Special Features

Harmony Neal

Detroit, City of the Future

 

The following essay appears in a text-only version in Ninth Letter, volume 8 no. 1. The accompanying photos featured here are provided by Dave Rowland and Harmony Neal.

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When the news media covers Detroit, which they don't often do, it's always to say: isn't it so sad? They show stock footage of the crumbling Michigan Central Train Depot in Corktown, the broken windows and heavily chained fence. They'll show a neighborhood off Rosa Parks Boulevard with abandoned houses boarded up with plywood, some burned out already, the windows and doors black screams of betrayal. They drive down Michigan Avenue where you'll see every third building is abandoned, the ones left are shifty auto repair shops and secondhand stores, and then Slow's, the best BBQ in town, the only place journalists feel safe eating. They'll mourn the Packard Center which once made luxury cars and has now been abandoned for decades, broken panes of industrial glass reflecting shards of an unloved city.

What they don't show is that someone scaled the depot to carefully inscribe SAVE THE DEPOT on the topmost panes, a message of love and longing. They don't go down Heidelberg Street so you can see an entire neighborhood that has become installation art created from wreckage, so you can feel the sense of restoration, of higher meaning from abandonment--shopping carts impaled on the top of an old leafless tree, their wheels going nowhere in the breeze; SUVs half-buried in the dirt, planters now, or the homes of filthy stuffed animals. Everywhere are dots, brightly colored dots, yellow, pink, orange, blue, white, all sizes of dots, on the houses, the sidewalks, the abandoned cars and tires, on plywood banners. And while many think it's garish, and it is, it is also a message and a question.

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What you probably won't see on news coverage of Detroit are the neighborhood gardens, sprawling lots of green beans, squash, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, everything growing from land businessmen find useless. Where there is food, there are flowers because the citizens of Detroit know how to attract pollinating insects to their fresh food sources with mint and chicory, yarrow and vervain, purple, blue, and white flowers nestled in an Indian Blanket of yellow and red. You won't see the groups of teenagers tending the crops instead of burning down abandoned buildings. You won't see the new community, the actual community, the people knowing people, working with people, being people together that has become Detroit.

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They will show "graffiti," the bane of civilized society, but they will not ask if some people view it as art. They will never question whether a Burger King billboard is more offensive to the average soul than a carefully rendered portrait of a brown-and-white man with an extend-o-arm who is guarded by a blue song bird; they will never wonder if you can look at a green cricket as tall as you are and feel inspired. They might go inside the Packard Center and zoom in on the chains and wires hanging from the ceiling, the holes in the floor, the carpet of dirt and broken glass, but they will not show you the boats people have decorated with messages or the pile of tires that have been turned into brightly colored flowers. They will not walk around outside the building, discover the blackberry bushes that have come home, will not pluck the deep black fruit from the vines, pop them in their mouths and taste a sweetness you could never know through commercial fertilizer and trucked-in produce. They will not leave with fingertips and tongues stained purple from an unexpected gift.

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They will not see everything beautiful in Detroit, what is left behind after Capitalism has had its way, zipped its pants, and moved on to newer pastures.

You will be told Detroit is a filthy, pitiable place to avoid, and you'll believe it. Black + Poor = Dangerous is a narrative you've known your entire life. It won't matter that most crimes are committed within similar groups, that you are more likely to be beaten or robbed by a family member than a stranger. You will see a white woman walking the streets alone with a $600 camera strung from her neck, and you will want to scream at her to run away, get out while she can. When she stops to speak with a black man who has said hello from his porch, you will shake your head sadly. When she enters his house, you'll get angry. You'll think she has it coming. She's gone against all sense and will be raped and possibly murdered, and it's her own stupid fault.

If you are brave, maybe you'll go inside with her. Maybe you'll meet his daughter who needs help with college applications. Maybe you'll want to help his daughter, not because you know her or him, but because this is the community you always thought might be real, might really exist a few block away from a 1/2 acre plot where women with painted nails and men in overalls and teenagers with hemp necklaces and boys in baggy pants cultivate the land, harvest garlic and onions, check the tomatoes, water the pumpkins. This isn't Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. This is the new world, the city of the future, where people work together, eat food they nurtured themselves, say hi on the street. This is what can spring from the ashes left by the fires of industry. This is a place you could truly call home.

—Harmony Neal

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.