Motor City Madness
I'm on the road again, but I'm lucky enough to be staying with friends who've promised me some access so hopefully I'll be able to at least check in and possibly report on interesting news from the local sources.
Right now, I'm in the northern suburbs of Detroit, a town near and dear to my heart, although I can't say I've ever lived in the city proper. Like many American cities, Detroit is one in which the riots of the 60s led to "white flight" and economic decay in the 70s, and unlike a lot of similar cities, Detroit can be argued to have never "recovered." A lot depends on your definition of recovery.
Just now, folks in Detroit are talking about the mayoral race.
It's between a youngish incumbent struggling to overcome a number of relatively minor patronage scandals and a persistent inability to stimulate the city economy, and a former councilman who could be said to be a part of the Black Establishment of the city. Polls in today's papers suggest the challenger will prevail, although it's still probably too early to tell.
Every time I visit Detroit, I'm struck by the differences between this city and my more recent home of Chicago. I'm no urban historian, so any ideas I may have about why these two cities are so different are wholly anecdotal and uninformed, but I do have a few. I think most people who've lived in both places would agree on one point: public transportation makes all the difference. The working class has been able to get around Chicago without cars; nothing similar can be said about Detroit. Actually, it's probably the case that public transportation in Chicago is important to more than just the working class; tourists, students, and urban hipsters who disdain the bourgeois lifestyle and bring culture and spending cash to a city also enjoy easy movement in the Midwest's premiere city in a way that's just impossible in Detroit. I know: it's the fucking "Motor City" after all, but as Delphi tanks and GM faces an incredible unfunded pension burden, I think it's safe to say that it's no longer true that "what's good for GM is good for America." It's certainly the case in Detroit.
I also think a lot about what it means to have a "major" American city that claims Black leadership for more than two decades. Again, I'm pretty weak on urban history, but I can't help but wonder what role the color of Detroit's leadership plays in the city's inability to reinvent itself in the face of urban decay and economic change. There are lots of rust belt cities that have had Black leadership, and some have done better, some worse, than Detroit. I'll make no comments except to make the comparison: Harold Washington was the only non-white person to lead the city of Chicago. And he was killed, I mean died after serving just a portion of his second term. All the rest of Chicago's mayoral heavyweights have been white, and connected to the white power structures of that city's classic "machine."
I'm cooking dinner soon, so I'll keep this short and just make one final note: people who've never been to Detroit or its suburbs should not be afraid to do so. It's as safe as DC, which is to say, people get shot and robbed and all that here just like they do in any other major American metropolis, but it's not a gangland free for all war zone. The media has always found it amusing to pick on Detroit, and I've always been offended that a relatively average number of crimes have been magnified in the national media, coming to represent all that's wrong with "urban," by which they mean "Black" culture.
As a person who hates the artificiality and homogeneity of the suburbs, and who enjoys the lack of blatant materialism, underground economy and subculture of urban areas, I love what Detroit has to offer. No, it's not a destination for Paris Hilton and the Bush twins. That's a plus in my book. Also, and I defy anyone to correct me on this, Detroiters are the most musically savvy in terms of popular music anywhere, just beating out Cleveland and totally acing the so-called Meccas of New York and Chicago. I won't bother to list all the artists who've come out of Detroit, but let's just say that there's a reason why such incredibly raw and paradigm-shifting talent keeps coming from this little "armpit of America." Tee Hee, you can't know the Blues if you don't suffer...seriously, if you like new talent, you must check out the bars and clubs in this town.
Anyway, don't be afraid to visit this premiere city of The Other America. Metro Detroit, god bless it, is functionally integrated. City and suburbs, I'm always more at ease here than I am in places like LA or Chicago- no one looks at me funny when I walk down the street with my white, Arab and Asian friends. The Metro area has the finest Middle Eastern food to be had in North America, period. Like any big town in America, there's plenty to recommend, plenty to criticize, and plenty to learn about. I'm sorry I'm not spending money this trip, or I'd invite you out to some great bars so I could show you exactly what I mean. Come on by and take a walk on the wild side, and see why some of us proudly wear the smiley face tee-shirt "Welcome to Detroit, have a nice day" with a bullet hole in the center along with the UAW 'Made in Detroit' hat. It's Detroit humor, and more.
Disclaimer: I'm related to some "important" politicians past and present here in town, so I'm not exactly a disinterested party. But full disclosure in the blogosphere is what make us better than the SCLM, so I thought you should know.