A Detroit Experience

I had an interesting experience yesterday.

I was working in Detroit and when my work was finished, I decided to drive the length of Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza all the way to 8 Mile Road, the city’s northern limit. I had never done this before and I wanted to have the experience of covering a stretch of this “All American Road,” as it is called.

There are stretches of heavy activity, especially near downtown, where the new arena for the Detroit Red Wings is being finished in time for the 2017-2018 NHL Season. And there are stretches of inactivity, of boarded up buildings, as Woodward passes through the city of Highland Park. I saw an old apartment building whose roof had caved in and whose windows were sealed with wood. I saw old stores with store fronts that looked like they were built in the 1960s but which were no longer open for business. I saw check cashing places and bail bonds establishments. I saw many people who looked out-of-work, though I cannot be sure.

Downtown I saw tourists and gilded bank buildings. I saw an expensive baseball stadium (Comerica Park) and art deco skyscrapers built when the city was flush with money. I saw the People Mover snaking its way around a small stretch of downtown -for such a big city, downtown Detroit really is small. But what I also saw were so many relics of the past, like the boarded up offices of the Michigan Chronicle, a historic African American newspaper (it is still in operation but at a new location). I also saw the renowned Cass Tech High School, one of the best technical high schools in the U.S., which has produced more than its fair share of brilliant musicians and entertainers including the inimitable Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, Della Reese, Ellen Burstyn, Alice Coltrane and Ron Carter, to name but a few.

I saw (and felt) a great deal of history. But I also wondered, as I so often do when I am in Detroit, about the present and future. I listened to analysis over the radio of the decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement and how General Motors and Exxon Mobil disagree with this decision. This led me back to my earlier days when I would get angry at how both companies seemed like great obstacles to meaningful steps toward a “Green Future.” And yet here I was, with the Renaissance Center (GM Headquarters) literally in my rearview mirror, listening to how the world’s largest automaker disapproves of the U.S. walking away from Paris.

I don’t thinking it is any exaggeration to say that things are changing profoundly. I don’t have to be in Detroit to feel those changes and wonder at them, but there is something about being in that city, the birthplace of the $5 daily wage, the Treaty of Detroit, Fordism and the birth of the modern middle class, to feel a sense of wonder -even foreboding- about present and future. I look at Detroit and feel both hope and hopelessness mingle . . . and then I shake it off knowing that what matters isn’t simply how we feel, but what we do now.


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