Rebirth or Revert – A Dispatch from Detroit

The Core Belief


Saturday 9/21/08


The wedding invitation claimed a Renaissance theme in the floral language of the 15th Century.  The guests were all asked, if so inclined, to dress accordingly.  I decided to pass; being a man in tights wasn’t the look for me.  I was going to this affair dressed like Detective Munch, in a dark suit and skinny tie. 


Saturday, hours before the event, I was invited to hangout in the bridal suite in the late morning, with my dear friend Fritz, the bridegroom, and two or three other old friends who were groomsmen, before they went over to change into their costumes and have their pictures taken.  It was a warm early fall day and I was feeling empowered, even brave, as I finally saw the city of Detroit beginning to live up to the hype the Old Man used to push on my brothers and me.  The Hotel Antheneum was a straight shot down Brush Street, two long blocks over and seven short blocks down.  Just last year, when I was in Detroit for my twenty year high school reunion, the walk to Brush from the corner of Woodward and Widner where I was staying with my friend Sreeny, was fraught with fear, danger and my own personal loathing of what Detroit had become.  Beautiful old mansions lay in ruin and the construction projects for new loft apartments never seemed to go anywhere.  Now, the owners of those newly finished buildings are actively advertising for buyers and two of the three mansions are completely renovated.  One is even a bed and breakfast.


I walked down Brush south, past the Fisher Freeway with the back end of Comerica (home of the Tigers) on my right shoulder and Ford Field (home of the Lions) on my left.  Unlike the makeshift hole in the wall parking lots that sprung up around Tiger Stadium as homes and buildings burned post 1967, there were actual planned parking structures.  The scuttlebutt from Sreeny was that the bottom floor of each of these garages could be transformed into retail space – if the population increased to a point when the need arose.


After watching the Ryder’s Cup with the boys and laughing with/at Fritz as he threw out one liner’s about his impending marriage and attempts at cold feet, I made my way back to my pal’s place to get ready for the affair.  The ceremony was at Detroit’s Masonic Temple, seven blocks from the condo.


Sreeny and his beautiful wife Vani were going in traditional 15th Century Hindu garb, complete with a red turban and dagger for Sreeny.  When he told me how close we were to the spot where the ceremony was, I recommended we walk over.


“No, let’s drive,” he said.


“Why,” I asked.  “It’s a nice day.”


My host quietly but firmly insisted on driving and who was I to say no?  I was an ex-pat and Sreeny knew his way around.  Would he say no if I told him not to walk into the South Bronx when the Yankees weren’t playing?  Of course not.  Besides, I had a creeping notion that the Masonic Temple wasn’t as close as Sreeny’s claims.  During my foot tours, I noticed the more natives I asked for directions; the more they told me everything was only three, five or seven blocks away.  This wasn’t really shocking, to tell you the truth.  After all, it’s Motown, everyone drives.  Walking is a lost art form in the city of Detroit. 


The keys to the Olds were tossed my way, (15th Century Hindus had yet to come up with two major conventions that changed fashion forever: the pocket and the zipper fly.) and off we went, two blocks north and five blocks west.  The realization that walking would have been a very bad idea hit when Sreeny had me turn left on Masonic Street.  We were driving straight into the heart of the Cass Corridor.  As I have said in a previous entry (Talking to the Fed Ex Guy), the Cass Corridor is the most dangerous district in the most dangerous city in the United States.  It is the type of place whose reputation alone will have you waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, sit straight up and scream ‘NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’  This neighborhood is where snuff films are rumored to originate from.  Various scary urban types in gray and black hoodies pulled up to help the baseball hats obscure their faces glared at us as we drove to the Temple. 


“I see why we drove now,” I said.


“I knew you’d get it.  Think about it Alex, if we walked I’d have had to scream ‘there’s a new pimp in town,” Sreeny said.


Later that night, Sreeny, a groomsman named Bill and the Bridegroom drunkenly weaved their way through Grand Circus Park to the Cherukuri residence to retrieve a poker set at 3:30am.  Vani, who had gone home several hours before, talked the guys into playing their game in the living room.  Not because they could have been shot or mugged or would have been the victims of any sort of violent crime.  No, her concerns fell to the more practical: she was afraid the three would get hit by a bus or car.


The auto industry is failing, the infrastructure decaying and population is fleeing both the city and the region.  Yet, in spite of corrupt leadership, race baiting, massive, growing taxes and a nearly permanent recession economy, Detroit has managed to mount an impressive comeback.  I actively avoided going to my hometown for eight years (97-03) because every time I left, I was utterly depressed and remained that way for weeks after I got back to New York.  As I write this blog on a train headed to DC and eventually NYC, I am happy to report that I am not depressed, not at all.  In fact, I am jubilant to have witnessed Detroit in full renaissance mode.     


With Kenneth Cockrel Jr., now sworn in as the 61st Mayor of Detroit, taking the place of the disgraced felon to be Kwame Kilpatrick, he has the last part of Kilpatrick’s second term to foment some real change.  There are real problems to be fixed: high taxes, a criminal school system, the need to regionalize the resources of the entire area, fleeing business as well as the usual suspect issues: the loss of population, high crime et al.


Detroit itself sits at the crossroads and the next six months will be fascinating to watch.  Which fork will the city take: the one which allows nearly 40 year old men to act like frat boys, prancing drunkenly on the streets of a safe, buzzing metropolis or the road which forces you to drive seven blocks to a friends wedding.  I, for one, will be watching intently and hoping the miracle comeback continues.           

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