Detroit — February 20, 2013

The Ghosts of Detroit


My heart is broken

When Anne and I go to Detroit, and we do so regularly for concerts or the art museum and other events, I always see ghosts.

Ghosts of the grand neighborhoods that once were.
Ghosts of parks as they used to be.
Ghosts of stores and shops and streets that once bustled with vibrant energy.
Ghosts of manufacturing plants that once supplied the world with goods made from steel and heart and sweat.

It breaks my heart to see them as they are today, largely forgotten and unappreciated, often treated with shabby disregard that dishonors an honorable history.

I know I will get pushback from my piece this morning about the imposition of an Emergency Financial Manager on Detroit. In fact, I already have.

There will be people who will criticize me from their “no Emergency Financial Manager or state intervention now or ever” position. These people are proud of their city and reluctant to admit that its past and current leaders have failed them and are incabable of solving these seemingly intractable problems on their own. I understand their pride and I respect their vigorous defense of their city and its leaders. All cities should have such fiercely loyal residents and defenders.

There will be people who criticize me from their “Detroit is a failed city with failed, incompetent leaders that will bring the rest of the state down with them” position. These people have watched, decade after decade, as far too many elected officials have used the city as their own personal bank account, siphoning off money for themselves, their families, and their friends. Their frustration is easy to understand since they have watched as greedy parasites have kicked a beautiful city in the teeth while it was on the ground, reeling from economic blows out of its own control, stolen its wallet and turned its pockets inside out. Kwame Kilpatrick and his criminal syndicate are just the latest example of someone who rose to power only to kneecap and backstab the very city that elevated him to an exalted position. Back when I was in high school, it was Detroit City School Board members who used school funds to have themselves driven to Board meetings in limosines.

There will be people who criticize me from their “if you don’t like this, what’s YOUR answer?” position. These people, mainly leaders of sort or another themselves, point to failed attempt after failed attempt by both Democratic and Republican Governors and their administrations to help Detroit out of its hole. They are frustrated when, time and time again, their efforts to help are rebuffed by proud Detroiters. Most of these people are well-intentioned and truly do want Detroit to succeed because Detroit’s success is success we can all enjoy and share.

I accept these criticisms and I understand the perspectives they come from. There are valid points to be made by all of them and from others, as well. The situation is complex and it will not be solved soon or easily. Not only that, I recognize that I speak/write from a position of white male privilege and, at the end of the day, my opinions and my admonitions just add to the cacophony of other white male Michiganders who act like they have it all figured out and know what’s best for Detroit and its future. I don’t and I admit that.

But, those ghosts… Those ghosts speak to me every single time I go to Detroit. I see a young boy selling newspapers on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Grand River Avenue. I see the grocer selling fruit from wooden crates on Michigan Avenue. I see the wealthy couple emerging from the Book Cadillac Hotel, out for a night on the town. I see the magestic homes of successful Detroiters, lights shining out of their floor-to-ceiling windows. I hear the live music coming out of smokey taverns from musicians one day everybody will know and from musicians nobody else will ever know about.

I wish that those ghosts somehow had a voice in all of this. I wish that they could remind us all of what once was so that we could envision what could be. Perhaps then all of the different players in this tragedy would find a way to see things from the others’ perspective, even just a little bit. If that happened, I feel like then Detroit’s reset might actually be possible. It’s not like Detroit hasn’t faced hard times in the past. It has. And it got through them.

So, feel free to criticize me. I understand that and accept it. But before you condemn others and their positions and beliefs and goals for Detroit, take a trip there. Drive down its streets. See and hear the Ghosts of Detroit. Let them in and let them inform you. We should all do that.

[Photos by Anne C. Savage]

  • Toka313

    The good part is that you allow the voices of the blowback to be heard. Even my little That’s more than can be said for Lansing these days. Olumba may be onto something correct in the reckless abandonment of Detroit and its citizens by both parties these days.

  • kirke123

    its a sad tail and a real challenge. but the challenge should be more than survival of the fitest and it is at this junction that detroit government must decide to be leaders and creators for at this time there seems to be nothing but bittering. belle isle is a good example of building, but now will be sold for condos and a gated community. bing was attempting to be a surgeon without much support.
    as we all know austerity is not the answer, but good common sense is.

  • TeacherPatti

    Okay, this post made me cry. I also picture things that were (I can even picture ribbon farms when I am down at Atwater). I try to imagine how it was in my (long deceased) grandparents’ “day” back in the 40s and 50s. Until last year, I taught in a school in SW Detroit that was built in 1917. I would try to imagine what it was like when those little WWI era kids first walked there and what it was like during the 20s, Prohibition, Depression, WWII and on. Across the street from the school was an older white lady who I have to presume had lived there for decades and probably sent her kids to the school. I wish I had asked her what is was like back then.

  • BIllW

    You should hear Jo Serraperre sing “The Gotham Hotel” if you want ghosts. Here’s background:

    Here’s Jo singin’ it: (clip only unless you buy, but the full song is worth the price of admission!):

  • Sandra Xenakis

    I’m with Chris and Anne–I’ve got my own ghosts. It breaks my heart to see the neighborhood where I grew up, to see that my house is the only one left standing on the block. Robinson School, where I was educated, is abandoned and falling apart. The places where I spent my childhood–the corner candy shop and Ramona movie theater and Ben Franklin Library and Kresge dime store and Sanders ice cream parlor–are all gone. And the grand old downtown buildings where I worked, shopped and played in the 50s and 60s, the attractions I wrote about in my newspaper column as a journalist in the 80s, are either mere shadows of their former selves, piles of rubble, or completely missing today. There’s a message here for all of us, a message about what not to do when it comes to our cities. I don’t know what the answer is, either; I just know we have to do something different in the future.

  • Daniel Francis

    Bankruptcy it is then.