Detroit Guilt

When news broke that Detroit would be filing for bankruptcy I braced myself for the incoming artillery.

There would be the usual Detroit jokes. The usual bashing and photos of abandoned buildings. All of the things I have come to expect whenever Detroit or Michigan are in the news.

I have yet to unclench my teeth. You guys keep bashing and now Washington is in on the act.

This is what happens when Democrats run your town for decades! 

This is what happens when UNIONS are in charge! 

My jaw is now locked so hard it hurts.

I can’t do this anymore. This fight over the place I was born and raised is now on my weekend morning shows while I sit in Los Angeles, my adopted home. That’s right, I live in Los Angeles.

Yes, let me have it. I left.

I left Detroit.

I abandoned the city and state like so many others. I suppose it doesn’t matter the reason. My husband works in the entertainment industry. His job is LA-centric and that’s just how it goes.

The House I Grew Up In
The house I grew up in.

But what you may not understand is that if I could go back, I would. If I could find a way to be part of the solution, I would. In fact, I am and I have. But none of that matters when you have Detroit Guilt the size of the Detroit River because you live in Los Angeles and can not be a practical, present part of the solution.

We ex-Detroiters…we are a hearty bunch. We find each other in states from California to Florida and band together. My husband laughs. He calls us the ‘Michigan Mafia’ because no matter where we go, inevitably I find someone from Michigan and we bond over our home state.

Detroit Guilt.

We bond over whatever reason we left and we feel the need to defend and remember. Remember all the things we love and all the things we want to help fix. The people. The food. The culture.

We may be Democrats or Republicans but when we talk about the fall of the city we talk about corruption. Something neither party can escape. And something this lifelong Dem always assumed was rampant in big city politics – especially Detroit’s. I never associated my party with the city’s leaders because the city’s leaders were always in trouble. Corruption, unfortunately, has been a mainstay since my childhood in Detroit’s City Hall.

Luckily, good ideas and smart people have always been a mainstay too. Just enough to show me the potential and the glorious past. Just enough to always leave me with hope things will get better.

That hope has never left. Not then. Not now.

We can argue if you think it’s the union’s fault if you want. I find that pointless and an attack on workers. Hard workers. People who, like my grandfather, needed the unions to make sure he could provide for his children and collect a pension. Yes, that word – pension- that has all of DC in a tizzy. The pension that all workers bargained for and received and were promised. I don’t care if times are tough and hard decisions must be made. Promises were made many, many decades ago and I don’t see millions being taken from executive pay. This is just one more way to screw the worker. And now they are finding ways to do it DECADES later. From the very people who kept Detroit going. From the very people who stayed and worked and raised families and poured money into the local bakeries and boutiques and bars. From the very people who gave to your kids’ fundraisers even when times were tough and brought a six-pack when they wanted to bring an expensive bottle of wine. Because that is what Detroiters DO. What hard workers DO.

They also honor their word.

Maybe that’s what all of this comes down to…it’s the people of Michigan. The ones that haunt my dreams and call me back.

Detroit Guilt.

There are abandoned homes and cities and areas all over this country. There are bad parts of town in every major metropolitan area. We hear about them in passing on the news every single night from shootings, to stabbings, to press conferences about revitalization. What is it about my hometown that makes me feel responsible even after leaving so long ago? People move all the time. In this day and age, people move and move and move some more. How many of them still pine for their ‘home’ and still slip and call it ‘home’ when home is clearly 3,000 miles on another coast?

Detroit isn’t a punchline. It isn’t some Democrat or Republican legislative hole where bad ideas go to thrive and good ideas are abandoned. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around and there has been for many years. I know where I place much of the blame and it has nothing to do with political party and much more to do with fear of the ‘other.’

How many of you can tell me right now where the line is back ‘home?’ And you know exactly which line I’m talking about.

When I lived in Metro-Detroit it was right around Beaconsfield. Maybe a street or two over. One side of the street looked beautiful. The other in a constant state of disrepair. Just around the corner is where the liqueur stores and pawn shops and iron bars on the windows began. Just around the other corner you had to squint to find the start of a pothole…even in winter.

When white flight completely emptied the city of a race, it also took many of the jobs. Did you know Detroit’s suburbs are some of the richest in the US?

“Oakland County, for example, is the fourth wealthiest county in the United States, of counties with a million or more residents. Greater Detroit — which includes the suburbs — is among the nation’s top five financial centers, the top four centers of high-technology employment, and the second-biggest source of engineering and architectural talent.” -Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.

Not hard to believe when everyone I know moved out of the city and into the suburbs, my father and mother’s families included, and my family keep moving further north. By the time I moved out of Michigan my parents were near Port Huron. They are now in Florida. The remainder of my family in Michigan are all in suburbs and have been for decades.

So who remains? That line tells the story. It always has. The line between black and white.

They want to say it comes down to pensions. Unions. Republican Governors. 8-years of a Republican President. Decades of Democrat Mayors. No. I say it comes down to what is always comes down to: that line.

Detroit Guilt.

I watched as a kid as our school just over that line got more money than the other. We heard on the news about textbook shortages. About preschool being non-existent for the poor kids because their parents had to work two jobs and still couldn’t afford the extra it would cost. I remember getting involved, by way of working on student newspapers, at places like Focus:HOPE. I remember having a very hard time understanding why the funding was always there for crisp, white, new football uniforms at some of these schools yet not a dime for much-needed classroom materials.

That line was a tricky one. It hurt to realize you grew up in one of the most segregated regions in the country.

It’s one of the rare things I despise about the city I love.

Detroit Guilt. 

There are some big messes that need cleaning in Motown. Really big. But nothing is going to get fixed if all the nation has are jokes and punch lines or the ludicrous idea that my grandfather, as he lays in his nursing home on the West Side (of Detroit) should suffer a deduction in his pension. And yes, I said ‘the nation.’ Because while I am happy to leave many things up to a state and it’s locals…Detroit is bigger than us all.

Even if I throw away the guilt of leaving, and add in helping, this Detroit mess will take innovation and tech and creativity and well.. you get the idea. So I don’t think limiting the pool of talent is wise or advisable if we are truly serious about getting the job done.

Not to mention, showing the city off as an example when different people can reach across the aisle.

And I think I realize why all this Detroit Guilt after all: it’s because Detroit really is about the people – making Detroit like family. Nothing making you more angry, or more proud than family. And nothing makes you feel more guilty.

Family also beckons you home. You may not be able to live with them any longer, but you certainly don’t leave them abandoned. You also may not visit as much as you’d like either, but you make sure you keep up with, at the very least, the latest news through relatives.

Detroit is family. And family is forever.

Comments

  1. Erin, I felt the same setting of the jaw. Waited for folks to ask me what I thought about the Detroit bankruptcy, how did it make me feel? And it made me feel sad. And angry.

    Sad, because this was all of us watching this friggin train wreck happen for decades. Angry, because of the insane blame that the working folks of Detroit shoulder. The blame of the autoworkers is the real insanity. WalMart sucks money out of the economy (and then lines it’s own executive and shareholder pockets) by paying lousy wages that require employees to use public assistance to make ends meet.

    My dad was a 30-year Chrysler employee. He worked hard every day. He was shop steward. I remember him saying during contract negotiations in the 70′s, “we don’t need more wages, we need better medical, dental and retirement.”

    The battle of the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of the Ruethers’ improved the lot of not only auto-workers, but of workers across America. Better wages, better benefits, and working people’s money driving economic growth for our contry. [And, unfortunately, created an employer-paid health care system rather than a more modern government-based heath care system (I know this speaks too much to you.)]

    What will happen to our hometown? I don’t know. I don’t share your Detroit Guilt. Frankly, I think that the disintegration of the City core was avoidable (contrast with Pittsburgh), and had to do with one of the cultural aspects of Michigan that I don’t miss–the never-ending vainglory.

    That said, I do share your hope that our messed up crazy-aunt family of SE Michigan gets the cure. And stops being punished. And takes all that arrogance and turns it around in that Steve Jobs-ian kind of way. Because, it is still home.

    “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.” Walter Reuther, UAW Founder.

  2. Great post. I’m visiting my parents in Detroit (Pleasant Ridge) at the moment, and I love coming home and enjoying how many wonderful things are here, but such a frustrating place to try and live. I prefer where I am in Milwaukee, but love Detroit, and wish I could see a way to move back sometimes.

  3. Erin, thank you for expressing the heart and soul of Detroit, the reality and the hope. Most of all, the hope. Detroiters are scrappy. We will do even greater things moving forward.

  4. Great post! I live just south of Detroit in Allen Park, and work for an auto supplier. Been here my whole life, and have seen these changes 30 years in the making. It’s truly heartbreaking.

  5. While I appreciate many of your sentiments, I feelyou embelish a bit too much to your readers about where you personally grew up. Beaconsfield was across the highway and many blocks away, You have spent very little time here in 15 years to even have an educated opinion. Your family has not either by your own accoun. Please stop representing ‘home’ until you have spent more than 2 weeks here once a year or every other year.
    Those other school districts have higher taxes and pass their bonds. We never had text book issues. .And please, our cheerleaders had more updated uniforms than the football team . And btw, my husband works in jeans and a t-shirt everyday and we moved back home with no problem.
    I wish you would use experience as opposed to Googled stats about the ‘home’ you haven’t lived

  6. Tami I’m not sure what post you read, but perhaps you should re-read what I wrote.

    Despite the fact that I actually did live on Beaconsfield while attending Wayne State just before I left Michigan, I was not referring to living anywhere near there but that it – back in ‘my’ day – was the LINE that segregated the city. The line that was invisibly drawn between black and white.

    “When I lived in Metro-Detroit it was right around Beaconsfield. Maybe a street or two over. One side of the street looked beautiful. The other in a constant state of disrepair. Just around the corner is where the liqueur stores and pawn shops and iron bars on the windows began. Just around the other corner you had to squint to find the start of a pothole…even in winter.
    When white flight completely emptied the city of a race, it also took many of the jobs”

    I spend the entire post discussing how I have not been in Michigan, thus the TITLE of the post, the constant reminders in the post of the TITLE and …

    “I abandoned the city and state like so many others.”
    “But none of that matters when you have Detroit Guilt the size of the Detroit River because you live in Los Angeles and can not be a practical, present part of the solution.”
    “What is it about my hometown that makes me feel responsible even after leaving so long ago? People move all the time. In this day and age, people move and move and move some more. How many of them still pine for their ‘home’ and still slip and call it ‘home’ when home is clearly 3,000 miles on another coast?”

    As for the textbook issues and uniforms- again, I think you need to re-read. My district was rich compared to what I saw over the ‘line’ of segregation I was discussing in that portion. We had new textbooks, we had all we needed while just over the line they did NOT. I witnessed this through my work with the student newspaper and was confused by what I saw, as also cited in that area of the post.

    As for your comment about what your husband wears to work, I have no idea what in the hell that has to do with this article. But I do find it interesting that you mention ‘moving back’- so obviously you left at some point as well. Did you have Detroit Guilt as I mention, oh, 500 times through out this post? And in the title?

    And as far as being told to stop representing ‘home’ until I have ‘spent more than 2 weeks here once a year or every other year’ – SUCK IT. I was born and raised in metro Detroit and it will be a part of me forever. I will NOT change my fight for the city, for its people or my love for what will be a special home in my heart forever. You can’t take that away from me. No one can. And I’ve attempted to do more with start ups and sitting on boards for young entrepreneurs in Detroit from my home in LA than I dare say you’ve done from where ever it is your husband gets to wear his t-shirt to work.

    I paid my homage to those that stayed in this article- and unless, again, you missed the title and the 500 references to the title in the post I have Detroit GUILT for leaving.

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