A rusted out old car, a hunk of junk ready for the scrap heap.
That’s the Detroit that is portrayed in the media these days. A national talk show features a video of two teen girls punching each other on a bathroom floor in their school. The fight is part of a “30 Second Fight” that is apparently the fad in Detroit schools these days. Kwame Kilpatrick, on parole, is accused of new criminal conduct. Corruption in the public schools robs children of their chance in life. Detroit teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. People die in drive-by shootings.
In a nation that is suffering economic woes, it seems to make people feel better to know that things could be worse—they could live in Detroit.
I weep for the town I grew up in. Yes, it was the mighty city of gigantic auto plants, belching smoke stacks, and shiny cars rolling off assembly lines, the fabled Arsenal of Democracy that turned the tide in World War II, the place where immigrants and people with no education could land a good job with union protection and raise children who could go to college if they so chose.
It was all of that, but for a child growing up in Detroit in the Forties and Fifties, it was so much more. One can only pity the children who will never experience the Detroit that once was.
I recall a city that was safe enough for 10-year-old boy to take a bus from the west side (Wyoming and Fenkell) to downtown so that he and his friends could gawk at the skyscrapers like the Penobscot Building or stare across the blue Detroit River at Windsor. It was a time when kids were allowed to stay out until the street lights came on. Even with organized baseball leagues there was plenty of time for just playing.
In World War II we dug foxholes in an empty lot in the neighborhood and fired machine guns and tossed grenades at the enemy troops. We dispatched more bad guys in a day than the Marines did in the whole Pacific campaign. Caught up in the war as we were, sometimes things went awry. Like the time we stomped into the snow a swastika and a Rising Sun. Unfortunately, the snow melted in the spring and revealed those two hated symbols stamped in brown on the neighbor’s green bent grass lawn. It did not help that the victimized neighbors were of Germanic ancestry.
In an era before malls and supermarkets, each neighborhood was a small town unto itself. My mother would walk several long blocks to Joe’s Market, where Joe would core the watermelon so you could taste it to make sure it was as good as he claimed. Farther up Wyoming near Fenkell (Five Mile) there was a Sanders ice cream shop, a Cunningham’s Drugs, a dime store, Belkins Butcher Shop, and a dozen other stores. We even had our own movie theater, the Westown, where for a nickel on Saturdays we saw two movies and one or two serials. On the way home we would argue over who got to ride the movie’s best horse as we “galloped” into the sunset.
If you were Catholic, you identified with your local parish, in our case St Francis de Sales. At St. Francis we were drilled in the tenets of our faith, but we did not spend a lot of time puzzling over doctrine. It was just there, and it was what we believed. Only later as teenagers might we worry about how our Protestant friends were going to save their souls. After all, they ate meat on Fridays.
Even in the turbulent Sixties, Detroit was a city of hope. Early in that decade I married and moved to a suburb, not because we wanted out of Detroit but chiefly because it was the thing to do. VA or FHA financing for new brick ranches was easy to obtain.
Of course by the end of the decade we were happy to live outside Detroit. By 1967 the Vietnam War was starting to tear apart the nation, already strained by the tensions of the civil rights movement. Still, there was hope. It did seem that at long last we were going to overcome the cancer of racism. I truly believed that through integration and intermarriage the bitter harvest of slavery would be a distant memory. “We shall overcome.”
It did not happen that way. There was the Detroit riot in 1967, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. Week after week more and more young Americans died in Southeast Asia. Eventually that nasty war ended, but the fruits of the upheavals of that era forever changed the big cities of America. The hoped-for fruits of the civil rights movement began to recede as politics as usual became the song of the day. Tremendous progress in civil rights undoubtedly has been made in our nation, but our big cities have too often been left behind educationally, socially, and economically.
Tragically, the Detroit that I knew as a child is no more. The children of Detroit graduate from high school as illiterates. Youngsters play with real guns and grow up to shoot real people. In many neighborhoods it is parental neglect to allow your child to step outdoors. Even inside the house a stray bullet can find you or your child.
The novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. I know I can’t. The last time I visited my old neighborhood it resembled a Third World country. St. Francis de Sales closed years ago. Supermarkets and malls wiped out those small merchants. Like me, friends Sonny and Jimmy moved to the suburbs, or, in the cases of Harold and Manny, to Florida and California.
Perhaps I have painted a picture of a Detroit that never was, but I don’t think so. Sure, our Mayor Miriani went to prison, and no doubt plenty of other corrupt politicians belonged in jail. Still, while they may have lined their pockets, they did not destroy the city in the process. The buses ran on time; the trash was picked up; the police responded to calls for help; teachers were responsible, respectable and respected; and, most of all, the residents of Detroit were a hopeful people. The American Dream was coming true in their lives.
I wish it were so again. I wish the city could become great again. If only for the sake of those children.