Stories from the D

When I was a student at Michigan, my friends and I started a tradition of going to Detroit for our fall break. After classes ended, we would gather a hodgepodge group of students from various disciplines, social circles, niches, and start our journey eastward toward the D. The hodgepodge all had one particular mutual friend in common. She was a Taiwanese American activist living in downtown Detroit, working on establishing urban gardens and honeybee farms with an already established Catholic capuchin. All of the monks lived in an old, Victorian (?) home, one that was actually bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Since my friend was female, she had the attic all to herself. Her room included a little nook with a small window and a place watch the activity on the street. We shared space in her room at night to stay warm.

Usually, on next morning of our annual visits, we would get up early–7 AM–to join the Capuchin monks for morning prayer. As a college student, I was often too sleepy at this point in the day to take in all that was happening, but I did appreciate how the monks were earnest and faithful in their prayers. Afterward, we would travel with our friend to visit the gardens, picking fruit and vegetables which would later become meals for Catholic homeless shelters. The rounds always included visits with the honeybee combs. Our friend always showed us how they would take the residue wax to make natural products, like lip balm and hand salves. I later would take a small pot of salve back with me to campus, and it would last me the rest of the academic year.

We really tried to see Detroit during those few days of break every year. The combination of urban blight, broken systems, and fallow land has created a unique opportunity to try new, entrepreneurial forms of sustenance. I am often amazed at the city’s resilience. Of course, what the city still needs is a major overhaul–a systemic righting of all of the wrongs from the decades of lasting abuse by the powers that be. Until the city receives its justice, the people of Detroit make-do. One of the outstanding memories from the weekend was when we visited an all-girls high school for women who were pregnant or had recently become teen moms. We went in the evening after school let out to visit the inhabitants who were the school’s permanent residents — goats, cows, chickens, and the occasional cat. The school had integrated a farming program into the curriculum as a way to nurture the girls, as well as provide a space for the girls to learn their own forms of nurture. With the extra land, the school was able to add half an acre for a barn, a chicken coop, and nesting places for other random creatures. We went in the evening to collect eggs from the hens and to milk the goats. That was the first time I ever milked a goat, and it happened to be in Detroit.

The goat milk went straight from the animal to a canning jar, and after that, my friend took the jar and put it straight to my mouth! She told me to drink it because it was fresh. It was warm and frothy, and it tasted like liquid goat cheese. Fresh it was.

Afterward, we went to a friend of a friend’s home. There were only 3 houses left on the street with maybe about 100 yards between each home. One of the houses was completely dark; the second had the porch light on, and the last had warm lights bursting from the windows. There isn’t too much light pollution in those parts of Detroit, and light matters very much in these neighborhoods. The rest of the homes on the street had been abandoned, stripped of copper and any valuables (including shoes), and left to decay. Other inhabitants burned down their homes to collect insurance money–a desperate measure taken when there are no jobs and little resources. This street had been tapped dry and most of the land had already filled with tall grasses.

When we went inside the warm house, the home was very simple–like a dream from the 1890s. A small, open-door iron furnace topped the old, unpolished wooden floors, heating the room. Canned fruits and vegetables lined the kitchen walls. Little kittens mewed and played with their catnip. Our friend introduced us to the owners. The house belonged to several young men–including one Asian American guy–who all wore slouchy hats and flannel, back before it was cool. They were urban gardeners who used their backyard to grow vegetables and other plants.

After playing with their baby cats for a little while, we went out back to sit around a small fire and heard lots of stories about Detroit. The guys we visited were committed to raising fresh produce and distributed it for a cheap price around their neighborhood. I found this to be very ironic–what was once a garden became a very industrial city, which then became a garden again. This was back when urban gardens were yet to be established as a “thing”, and their marketplace hadn’t yet been systematized (and I don’t think they would have wanted to anyway!) Every morning, they would load up a wheelbarrow with fresh produce and bring it out to a street corner, where they would proceed to sell vegetables to their neighbors. As they explained what they did, the guys would tell humorous stories of how the authorities would come by, and they would rush to pack up their blanket of goods and wheel it all away — street peddlers at their finest in urban Detroit. We laughed a lot that night.

Later, we would also visit the neighbor with the porch light on. He was an amiable, older African American man whom the guys had befriended. The only memory I have of his house was this old, mint-colored ice box of a fridge — an artifact that would be considered trendy for vintage trendy people.

I hold these memories of Detroit fondly. The reason why I wanted to share about them on a blog about Cleveland is because these are slivers and glimpses of the small but sure redemption of a city that I didn’t find outright lovable. I like happy, exciting, fun places–places with lots of pedestrians, fro-yo, and actually useful public transportation. During those years, I was really challenged to redefine what it meant to “love” a place, and that Detroit could also be non-traditionally happy, exciting, fun, and lovable. I would also eventually find the same love, but with Cleveland.

The memory that I find to be most stark actually reflects this type of commitment. In the beginning of the week on our trip toward the city, when all of us were hazily waking up from a nap in the car, we saw in the distance, from many, many miles away, a tower of dark smoke filling our view. I recalled friends joking about how cars and homes would randomly burn in Detroit–there was nothing productive in the “dirty D.” However, this was not your average flame… something was seriously, seriously wrong. The dark pillar was injecting poisonous molecules into the atmosphere around the neighborhood and it wasn’t going away. It reminded me of a live Gotham City. As we drove up to the Capuchin house, I remember feeling a deep sense of sorrow that this was not the way the world was meant to be, and I sought a reminder of the hope of restoration. The next morning, the tower of smoke had descended on the neighborhood, creating a thick cloud of toxic particulates that the neighbors would inhale all day. We choked as we breathed in, but we found solace in the fact that this wasn’t really our home, and we could tra-la-la back to Ann Arbor in the next few days. There was nothing inside of me–not an ounce of good will–that could genuinely promise commitment or devotion to a once-beautiful place damaged by so much corruption. It’s funny how the difficult parts of life can really expose this in a person, if you are like me. At that point, I had new knowledge for what sacrifice it would take for my friend to truly invest in a city that had everything going against it. That continues to challenge me about love even today. Is it possible to be that devoted to something so broken?

I’m not trying to put down Detroit. What I am learning is that every city has its difficult, broken places, but most just aren’t as obvious as the bleak pillar of dark smoke in Detroit. Other cities cover it up with shiny things, growing land value, and the false promise of eternal splendor. But behind it, there are still those places — the isles of loneliness still exist and broken people/systems continue to bring decay. When they finally turn up, it may be a surprise to its inhabitants. However, the people of the D have grappled with these realities day-to-day, and they have formed true community around something to sacrifice for. In turn, they are filled with experiences that give insight into both sides of life — the joyful pleasures as well as the decay in need of redemption. As someone who currently lives in the Rust Belt, I have been consistently challenged to remember that the number of shiny things is not always correlated with the promise of happiness. In my growing contentment, I will also have stories to share that are unique to my city, and I can be happy with that.

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