27 February 2006

Here, There, and Back Again

Just back from a weekend in semi-rural Victoria (for geography-challenged Brits and Yanks, it's the second-most populous state in Australia) catching up with members of the far-flung Livermore clan. My cousin emigrated there from America back in the 80s, and has produced a couple new cousins for me, one of whom is a 16 year old death metal-loving, dress-in-black, cover-his-windows-with-heavy-curtains-so-no-light-intrudes goth. Last year he was still mildly interested in the new Green Day album, but punk rock of that sort is now kid stuff (and/or old people's stuff). He brought his similarly attired girlfriend (or friend-girl, not sure which) over, and they reminded me of Craig and Rosie, the goth Romeo and Juliet of Coronation Street, with their valiant but ultimately unsuccessful struggle not to crack a smile or appear less than completely doom-and-gloom-shrouded.

My mother's younger (age 78) brother and his wife were there, too, and we had a great time talking about the old days, especially Detroit, where they met and were married after the Second World War before heading off into the wilds of Michigan's sparsely populated and rather eccentric Upper Peninsula, where they've lived ever since. My aunt, who's in the vicinity of 80 (but I'm not supposed to know, let alone tell), regaled us with a tale of bringing down a buck with a single shot from her 30-30, and they both talked sadly about the day they took a tour of the old neighbourhood in Detroit, only to find that it was a bit more life-endangering than the wild bears, sub-zero temperatures, and shipwrecking Lake Superior storms that they'd contended with for half a century. When they lived there (and when I was a small boy), Detroit was a bit rough and ready, a bit loud and dirty, but fundamentally a stable, safe city of two million people where there were decent-paying jobs and reasonably-priced housing on offer to waves of incomers, both black and white, who had never known either.

Today, Detroit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where more than half of the population has gone missing (it's now slipped below 900,000), and where most of the remaining inhabitants are there only because they can't afford to leave. Murder is so common that it barely makes the newspapers at all unless there's some special twist like this charming church shooting or if the victims are cops.

Detroit's been a basket case since the 1970s, and while many other American cities seem to have turned the corner and started sorting themselves out (New York being the most obvious and truly shining example, but Chicago's done well, too, and even Cleveland is in far better shape than the erstwhile Motor City), others appear in danger of going down the same dismal road. One such town is Oakland, which when I first came to California in 1968, reminded me of Detroit: same down-to-earth working-class attitudes, plain but functional (and functioning) downtown, reasonably priced housing, safe streets (apart from a few ghetto neighbourhoods). Now, despite all of Jerry Brown's efforts at reform, the downtown is still largely a wasteland, the educational system has turned out several generations of illiterates fit only for the welfare lines and/or gangbanging, and crime, especially murder, is completely out of control. One of the few positive indicators, if it can be called that, is that housing costs are through the roof, along with those of the rest of the Bay Area, meaning Oaklanders get to pay penthouse prices for slum living.

It's true that for those who can avoid getting murdered, Oakland has shown some signs of life these past few years, but my guess is that if they don't get the crime under control, it will all be for nothing. Every urban renewal effort, every massive investment into Detroit has foundered for the same reason: people just can't and won't live and function normally in a place where they can't feel safe. And I'm probably not the first to say it, but if old-lefty Ron Dellums gets elected mayor of Oakland on his platform of 60s-style social pandering, you ain't seen nothing yet.


joseph said...

We’ll know for sure that Oakland is doomed the day a 12-year kid sticks a piece of gum on a Maynard Dixon painting at the Oakland Museum. Another sign of the Apocalypse:


Anonymous said...

Detroit's the worst. I grew up in one of the sparsely populated towns in the northeastern part of the LP. I remember having to go to Detroit to get to the airport or a show and immediately knowing I was there by the filth and garbage lined highway. I'm not a huge fan of Michigan at all, though. The whole state is doomed. There are no jobs, poor education, and way too much inbreeding. Don't mean to offend anyone but I met way too many circular families...It's bad news.

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