I was supposed to stay in Detroit for two days. I ended up staying almost six. If I could have stayed longer I would have! Sadly though, I had a set due-date in Portland and still had many places to go.
There are so many things to say about Detroit. I could write an entire book on the city and still not make a dent in the story of Detroit’s determination not to die.
For now, here are my five favorite things about this city starting with the seemingly simple to the profoundly complex.
1: A hair cut is $20!
I have never gotten my hair cut this cheap, ever! Plus, it’s about the best haircut of my life, for $20! It perfectly captured the sauciness of who I am and the edginess of those I’ve met in this town. Everyone is kick-ass and driven with a twisted, wicked, sense of humor. My kind of folks!
2: People make sure visitors know who kept the city alive when everyone fled.
Whenever I told people about “LookingForAmerica” and asked where I should go, they’d said, “There are a ton of new projects that have taken off over the last few years.” They’d then give me their favorites. “More importantly,” they’d continue, “Visit the communities that have been here since way back, when Detroit was in maximum flight. It’s those communities, like Mexicotown, who kept the city alive when blight consumed the region.”
3: Be real. Share respect. Create community.
In Detroit, again and again, I was put through a quick ‘bullshit detector’ test. It happens in less than a minute. Once I passed, people immediately welcomed me in. In many ways it felt like the experience I had in Mississippi. I had heard that people in Mississippi were “sappy” nice. My experience was delightfully different. Like Detroit, I was struck by the generosity coupled with a direct candor I rarely experience anywhere else. One of my strongest memories was a day when I was kindly, and clearly, “schooled” by black college students on the difference between racism and race relations. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to the distinction. Here in Detroit I witnessed it again, but this time, in a more progressive, equity-based way.
After my haircut, I asked the stylist where I could get a pedicure. She asked the crew and they all agreed, there was a great place on the other side of town. They even called and made me a reservation for 7 PM that night. It gave me just enough time to go to MexicoTown and have a quick bite to eat. In every other city I’d visited, when I asked people for a nail salon, they always sent me to an Asian owned salon, typically serving upper class white women. (For that reason alone I seldom get my nails done, but I found in vanlife, pedicures are a really nice self care treat.)
As I stepped in the door, it was clear, this was a black owned salon. I was (and would be) the only white customer throughout the evening. My mind raced, “Should I stay? Should I leave? Am I ‘supposed’ to be here? Am I somehow demonstrating white privilege if I stay? If I leave am I signalling I’m a racist?”
All this ran through my mind in less than twenty seconds. The next thoughts,”Why have we become so polarized that these thoughts even exist?” Then, “Carolyn, this is nothing in comparison to all the experiences so many women of color have. Get over yourself!”
Truth be told, along my trip, I have gotten hate ‘mail’ (Facebook, of course) berating me for my white privilege. Without a doubt, I have a social position that allows me to travel into places that would be dangerous and life-threatening for a woman of color. That is, in part, why I feel driven to do this project. As an older white woman, I can find out what’s really going on in communities. I’m safe. I’m invisible. I’m white.
My belief: Someone needs to see what’s going on. Someone needs to share what’s going on. That someone is me. These conversations are so vital in our unsettling times. As I sat waiting in that, now thirty seconds, I breathed and decided, Be. Here. Now.
It’s amazing how much the mind warps in on itself — in such a short blip of time. Within 36 seconds a young woman had welcomed me, and brought brought me to a wall filled with colors. She recommended a saucy orange red to match my hair. She then led me to the back room and sat me in the middle chair with three women on either side of me.
Throughout that evening, I was struck by the lack of tension we so often hear or read about between white women and women of color. I was struck by the candor of the conversation. I was honored by the truths shared and the knowledge passed to me to correct my ‘kindly ignorance.’
This was the first of many places I would be invited into during my stay in Detroit. In comparison to my liberal bastion of Portland, where the seams of racial tension seem ready to split open with a quiet but ever-present anger, I felt welcomed. Perhaps it was because I was a traveler, sent by others who are trusted. Perhaps my angels guided me. My gut feeling is that Detroit, like Mississippi, is more ready to embark on the next chapter of healing American wounds of injustice. Here in this city, people are straight-up! Everyone has survived the worst here. The town is ready to shape tomorrow.
4: The Heidelberg project!
If you’ve never heard of it, like I hadn’t, click on the link at the end of this section. At first blush, this installation looks like a pile of ‘junk’. When you take a minute and look close, then look from afar, it’s brilliant. The teddy bears in a shopping cart across the street from an abandoned home, the frame of a church with a girl-doll nailed to a cross, or the house that says ‘You, You, You’ with different imagery on each side. Woah!
I don’t quite know how to describe it other than it captures everything — all the crisis, all the displacement, and all the hope and determination of neighborhoods, towns and cities I’ve been too, throughout the south who have fallen and who are striving to rise again. Now in it’s 35th year, the installation, which takes up several city blocks is ever evolving and growing. Please check out the link and let the project speak for itself. https://www.heidelberg.org
5: Midnight stories of dumpster diving.
One night close to midnight, while wondering where I ‘shouldn’t’ have been, I met an artist who’d just returned to his studio after loading his truck with salvaged beams from a cathedral being torn down. After showing me his latest find, we shared our mutual love for dumpster diving. Well into his sixties, this artist still spends much of his time climbing through garbage bins of buildings being razed throughout the city.
One his greatest finds are photographic negatives, ledgers, and other vital historical documents tossed into the garbage. “Do you want to see some of the images I’ve creating from the negatives I’ve found?”, he asked. Before could say “Absolutely!” he’s reached into his van and pulled out a large black, zippered portfolio. As he unzipped the portfolio I felt like a kid who’d just found a hidden treasure. Ever so slowly, he presented the 16′ x 24′ prints. I stood there, speechless.
For the next 10 minutes he took me from the dark shadows of the thirties to the battle cries of civil rights leaders. He ended with images of the decay of the seventies. I stood silent for a few minutes, not having any words for the journey I’d just taken.
Just then, another midnight traveler, a friend of his, pulled up. Within minutes they were leaning into the van surveying the artists newest treasures. I took a moment to say “thanks” and headed into the night. As I drove, stilled by the images, I felt the weight of the images and the history so few have knowledge of.
If the places I visited and the people I met are any indication of what our future of recovery might hold, I say, “Bring it on!”
Thank you to everyone in Detroit who gave me hope in how a city, and a nation, can rise again.