Notes on the Dying of a City…

TO DETROIT…WITH LOVE

I happened to see an article on Huff Post with several photos from a book called “The Ruins of Detroit”. I was deeply saddened to see what had happened to it. So sad! I spent my early childhood in Detroit, before its decline. I felt as if I almost lost a friend. Those photographs evoked such a sense of loss in me. I was too young to remember the specifics, but the spirit of that city is something I recall. To see such desolation and decay is very sorrowful.

 I was pretty young at the time but I still have vague memories of this shiny, busy city with memories of a beautiful park on the river called “Belle Isle”, and rolling down some hill in another park somewhere. Vague memories of a courtyard type apartment building with a lovely garden and stone statues or possibly an Asian style garden and bridge, where one of my friends lived. Yet this wasn’t an upscale neighborhood, mostly middle class and working people. You could afford to live on a reasonable salary at the time.

When I lived in Detroit , it was before its tragic downturn evolved. I don’t remember a lot but I recall a very busy downtown area, Woodward Ave., I think. That was Detroit’s State St. for you Chi-towners. I remember visits to a restaurant where they served lamb chops with “panties”; they fascinated me, and a couple of Christmas parades downtown with  huge crowds. I think Hudson’s, a local department store, was responsible for them. I even recall one of the floats for some reason. A bunch of different animated animal heads sticking out from circus style cages, even the song it played. Funny, what I remember isn’t it?

I also recalled apartment buildings with elevators, on the corners of my street. They had comfortable and nicely furnished lobbies with draped  and curtained lobby windows. These memories were from the place we lived in Detroit, before we moved to Chicago. After seeing “The Ruins”, I was curious to see how my old street had fared since we left. With Google’s “Street View” I even “visited”.  I was actually able to take a virtual walk down my old street and take “snapshots”. I have some articles and images from today’s Detroit and about my old neighborhood in Detroit, my old block.They will  be added to this blog, eventually. In the not too distant future, I hope.

I recall going up in an elevator to visit another little friend who lived in one of the apartment buildings on the corners of my block where I think we discovered the “Pat the Bunny” book together.  That book is still available today. You know, the popular one  for the young readers, with things you can feel and hear and smell?

I got my first taste of summer sausage from having lunch with a playmate in the flat upstairs of us. I still love summer sausage. I think I was introduced to brussels sprouts at another friend’s house. I love sprouts too. I think Detroit was responsible for my first actual memory of the old-fashioned, neighborhood hamburger joint’s tastes and smells.  Burgers and buns grilled with onions; that appetizing promise of deliciousness never goes away. No fast food franchise has ever captured that. I even recall one of those elaborately dressed, decorative bed dolls, sitting in a local window of one of the stores on the south end cross street.

I was really touched and distressed about what happened to Detroit. So much so, that I decided to write about it. I was saddened to see what had happened on my old street.  Still recognizable in one way, strangely altered in another. In some ways it was very disturbing to see what time had wrought.  Can we ever recoup our losses? I fervently hope so. We resemble third world countries in some areas.

I’ve tried to capture some of my feelings and thoughts as I took that virtual walk down the old neighborhood street. I think it will evoke something in others, as well, even if you’ve never been to Detroit. I didn’t name the street deliberately, I think it should remain anonymous and ephemeral, for it is truly only a ghost of what it once was. Yet I can still recall what it was like before the decline of this wonderfully vibrant city, when I lived there.  So much has happened there since. I understand many of Detroit’s neighborhoods are like this one; typical victims of a perfect storm of urban misfortunes.

In spite of this obvious decline there are signs of hope. Restorations of some architecture, a willingness and determination to heal the wounds. So perhaps another child, maybe on my old block, will once more find some loving memories of time past. I hope they discover the delight I had, when I knew Detroit and fell in love with it.

Why should it matter to me? I really can’t say. For some reason there’s a connection to this place, I don’t really comprehend. I’ve spent most of my life in the Chicago area. I love Chicago. Yet, I just can’t seem to dispel this aura Detroit seems to have for me. Why this interest and attraction to it? I somehow feel so cheated when I see what has happened to Detroit since I left it. I wanted so much to return to the bright memories I had when I used to live there.

This is the chorus from a pop hit turned cult favorite from around 1969-70 I believe,
“MacArthur’s Park”. It’s a kind of metaphor of how I feel, seeing Detroit this way:

“MacArthur’s park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
Cause it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again”

Perhaps the old saw is right, “You can’t go home again”. However, my Chicago area neighborhoods seem to still be intact with few alterations, except for the first one I lived in. Even that early one in Chicago has had a lot of urban renewal since. What made Detroit so different?

Although I have spent practically all of my life in Chicago, somehow I can’t seem to shake the memories of the intangible something I felt in Detroit. Having read others thoughts about Detroit, that city seems to have a mystique about it. I have seen others who just passed through or never visited at all, extol it as something they uniquely regard. I love Chicago and since moving to a NW suburban area, I miss the vibrancy and convenience of living in my thriving, busy Chicago neighborhoods.

But this is about my strangely inconceivable love affair with a city I only knew for a very short time out of my life. I have actual memories of some things. Others were filled in after we left Detroit.  I was too young to formulate much of what I could articulate now. Yet my experiences, such as they were, linger to this day, strangely haunting my memory.   Detroit, get well soon, please don’t die. How I miss you…

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