Blind Insight: I Am Detroit

An open letter to Mitt Romney:

I find it amazing that you were born in the same city as I was, and yet we see things so differently. We were even raised on the same part of town -- the Northwest side, a stone's throw away from Woodward. You were on the wealthy side of Seven Mile, in the subdivision called Sherwood Forest. I lived within the middle-class homes south of that street. Close geographically, but with a vast difference in ideology. There is a respectable age difference between us (myself the younger). I was in the generation that came to adulthood in the eighties, and you, in the sixties. Oddly enough, I am one week younger than our president.

We were both born in the Motor City, where people say that cars run through our veins. Your father ran a automobile company, American Motors, and my father worked as an engineer for Chrysler. Your father went on to be the respected Governor of Michigan, living to the age of 88, dying in 1995. My father worked as an engineer, helping to design the engines of the future, until he had a stroke at age 58 as he prepared to go to work at the Highland Park plant in 1985. There was a plaque with his name in the lunchroom of that plant, which closed in 1992, and demolished in 2000.

You were driven to Cranbrook Academy, the most expensive private school in Michigan, and I took two Metro public buses to get to Cass Tech, one of the top public schools in Michigan. To get into Cranbrook, all you needed was connections and one big check. To get into Cass Tech, you needed excellent grades, and had do well on one, very big test.

On my side of Seven Mile, my parents did the best they could to help me pay for my college education as they continued to recover from the layoffs of the mid-seventies, living frugally by necessity. Your dad cashed in the interest on some stocks. My dad took a second mortgage. As fate would have it, we both moved away from Detroit as we grew up, but a part of me never left. Maybe it is because I was raised to embrace the city, and I cannot say the same for you. Wherever I went, I brought with me memories of Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Hart Plaza, Onassis and Lafayette Coney Islands, Hudson's Downtown, Doug's Body Shop, Palmer Park Art Festival, Belle Isle, Emily's Across the Street, Detroit-Montreux Jazz Festival (where I became engaged), Greektown, Bob-lo, Faygo, and the list goes on. You once filmed an ad where you drove past old Cass Tech, but did you ever stop? Did you ever truly appreciate what Detroit stood for? Dodge Main fell, Hudson's fell and even Cass Tech was demolished, but Detroit did not give up. Why did you give up on them? Why would you suggest that the auto industry, which is the heart of Detroit, go bankrupt?

The Spirit of Detroit is more than just a gold statue in front of City Hall. It is the people, the music, the festivals, the food, the architecture, and the industry that made America great. It is the spirit of producing products for us and the world, not just being consumers, and not just buying and selling companies.

Even if you go to one of the closed factories on a now desolate street, and put your ear to the wall, you can hear the hum of the machines, the laughter of workers and feel their pride as their finished product rolled out of the plant. The plant may now be empty, but the spirit lives on. As the saying goes, when Detroit is alive, America thrives. Those workers knew this. In tough times, unions fought for the auto workers, and concessions were made by both sides, to keep the industry alive. White collars and blue collars sat in binding arbitration, and the industry grew stronger. When the executives in Grosse Pointe and Cranbrook started making decisions that were profit-based and not product- and worker-based, quality dropped, the foreign auto market stepped in and the Spirit was dampened. Detroit suffered, as did Pontiac, Flint and other auto manufacturing-centered economies, as Michael Moore pointed out in Roger & Me. The executives lost sight of what was important. Pride in product and faith in the workers was a great part of what made the auto industry strong.

You seem to be part of a group that believes in exclusion instead of inclusion. I'm afraid that you missed the point of Detroit when you grew up there as you did. Saving the auto industry meant including the fate of the workers in the decision-making process. Saving the industry proved that the Spirit of Detroit still lives,and can make America great again.

That is why I am proud to say that, although I am not there, I get it, and I am Detroit, as so many others in this country are. Can you say the same?