#75: Once Upon a Time in Detroit

When I first got here there were stop signs installed at a pair of intersections on nearby Vernor Highway. The preexisting traffic signals had been switched to blinking reds and signs said the lights were under study for removal. I’m not sure how long they’ve been “under study” but in my two weeks I haven’t seen enough traffic to justify a four-way stop. My roommate, who is a lawyer, would take a side street just to avoid the lights. Though she routinely runs stop signs when it’s clear nobody’s around. We all have our limits, I suppose.

A common scene this week: me asking someone I just met how the bankruptcy has affected day-to-day life in the city. A photographer told me he was working at the Detroit Public Library at the time and his coworkers who’d been there for decades had their pensions restructured. An entrepreneur/DJ said today that it hit hardest for those who were the most vulnerable, most reliant on the city for support. But for many people it was business as usual – the bankruptcy was just an open acknowledgement of the condition the city was already in, and the way it’d been moving, for years, decades. It was a eulogy.

Except Detroit is not quite dead; it’s more a city in limbo. A city having an out of body experience, which carries a Dickensian Christmas Carol kind of hope. When we come to terms with our own death we can live a more meaningful life, right? Another traffic light near my place was out for days but everyone just treated it as a four-way stop. In the news there are stories of people putting trash cans in dangerous potholes that have gone unfixed and unmarked. Or cutting the wild grass that the city was supposed to cut. The two-hundred-year-old motto on Detroit’s flag reads “We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes.” The working motto is “No one’s going to help you so you’re going to have to help yourselves.” The silver lining here: When you have to help yourself, taken-for-granted systems get butterflied in front of you.

I went to a Detroit Soup event in Hamtramck, a city within the city, a hamlet surrounded on all sides by Detroit. Soup is potluck-meets-Kickstarter – people bring food, everyone donates five bucks at the door and votes and on a handful of project pitches from those in the community. The winner gets the donations. A local gallery space wanted to bring writers in from out of state for readings. The Hamtramck fire department wanted to clean up and replace four signs that had been vandalized over the years. An artist wanted to print illustrated walking maps she’d made to attract tourists. A chaplain at the police department was trying to help advertise local businesses. There’s a sense here that each individual’s well-being is linked to the well-being of the community. Everyone, even those who are just trying to survive, are actively working toward some better, future Detroit. But without the city being in the shape it’s in, would there still be this feeling? Do we trade comfort for meaning? This is too big a question and I have run out of room.

A few days ago the stop signs at those intersections on Vernor were gone. The lights facing the highway were changed to blinking yellows, and traffic, what little of it there is, now flows smoothly through.