Monday, December 5, 2011
Street life in Detroit
The area near 14th and Michigan Avenue in Detroit is rebounding, with the barbecue restaurant, Slows, as an anchor. The latest addition is the Mercury Bar, which is reopening. As an a native Detroiter, my hopes are high, but deep inside me is a skepticism born of experience with the city.
Back in the late 1960s, the Plum Street district near 3rd was a developing entertainment district, Detroit's version of a hippie enclave. There were shops, and hippies and wanna be hippies mixed with the area's older skid row residents. I knew one of the older residents, a house painter who had worked for my grandfather and father. He lived in a basement apartment, and never drove. He had a bit of a whiskey habit, and also a taste for the race track. He was a World War I veteran and had lived his entire life in downtown Detroit.
I would look him up when I visited Plum Street, and usually found him on the front porch of the house where he lived, dressed in an old, worn blue suit, sometimes with a tie. He always worn a cap, too. He was an old school bum, the kind of guy we associate with 1930s movies. He wasn't like the homeless we now have -- he had dignity. I remember him telling me about how some young hippies had bummed some money from him. He was laughing so much, he was crying when he told me the story, because he knew these kids came from well to do families and were just slumming on the weekends. "I've been a bum my whole life, but never a beggar," he said. I miss those old guys who would hang around the 3rd Street bars, all of which are gone these days.
At the time, the city of Detroit decided to tear down the entire area, hippie enclave and all and sweep the old bums under the carpet. That happened, and when it did, the city lost another chance to nourish an entertainment district. This has happened way too much and its what makes me skeptical. I also lost track of my old friend, when the neighborhood was destroyed by urban renewal, or urban removal, as some say.
That happened again during the 1980s. I'd become a patron of the Woodbridge Tavern and other watering holes in the warehouse district near the river, just east of downtown. The Coleman Young administration announced plans for some pie in the sky river front development and pushed many of the taverns and restaurants out of business. The city project never saw daylight, and most of the small businesses never reopened. I sometimes think that nobody really cares about Detroit -- politicians just want to manage big projects, so they can hand out big contracts and get kickbacks.