Harry Nelson

Detroit: What do you hold onto when you leave a place?


Driving around L.A. the past few weeks, you couldn’t miss all of the billboards for the movie, “Detroit.” Looking at the signs made me reflect on my complicated feelings about growing up in and being from Detroit. And then I went and saw the movie, which brought the nightmare of the ’67 riots, 50 years ago this summer, to life.

It’s been 24 years since I left Detroit. I lived there for 20 years of my life. (OK, not quite 20; I was in Ann Arbor for college and law school for six of them.  And technically, not even Detroit proper. We lived next door in Southfield.) Still, I’ve spent almost a quarter century taking my Detroiter identity with me wherever I go, part of the Detroit diaspora.

What exactly is the identity that I’ve held onto? We moved to Michigan in the fall of ’72, five years after the riots and the horror depicted in the movie. Growing up in their aftermath — long after the city’s heyday,  long after the fires burned out whole city blocks, after the people had started leaving — the Detroit of my childhood was one long economic contraction. Friends and family were steadily moving away like a slow bleed, heading to opportunity in other places.

The movie explains things no one ever talked about when I was growing up — the abuse suffered by black Detroiters at the hands of the Detroit police, racist housing policies that led to the riots.  Until seeing the movie, I’d always thought of the primary issue being the decline of the auto industry.  The movie made me question how much Detroit’s decline was linked to this toxic racist past. And why no one talked about the underlying issues when I was growing up. Earlier this year, I was at once shaken and moved by the way Ta Nehisi Coates captured the issue of violence against black people in Between the World and Me. Where the book was poetic, Detroit the movie is like a sledge hammer, the story of police violence against black people everywhere more than the story of Detroit.

What I remember from growing up was the aftermath of the violence: fear, anger, and racial polarization. I remember, in ’77, when we moved from a townhouse apartment near 9 Mile to the house where my parents still live in between 10 and 11, white families on the block were moving out to 15 Mile in West Bloomfield and beyond — because black families were moving in. White flight was a constant feature of the Detroit I grew up in. I remember the fear:  an older generation that had grown up in the city and were afraid to drive past 8 Mile into the city.  I remember the angry demagoguery of longtime mayor Coleman Young (who was, for me, the paradigmatic corrupt city mayor until Kwame Kilpatrick took things to a new low).

Whether it was the economy or the racial polarization or both, Detroit kept shrinking throughout my childhood. in the early 80’s, one of the TV broadcasters  (I want to say it was Bill Bonds, but I don’t really remember) announced: Detroit had fallen from the 5th largest city in America to the 6th.  At the time, it was a big deal. Does it even seem possible that Detroit was once the 5th largest city in America? You could feel it driving by abandoned houses, whole blocks of them, and big open spaces where those houses had been knocked down.  I remember a few more drops in the ranking as Detroit steadily lost population, but I was still floored to see it bottom out around #23 on the list.  What a fall. The bankruptcy a few years ago was just a coda to a long, slow motion descent.

In spite of all this, I hold onto  a positive identity as a Detroiter.  For me, growing up there meant being teased by people from other places about being from Detroit.

We responded by not pretending to be anything more than we were and by giving back as good as we got. I will go to my grave with a deep love of the magical Tiger team of 1984,  but the definitive Detroit team for me was the “Bad Boy” Pistons teams of the late 80’s: tough, put down by everybody else, walking off proud in victory and defeat. It’s why I will always love Chris Webber for his defiance even when it cost him.  For me, Detroit is about wearing your heart on your sleeve, being true to who you are even when true isn’t pretty.

To me, the “no pretenses” thing, an aversion to showing off, is part of being from Detroit. Every time I think about buying a car, I feel that difference. Living in LA means living among people who live in their fancy, foreign cars.  Growing up, I thought of buying foreign cars as a form of cheating on Detroit.  I’ve gotten over the foreign part, but still can’t bring myself to spend big money on a car because it feels like it’s mostly for show. Whether it’s a Midwest or a Detroit thing, I try to transmit the “not wasting money trying to impress anyone” thing to my kids.  We are who we are.

Living far away, it’s not always easy to instill a connection to Detroit in my kids. I’ve raised them to be Red Wings, Tigers, and Lions fans, not just because they were the teams I grew up with, but because, for me, each of the teams embody facets of Detroit. My kids have learned to be suspicious when the Wings come through L.A. and the Staples Center is full of people wearing brand new red jerseys.  I’ve taught them to recognize Detroiters by their old Lions or Michigan gear — worn at Wings or Pistons or Tigers games.  Many of those people with the new jerseys, we assume, must be from someplace else.  You can’t blame them for falling in love with the Wings somewhere along all those Stanley Cups of the last two decades.

I’ve taken my kids to root for Detroit teams in hostile stadiums, like a Tigers-A’s Game 5 at “Oco” in 2013, where more than one Oakland fan threatened my then 12-year-old son for his Tigers love. People told me I was crazy to expose my kids to that, but there was a certain satisfaction in having it not be easy, in building up a thick skin. In 2012, I took my sons to join my Dad to see the Tigers in Game 4 of the World Series. Watching the Tigers get swept in the cold rain only drove home the sense that they, too, were part of “Detroit Nation”.  After all, there’s no bandwagon when you’re wet and freezing but hanging in there to applaud your team as they lose. I loved taking my daughter to a Wings game in their final season at Joe Louis Arena,  so she could feel that old school Detroit grit. No pretty girls in skimpy outfits cleaning the ice to keep the crowd interested here.

There are so many other parts of Detroit that I can’t possibly do justice.  I think of my parents’ devotion to community in Detroit, my mother rebuilding the local neighborhood association, my father becoming the first Jewish chaplain in the history of the Detroit police force. Personally, I remember learning not to be afraid of being the only white guy in the room when my friend Steve Winkelman and I headed to some rowdy rap show in mid-80s Detroit.  There may not have been much city life in those days, but what Detroit had was a rough big city exterior and a small town heart.

I had a pretty clear sense after high school that I wasn’t going to be sticking around Detroit. I wanted to explore what else was out there. 30 years later, I am at peace with that decision. At the same time, I am wistful about missing out on being around for and being part of the recent renaissance. Yet I will always carry around my own deep Detroit pride.

One comment to “Detroit: What do you hold onto when you leave a place?

  1. Greg

    Dead on. You captured essential aspects of what it means to be a Detroiter beautifully.


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