I grew up in the suburbs outside of Detroit. We were only about seven miles away from the city border, but sadly, Detroit Detroit - the actual city - was not really a part of my life. I went downtown for Tigers' games, for the symphony or to take the tunnel to Canada. I knew my grandma and grandpa lived downtown, and there was loads of Jewish history down there too...but I never knew my way around and never had a connection to the city. I was actually always scared to go downtown. I heard and read about random murders, houses burning, abandoned lots, falling apart schools, and I didn't find that intriguing. I still don't.
Living abroad, when people ask where I'm from, first comes "The US." Then "Michigan." After that "Detroit," and finally "I grew up in Bloomfield Hills." I feel a connection to all of those answers, other than Detroit. Kinda funny to be from a place that I don't really know about or feel affinity towards. And of course in the national and international media is Detroit's corruption and bankruptcy. People ask me/us what we think, and Matt has much more to say than I.
Our good friend Harry moved back from California to test the waters in Detroit. He had heard stories of new start-ups, new opportunities and fun, young people moving in. It has now been years (five? I don't even know...), and he is deeply involved in Detroit's growth and community. He started a non-profit which was aiming to work with ex-prisoners after their sentences and urban farming. He has been involved with the Downtown Synagogue and so many other organizations and initiatives. A few years ago he moved to a community in Detroit, Brightmoor (he lives at Telegraph and Five Mile), and he has shared with us many stories, but I had yet to see it. So last week I left the kids for an evening (thanks, Mom and Dad!) and checked it out.
As I turned into his neighborhood, there was a huge hole in the street. There were no cones to warn, I had no idea if this was normal - always there? just happened today? - Welcome to Detroit!! His house was a cute little house about the size of our apartment. His street was lined with houses on one side, and on the other side, backing right up to the Rouge River were some houses and also lots of green space, much of it planted as a garden.
This is Harry in front of his house with Jack and Chewy, his ACTIVE dogs :)
I was sure to arrive in the daylight, as I mentioned above, Detroit is a bit out of my comfort zone always, and especially living for the last seven years in Singapore - the safest place in the world. I know that what you read in the papers and see on the news is NOT all of Detroit, but I also don't know to trust my instincts there, I don't know what I should be looking out for or how to respond if something doesn't feel right (you read in the newspapers that there are barely any emergency responders anyway!), and I didn't really want to try to figure that all out.
We decided to take the dogs for a walk, and Harry gave me a guided tour of his neighborhood. He said that a family moved in many few years ago, looking to revitalize the neighborhood. They wanted to engage the community, get them involved in clearing the trash (many people came and dumped trash on empty lots), caring for their public spaces and meeting each other to care about each other. He said that at first it was hard to convince people to join in, but slowly, as more people with similar interests moved in and the long-term inhabitants got convinced...the community started to pull together. They have monthly pot-luck dinner meetings where they determine their priorities and make decisions - as well as meet each other.
I don't claim to know too much about this neighborhood, but what I learned was fascinating, and it was incredible to see.
This beautiful playground was built a few years ago with a donation from a foundation. There were LOADS of kids using it while we were there.
This was a house that was abandoned and the city was not going to "get to" tearing it down. So the community turned it into a sort of youth shelter. They painted it and there were places to sit and hang out. There were a few houses and garages that I saw like this - it really turns an abandoned house into something beautiful to look at and even functional. Another abandoned house, Harry mentioned, was going to be turned into a dog park (the lot, not the house itself).
After our walk around the neighborhood, we drove to a local fish n'chips place, Scotty Simpson's Fish and Chips, (which I saw the next day in a magazine, rated as Detroit's best fish n'chips and a super fun/nostalgic atmosphere), where we got carry out to take back to Harry's place. We took a quick drive on the other side of Fenkell Road, and the streets kinda blew my mind (as Harry put it). There were loads of neighborhood streets, which seemed like they should have been lined with small houses, but SO MANY of the houses were either not there anymore - for various amounts of time, leading to open lots, lots with trash, lots with big trees, lots with weeds - or houses which were abandoned. There were also some (kinda few and far between...) houses that were inhabited, and people put a lot of work and love into. It is really weird to drive down a street that you can kinda FEEL there used to be lots of life, but it's just not there anymore. The only other time I have felt this was after Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. That had a similar feel to me. Just weird.
This photo is of one of those street blocks/corners and an abandoned house.
We took the fish and chips back to Harry's house and crossed the street to this beautiful garden and at at the picnic table, with a Michigan brew, of course. The fish was fantastic. This garden is one of the community projects, and it's planted and cared for by the community kids, and they sell the produce at a local market. There were some beautiful greens growing and lots more that will come up soon. The shed with the sun painted on it, to the right, was filled with yard and garden tools. Those who belong to the community organization can use the tools to work on their yards and gardens. For example, there is a lawn mower which Harry could use to mow his small lawn, and also tools to use to plant his garden, which is next to his house.
I didn't ever relax - as I mentioned - I just don't know what I should be looking for, and I grew up with such a fear of doing what I was doing - just sitting outside in a neighborhood in Detroit. YET Harry's neighborhood was FILLED with lovely people. Literally everyone we walked by (and there were at least ten, maybe?) said, "Hi Harry!" Harry knew everyone's name, he knew every dog's name, EVERYONE knew everyone and it was so clear that all of these people were looking out for each other. There were lots of people outside and they all felt comfortable, so I tried.
I had never seen a live pit-bull before. On this trip around his neighborhood and in cars that drove by I saw about five (including Harry's). This is another thing I understand I might want to be afraid of (though I know that most really are fine). Harry went inside to get some lemon for the fish, and during the two full minutes he was gone, a big dude pit-bull, balls and all, walked down the sidewalk. He gave me a look and keep walking. Harry came back, and I said, "um, Harry, is that a normal thing in this neighborhood?" Luckily he said no, and he knew just who it was, brought him back to his home, lured him into the yard and closed the gate.
All in all, it was SUPER interesting to see this neighborhood and get a small peek into Harry's life and the good things that are happening in Detroit. In the papers it's hard to find the good when there are so many difficulties and so many stories that the press loves (they can't sell their water, they will sell pieces of art from the DIA, mayors who are super corrupt, a city that declares bankruptcy...). But this Brightmoor community is something special. That was clear, and I really respect and salute those who are living there, despite all of the weird conditions I mentioned (and others) and making it into a beautiful place to live.