due to a patient’s anxiety. During a mini golf outing, one of my patients putted a ball across the highway and into a windshield. I was in Detroit with a group of adults who had serious mental health issues, and over and over again, members of the community were responsive, supportive, friendly and understanding. I never felt fearful. I was cautious, because I was taught to be, but Detroiters always stopped to help.
It is frustrating to me to know that there were clear signs of a need to change how things were done. Detroit, has been running on fumes as far back as the 1980s. My father again saw the problems coming. He took an early retirement and severance from GM. He wasn’t able to build a new career close to his home–which was no longer worth the mortgage he owed on it. Detroit had threatened, and acted upon upon its threats to outsource jobs to Mexico, and China. No one wanted to hire my dad. He, like GM, was perceived as “old” and “outdated”. In Asia, he is seen as a man with experience and wisdom. He has built a career for himself as a consultant to manufacturing and engineering companies–in China. Following the GM bankruptcy, he was distraught, when he lost a significant portion of his retirement and health insurance benefits.
I left Michigan in 1997 because my residency was not in the state, and I always believed I would return. When I arrived in Wisconsin, I found people with similar values and idea. In fact, the “Wisconsin Idea” with its values of truth, self-governance and interpersonal connectedness felt familiar. Only the fixation with football and lack of appreciation for hockey seemed foreign! The last several years have also changed the Dairy State, and it seems important that we be conscience of how self-governance, in particular, is under threat.
Last summer we drove through Detroit to visit Greenfield Village, a favorite place for school field trips growing up. It was obvious that no one was maintaining the roads or the grass and weeds beside them. Garbage was blowing around. Entire city blocks were boarded up, burned out, demolished. Sadly, one of the foreclosed homes belonged to my brother and his new family. He’d purchased the home with a balloon mortgage and couldn’t refinance after the house dramatically depreciated. There were few cars, and even though it was a beautiful summer day, no one was outside. I was traveling through a city that was the 5th largest in the country when I was born. This Detroit seemed…desolate. And with good reason. Detroit lost 25% of population from roughly 952K in 2000 to 706K in 2011. I couldn’t have imagined it if I hadn’t seen it myself. In some ways, the destruction and deterioration would have been easier to comprehend if it had been caused by a sudden disaster, a hurricane, a tornado, perhaps. Maybe I believed that since Detroit thrived after the 60s and survived the 80s, the city would always find its way. When the bankruptcy was announced, I felt like I’d been asleep for 16 years. On the Detroit Government website, I looked up the address in Palmer Woods where my step siblings lived with their mother, and the purple dots surrounding the address reveal many nearby homes have been demolished. Today, Paula told me, “Mom just moved out in February. Things have really gotten bad there, crime wise. Mom felt that after living their her whole life that it was finally getting too unsafe to stay.” The biggest and most impressive house that any of my friends have ever lived in belonged to Dave’s parents. They lived near the Detroit Golf Club. The house sold in 2008 for a mere 175,000. A comparable neighboring house sold for $55,000. On one hand, this is a reminder to me that families are what matter, and that homes are brick and mortar. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine all of these people who will never be able to show their children the house, the street, the neighborhood stores and schools where they grew up.
For the last several years, it has been obvious that Detroit is in a financially treacherous situation. With one third of the city’s homes vacant and twenty Detroit neighborhoods only 10 to 15 % occupied, Mayor Bing proposed a vision for the Motor City, called Detroit Works. He explained that the city cannot provide municipal services to areas where only one or two homes per block are occupied. The distances are too great and the tax base is too low. He proposed moving citizens closer together to provide them the same level of protection and services with fewer resources. He then planned to sell the outer regions of land back to the suburbs, and find a way to turn abandoned factories into biofuel factories to buy locally-grown biomass, turn it into biofuel, and export it worldwide via the Great Lakes. Residents objected. Really? We lost our auto industry by refusing to adapt to the situation. Why were we also going to sink the entire Motor City Ship? Ken Orr, the emergency manager for the city, recently called Detroiters “dumb, lazy, happy, and rich”. He is an outsider, his perspective seems dismissive and negative. Nevertheless, Detroit’s survival depends upon the instillation of new energies and ideas. I can be proud of my friends for their roles in changing Detroit.
Two classmates have built businesses that promise to lead Detroit into the future. Rich Rice, of Detroit By Design, has a refreshingly optimistic perspective of Detroit. Our shared memories of the punk rock venues kindled his interest in Detroit. Today, he says “a lot of cool new things can blossom in the city”, both for profit and in social entrepreneurial ventures, because there are such low barriers to entry in the development of new businesses. This is actually drawing creative, innovative minds from cities like San Franciso and New York, to Detroit. Rice says “What’s happening in Detroit is that people from the last generation are having a hard time wrapping their hands around the edgy new culture that’s creating new opportunities in Detroit.” City development, he notes, is happening through the private sector. He says there is no more exciting time to be a Detroiter, and I felt his excitement when we spoke.
Scott Kodrik had long wanted to have a career in special effects. Who would have thought that Detroit would someday become an ideal venue for filming movies with decay, horror and destruction? Scott has been instrumental in bringing Neve Campbell to Detroit to film the Dystopian Thriller, Division 19.
Areas like Midtown and Downtown are reviving, and financial investments will support that growth including a light rail system, a new (Go Red Wings!) hockey arena (funded by a bond sale), at least one new boutique hotel and hundreds to thousands of new residential units. The Dry Dock Building has been selectively demolished and is being turned into an educational and recreation center to complement a State Park along the Detroit River Walk. Nearly one third of the city’s 139 square miles will be turned into farms, forests, and other landscape that will also be designed to help the city’s struggling sewage infrastructure. Instead of forcing residents to move, a strategy is in place to encourage residents to move to more populated parts of the city exists.
Can it happen in time? Since the bankruptcy was filed Christie’s Appraisals has been hired to appraise a portion of the art collection at the DIA. Most of the city’s assets are being scrutinized. Joe Louis Arena has potential value for sale as waterfront real estate. The Detroit Historical Museum owns about 60 classic cars with a value in the millions. My elementary school raised money one year to adopt a giraffe for the zoo. Could the giraffes be sold? Or maybe the 125 acres it sits upon? And I have fears about how how the expenses for the zoo animals will be budgeted. Living in the city, the Detroit Zoo was really the only place for me to learn about animals that didn’t live in my neighborhood. In high school, Jane Goodall came to speak when she consulted for the new chimpanzee exhibit for the Detroit Zoo. My appreciation for world culture and the environment came from listening to her, and visiting the chimpanzees over and over again afterward. Would I have considered the potential value of human-animal interactions to facilitate mental health and wellness, without those early formational experiences? I am fearful about the changes Detroit is facing, but with the introduction of Detroit Future City, I no longer see Detroit as a city in the throes of death.
Detroit Future City creates a sound, innovative and hopeful future. Detroit has the opportunity to be a global leader in urban redevelopment and social justice. Part of me longs to be there for the challenging path ahead for Detroit. For now, my roots are firmly planted on a ranch in Central Wisconsin. Someday I will tell my children the history of Detroit and take them there for vacation. For now, I’m just going to go drink a Vernor’s…the best ginger ale in the world (made in Detroit).