29 June 2006

Worse Than Everywhere Else

Going for a walk with Aaron Cometbus often means stopping and browsing at any place in Manhattan or Brooklyn where two or more books are gathered together, and the other day was no exception. Being already caught up in Roth's Zuckerman trilogy, not to mention the World Cup, new reading material was low on my list of priorities, but in a SoHo charity shop, a memoir called Made In Detroit practically jumped off the shelf at me.

Author Paul Clemens was born in 1973, when Detroit's freefall into post-apocalyptic squalor was just getting underway, and grew up in one of the few white families remaining on the city's beleaguered East Side, not terribly far from where I was born. My parents, however, had either the luck or foresight to get out years earlier, and though we often visited relatives in the neighborhood, by 1973 most of them had abandoned ship for the suburbs and I had left Michigan altogether.

In far-off California, I was vaguely conscious of Detroit's disastrous decline, both from news reports and my parents' doleful comments from time to time, but the full extent of it never really sunk in until a visit in 1989, when my dad took me on a driving tour of the old neighborhoods where he and my mother had lived, worked, and courted and found most of them reduced to empty fields and wasteland. "That's where I used to catch the streetcar to work," he'd say, pointing to a rubble-strewn expanse where, if you looked closely, you could see that a row of storefronts once stood. "Your mother and I sometimes would go dancing over there," he told me, gesturing vaguely in the direction of some scruffy fields that seemed to stretch halfway to the West Side. He did his best, in that matter-of-fact Michigan accent of his, to sound as though Detroit's ruin was "just one of those things," but it was one of the few times in his life that I saw him close to tears.

Still in the latter throes of my doctrinaire left-wing phase, I wrote a couple articles at the time blaming it all on rich white suburbanites and greedy corporations who, as in Michael Moore's fantasy Roger And Me, had supposedly milked the city of its wealth and hung it out to dry. What was the alternative? If you couldn't blame whitey, you'd have to ask some very tough questions of Detroit's more than 80% black population and its Third World-style strongman mayor, Coleman (aka "Soulman") Young, who in his 20 years of virtually unchallenged power, ran the city much as Robert Mugabe has run Zimbabwe, i.e., into the ground.

Like Mugabe, Young engaged in a process of ethnic cleansing that saw Detroit's population decline by nearly a million people, the vast majority of them white, and also as with Mugabe, the fewer whites remained, the more they were blamed for the city's downfall. Once the fourth largest city in the USA and the principal engine of American industry, as of the year 2000 it had declined to 14th, and in terms of economics and crime, degenerated into what Ze'ev Chafets, in his book Devil's Night (named after the quaint custom of trying to burn down as much of the city as possible on the night before Halloween), called "the first major Third World city in the United States. The trappings area are all there - showcase projects, black-fisted symbols, an external enemy and the cult of personality."

You can argue over how much of the responsibility should be laid at Young's doorstep. After all, most American Rust Belt cities were in decline during those years, though few if any so precipitously as Detroit. Unlike Detroit, though, most of them have managed to recover to some degree. About the best you can say for Detroit is that it may - finally - have arrested its freefall.

If so, that would probably be no thanks to the new Coleman, the self-styled "hip hop mayor," Kwame Kilpatrick, who tools about the city like P. Diddy would if he were dictator-for-life of some failed African state. Like Young, Kilpatrick responds to any and all criticism by playing the race card: when his nearly-bankrupt city was found to be footing the bill for multiple Lincoln Navigators and champagne-and-strippers parties at the mayoral mansion, one of his lackeys complained that the media were only making an issue of it because "black men weren't supposed to have those sorts of things." When he was attacked for blowing $130,000 on bottled water for favored employees in a city that was not only broke, but allegedly - according to the mayor, anway - had "the best tap water in the world," Hizzoner responded with, "Slavery is over. We don’t need for massa to tell us to get some water."

Clemens acknowledges that there was a lot of white racism in the Detroit of his youth, as there was in the Detroit of my youth a couple decades earlier. In fact, much of his book is an attempt to come to terms with two apparently conflicting realities: on one hand, Detroit's collapse coincided rather precisely with the period in which it became an overwhelmingly African-American city; on the other hand, many of the individual black people with whom Clemens grew up, played sports with, interacted with and befriended, were perfectly decent people who he respected and in some cases loved. So how do you square that particular circle?

In a way, Clemens' experience was the inverse of mine. Although I grew up only two miles from Outer Drive, the line that divided white from black on the south side of the then very segregated city, I never had much direct contact with black people until I went to work in the auto factories and steel mills. So I was a good liberal, as I'd been raised to be, and secretary of our high school's Human Rights Club, which sprang up in the wake of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" and whose big accomplishment was to bring real live inner city Negro student to our school for a day for our all-white student body to gawk at. I remember thinking that she looked awfully nervous, but at the time couldn't understand why. Yet the very next summer (1964) a rumor spread through school that a Negro family had moved into the neighborhood, and at a teenage dance, our local tough guys (aka my friends and gang mates) were frothing at the mouth about how we were "gonna burn those niggers out." The rumor was false and no such thing happened, but the really scary thing was how quickly I was prepared to discard all my Human Rights Club philosophies and go along with the mob.

But that was only a brief aberration; by the following year I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and talking up Black Power, and when Darrell phoned me that Sunday morning in 1967 to shout, "The spades are burning down the motherfucking city!" it was implicitly understood by both of us that this was a Good Thing. So good, in fact, that we immediately jumped in his car and drove downtown to join in the fun, blithely indifferent to the fact that snipers atop buildings were expressing their hostility to the system by randomly picking off passersby who wandered into target range.

While white suburban homeowners sat astride their front porches with shotguns and rifles prepared for the Negro invasion that never materialized, young whites like Darrell and myself cheered on the carnage. We were convinced that Detroit was so bad that a massive incineration of its core could only be an improvement. I came home marveling that the inner city looked like the ruins of Berlin after World War II; my dad, who'd actually been in Germany during the war, snapped, "Don't be ridiculous." But he was wrong, if not just yet, then eventually, with the difference that within ten years Berlin was a thriving city again. Almost forty years later, Detroit has not, and perhaps never will.

I was wrong, too, thinking that any good could possibly come out of the riots, and even more wrong to hate my city with such a passion when I was growing up. Yes, it was ugly and crass and stunk of pollution, and continually cannibalized itself to the point that most of its 300-year heritage had been turned into parking lots and factories and chemical plants long before the rioters took their turn. But it was also a half-decent place to live, one which afforded opportunities and jobs to millions of people - of all nationalities and races - who'd never had them before. It was a hardscrabble life, but anybody, whether illiterate immigrant or dispossessed sharecropper - could through sufficient hard work soon own his first house, his first car, and raise a family in relative security. Being allergic to both hard work and basic decency at the time, I could see little value in this, but now that it's all been swept away, it's a little easier to understand why my father got so annoyed when I was running down his home town. Now that my home town isn't really there anymore, I miss it too.

But the Detroit psychology is perhaps best summed up by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his Journey To The End Of The Night. Clemens describes how he came to the city when Detroit was "at its incontestable peak," its factories booming, its population nearly doubling every ten years, and its automobiles on the verge of transforming the world's entire cultural and social landscape. Yet as Clemens recounts:
After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline's restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: "It was even worse than everywhere else."

1 comment:

dashap said...

For another book, this one a work of fiction, that (to me, anyway) nicely recapitulates (some aspects of) Detroit's inner-city decline, see Jeffrey Eugenides fine novel, _Middlesex_.