Detroit, Michigan: Another Tale of Two Cities
“Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Greetings my fellow Americans!
Maybe I should’ve written about this before the latest midterm election, perchance it would’ve made a difference. I’ve nonetheless been inspired to now briefly share my story of having been born in Detroit and being old enough to remember what much of that city looked like for about the first ten years of my life.
I was born in 1963, three months before the assassination of President Kennedy. While I don’t remember much else firsthand from the 1960s, and certainly had no inklings of party politics back then, something to which I fondly hearken back to this day are the visits to my grandparents who lived deeply within the heart of that once-vibrant city. Some of my earliest memories are of their use of a fully-functional milk chute, through which they would actually receive deliveries from the Twin Pines Dairy, whose trucks could regularly be seen meandering throughout my grandparents’ neighborhood, a mere two city blocks from what was known at the time as City Airport. Said airport delivered a daily diet of small engine whirs and spurts from overhead in my grandparents’ back yard.
My grandfather, an immigrant from Hungary, would walk every weekday (despite having a car) at least a mile each way to and from his machinist job at the Chrysler factory at the corner of Conner and Jefferson Avenues. My grandmother—before getting a job of her own late in this period—would walk a mile or two to the closest shopping district, on Gratiot Avenue, where the likes of Montgomery Ward, Kresge, Cunningham Drugs and her favorite German bakery were located. When I was with her, we’d always be sure, on the way to shopping, to stop on the sidewalk and take a gander into the large front window of the Better Made Potato Chip Company to watch the freshly-baked chips scurrying up the half-dozen or so conveyor belts into their respective bags. Before reaching the main road, we’d walk for blocks along streets lined by the majestic trunks, and arched and shaded by the branches and leaves extending therefrom, of countless elm trees.
About once a week in the summers, a local vendor would announce his presence in their neighborhood over a loudspeaker attached to the top of his cargo van containing crates of fresh fruits and produce, and of which my grandmother would regularly avail herself. And no week of evenings in that season was complete without the evening jingle of the bells from the Good Humor Ice Cream truck.
Granted, I was a child back then, but I struggle to remember either of my grandparents, or my parents, expressing any hesitation or qualms about walking on public streets (or even the alleys) within the city limits for those first ten years. That said, I do remember how quickly everything seemed to change in my grandparents’ neighborhood from that point on: One of the first, and most notable, was the sudden disease contraction, and systematic elimination, of the mighty elm trees which had gone from being everywhere to virtually non-existent within a few years. My grandparents were robbed of money they had stashed in their bedroom, as someone had, in broad daylight walked into their home and stolen it as they worked in their yard. Almost overnight, both the beauty and relative safety of their inner-city neighborhood was gone. Having lived there for 50 years, and not wanting to so easily surrender to these changes, my grandparents were one of the last to leave for the suburbs, spending the last few years of their lives in a place that was otherwise quite foreign to them and in terminal regret of what they had left behind in Detroit.
To those who never experienced firsthand the Detroit of the 1950s and ‘60s generally consider it to be one of those American cities that you’d never want to visit unless you have to (for business or whatever). Granted, there have been efforts to preserve or restore the downtown and areas near and along the River which bears its namesake and which borders a good portion of that once majestic city (it was one of the richest in the world in the 1950s, due in large part to the post-WWII automobile industry), but most of the rest of the land within its official limits is a mere shell of what once was. I liken it to the contrast which Dickens makes in his classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities” between London and Paris, the only difference being that, in Detroit’s case, it is the same geopolitical city observed across two different historical periods.
The former “Motor City” and crown jewel of 20th-Century America, has become a microcosm of what I now see happening virtually everywhere in our once-great United States. While it’s true that Detroit was not the only city undergoing a similar transformation in the last quarter of the last century, it is the one which I observed firsthand, and to which I am now seeing parallels in the transformation of our American culture. What has been striking to me is the rapidity at which we seem to have gone from the “shining city on a hill” envisioned by President Reagan to Biden’s “build back better.” Either way, I believe the sooner we dispense with seeking salvation from politicians the better, as this has proven to be utterly disastrous for American culture and civilization.
I’d prefer to never have to write about a Tale of Two Countries
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