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.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A perfect day in Detroit

     I love kicking around Detroit, especially with a good companion, but the places I want to go are fairly crowded on the weekends, so to my delight my son was around on a Thursday, and we headed downtown for a look around. I took my usual route from the western suburbs, Michigan Avenue. It appeals to my blue collar roots. The route was used by generations of workers headed to the Ford Rouge complex and to the plants near Ypsilanti. It was also used by baseball fans headed to the old Tiger Stadium. I actually remember when it was Briggs Stadium.
     I'm a Detroit native, and the route brings back memories of when it was a major artery and business district, especially for the Polish. There's still a Polish veteran's hall off Michigan. Detroit people may move, but they don't give up their landmarks easily. 
     Our first stop was the Detroit Institute of Arts, where there was a photo exhibit, Detroit Revealed, which was interesting in a visual way, but I felt it was missing something. The photos of street scenes and faces were art prints. As I walked through the exhibit, I realized what was missing -- the workers, the voices of those who put on bumpers at Fords or built boxcars, as I had done in college. 
     I fled and sought refuge in the room with the Diego Rivera murals, which date to the early 1930s, and show life in the factory the way it really feels. Here were the voices of the workers; their faces grim, their arms muscled from the work. These were guys I could relate to. The murals weren't without controversy when they were unveiled. Folks on the left didn't think they went far enough in showing the toil of workers, and those on the right thought they depicted too much. When that happens, the artist is right on. The right wingers almost got their way, and the murals were almost painted over, but Henry Ford's son, Edsel, came to the rescue and they survived. 
     I've been a fan of the murals since I was in college at nearby Wayne State, and use to sit in the room and read. These days I'm working on a historical novel set in Detroit in the early 1930s, an era beset by labor troubles, and the murals give me a glimpse into what factory life was like during that era.
     After out tour, we went to Slows Barbecue on Michigan Avenue for lunch. It was about 2 p.m., and we got a table right away, a treat since weekend waits to get into the place can be up to an hour. Much of the block where the restaurant is located has been rehabbed, and there's news that the old Mercury bar across the street will be turned into a coffee shop. I thought about the recent news from Wayne County about how a new appointee to Metro Airport was given a sweet heart contract for $200,000 and an expensive package from the county because she quit her job to take the new one. I wondered what developers could do with just a few hundred thousand dollars to redevelop the area around Slows. It makes me sick to think that government in Wayne County and Detroit is wasting so much money on cronyism and corruption, when there are so many projects in need of help.
     After lunch, we casually walked across Michigan, something you couldn't do 20 or 30 years ago because of the traffic. I just hope that some day that traffic returns. We owe that to the workers who helped build this city.