My father loved Detroit. Even now, in his estimated 12th year of Alzheimer’s, the mention of Detroit evokes responses from him, nonsense words in story-telling tones, occasional names of family members, even his own name. My parents grew up, met and married there, and I, their first child, was born there.
We moved across the state when I was 2, in 1965 or so, but such was my father’s loyalty to Detroit that I’ve always felt just a bit guilty that I don’t live there now. Even after a two-year stint living in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, I still feel that I would make him proud if I would go back to Detroit and make a life there, and make life there better for others.
The romance and tragedy of Detroit weigh heavily in my family’s iconography. We went to Detroit every few months from 1966-1981, driving back and forth on I-94.
So, it meant something to me to take my kids there this summer. It was too hot to do very much, and both kids were deeply committed to sleeping in. But one bright, very hot Michigan day we drove to see the house my father grew up in on Artesian Street in what used to be known as Redford.
Driving down the Southfield Freeway, the bizarre and toxic circumstances that have destroyed Detroit made all of us quiet. I was the only one who could remember the brick homes lining the freeway when they were occupied, when the businesses along the side showed signs of life. But my husband, son and daughter were equally struck by the emptiness and decay, even without the memory of better times.
We took a service road on our way to my father’s old house, and drove by a ruin. My son and I both felt attracted to it, and wanted to return to it. My son got out of the car, of his own volition, as did my daughter and husband. I was feeling unwell and watched them disappear around the back of a compact remnant of, we surmised, a car parts store or repair shop.
My kids and husband took pictures and just took it in, as if it were a tourist attraction, a wonder. Piles of debris, crumbling walls and graffiti created a museum of urban decay. Perhaps urban decay is a wonder.
Disasters provoke a sense of wonder, I think. I’ve walked through the recent aftermath of a tornado, a storm on a lake shore, downed lines, trees, roofs from ice, fire. We tried to make sense of what we saw together. All of those sights demand that nature be respected. I haven’t walked through the ruins of battles, except a century or more after the battle occurred. But I know that the folly and violence, the heroism and sacrifice of humanity brings reverence to viewing the relics of war.
Driving east into downtown Detroit, you see ruins. You see destruction. And you see . . . absence. There’s so much emptiness on the way to the treasure trove that is the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example. Instead of the decay being the result of a disaster or a war, it is itself the disaster and the war. Malignant nothingness, almost malevolent, causes the trauma to land and folk day by day.
When we view Sandy’s effects, we ask why. We ask it rhetorically, knowing the answer lies in our powerlessness, our existence as earthlings. Similarly, we ask why about war as we recognize, almost cathartically, its seeming inevitability, its unrelenting presence in the lives of human beings.
When you ask “why?” about the devastation in Detroit, the question is not rhetorical. Rhetorical would be preferable. Not knowing what the hell happened to the warm, vibrant, buzzing entity that was Detroit feels creepy, scary and threatening. This is the kind of thing, it feels, that we little human earthlings should indeed be able to prevent, if only by tending our own little lawn.