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Two by Earth, Three by Fire: Detroit Revisited

Ironically, it is still Detroit that gives the suburbs a sense of place and America a reason to hope.
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For once there is some good news when I arrive in Detroit: the city is hosting the Final Four and Michigan State University has high hopes of going to the big dance. The city's teams win big (The Red Wings Stanley Cup winners) or lose big (the Lions 0 and 16 for last season). It's a team town; when we play together, we win together. We often fall a great distance because we attempt to soar so high. Sound familiar? It's an American thing. We.... are you!

It has only been a few months since my last visit, and it feels good to be back. Anderson Cooper just finished his 360 around Detroit and never found the heart of the city. Hundred dollar houses. Yea! Once owned by people who worked and scraped hard to buy a piece of the American dream and then had the rug was ripped out from under them. If you're going to tell the story about Detroit, it needs more of a Clint Eastwood "Gran Torino" treatment than a 360 from a storyteller who parachutes in and Jet Blues out.

One trip to Eastern Market on a Saturday morning would have told him more about the spirit of Detroit than all of his interviews in Warren, Michigan. An afternoon with fishermen who gather at the foot of Alter Road on the Detroit River would have provided him with a chorus of voices that believes anything is possible despite the odds.

As promised, Rodney McDonald, my best friend and life-long buddy, is waiting outside of exit 3 at McNamara Terminal, the trunk of his 3-year-old Mercury popped open. Despite his fishing gear and golf shoes, there is plenty of room for my camera case and a small bag. In brief deference to my aversion to cigarette smoke, Rodney flips the last of his Pall Mall out the window as I get in. He will light up another before we reach I-94 heading into the city. "What's up Macs?"

"One more payment and I'm finished with this sucker," he says, reaching for his cigarette lighter.

Since his retirement from Ford several years ago, Rodney has continued to buy a new car every three years. He gets a great discount and believes in supporting the employer that afforded he and his family a solid middle class lifestyle. Like several of my friends, he became an automotive worker right out of high school. We were the children of the men and women who were a part of the "Great Migration" to the north -- black men who rode the rails to get to a place where lynchings weren't an everyday reality. They went ahead and later, like my father, brought their wives.

Ford earned the allegiance of its workers, especially from African Americans, early on. Blacks from the south, fleeing Jim Crow laws and lynchings, found their way to the assembly lines of the company's River Rouge plant. Those who became members of Second Baptist Church in Greek Town were given preferential treatment and recruited through the church. Historically, Second Baptist was the last stop of the Underground Railroad before it crossed over to Canada. By the late 1920's and 30's it was also the pathway to economic freedom via the Ford Motor Company, from chattel to citizens.

In time, these workers became Reuther's boys, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union headed up by the organizer and labor leader Walter Reuther. They came in when the assembly line was the method of production and by the time they retired, Robotics had thinned the ranks of the line workers. Rodney had made a transition long before that, moving from line worker to a supervisory position in shipping and receiving at the company's Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

"You not buying a new car this year?" I ask.

"Nope! Uncertain times. For now, I'll put new tires on this sucker and keep the oil changed."

Rodney is a realist with the heart of a dreamer. He keeps his nose in the wind and tries to anticipate what's around the corner. He also moves fast in emergencies. A few years back when the city was darkened by power outages, he went around to the local market and bought up all the bottled water. Candles he already had. He's also a movie buff who, as a kid, dressed and danced like Fred Astaire, and played baseball like Willie Mays. He was the first kid I knew who wore suits to events other than weddings and funerals. He took up fencing at 65 and watches most of the cooking shows.

A few years ago, he started storing canned goods and other staples on newly installed shelves in his basement. He goes to the discount store every three months and stocks up on meats and dried goods. He calls it "circling the wagons." He has a state-of-the-art barbecue grill in his garage and during the spring, summer and fall he and his neighbor Harvey sit in the backyard cooking ribs, chicken and sausage. Friends make a habit of passing by and checking for smoke. If a plume is spotted, some hurry off to the local market and buy a six-pack and a slab of ribs to throw on his grill. Harvey, not a native Detroiter, is a driver for a local mortuary.

"How is Harvey?" I wonder out loud.

"The other day he was by the Hat Shop," Rodney says, referring to a local hang out in the neighborhood. "And I asked him how things were going."

"We put away five today," Harvey told him. "Two by earth, three by fire."

"The cost of a burial is getting to be too much for some people," Rodney explains, his version of an economic forecast. You can always count on him to come up with an observation that sheds a different light on a situation.

I remember back in the day when Detroit was getting national attention because of the fires that occurred around Halloween, on what they called "Devil's Night."

Wikipedia explains, "Devil's Night is a long-standing tradition predating World War II, with anecdotal incidents occurring as early as the 1930s. Traditionally, youths in Detroit engaged in a night of criminal behavior, which usually consisted of acts of vandalism (such as throwing eggs at the homes of neighbors, scribbling on windows with bar soap, or stringing toilet paper in trees). These were almost exclusively petty vandalism acts, causing little to no property damage other than perhaps a damaged mailbox or eggs hardening on windows."

News organizations had the nation convinced that Detroiters went insane every year, but Rodney knew there was another side to the story. Absentee landlords, in an effort to cash in on their hard-to-sell insured properties in the city, were hiring arsonists to set fire to their buildings. Both Rodney and I grew up on the east side of the city where a lot of the fires occurred. Word got around that the fires were the handy work of a character called "the torch," an arsonist who worked for the highest bidder.

Detroit has become the nation's poster child for despair: racial tension, declining property values, chronic unemployment, a school system that serves itself but not it students. Less than half of Detroit kids graduate from high school. The city is now defined by its failures, not its successes. But from the 50's to the late 80's Detroit was a place where people could still find a job, buy a home and live a relatively safe and comfortable existence. As early as 1958 a leading black publication picked it as one of the best places in the nation for African Americans to live.

According to Rodney, the 70's and 80's were "quality times for auto workers. Chrysler and Ford gave big bonuses to workers who were willing to freeze their salaries. These bonuses were sometimes between six and eight thousand dollars."

In 1967 there was a riot. That had less to do with racial tension than police aggression. But it hastened white flight to the suburbs, which depended on Detroit for their livelihood. A well designed freeway system allowed commuters in outlying areas to reach the city in less time that it takes residents of Santa Monica to drive the ten miles to downtown LA.

A declining tax base, aggravated by industries fleeing to the suburbs and later the South, put an added burden on the city and its inhabitants. Detroiters pay more in property taxes than people in Los Angeles. And I'm not aware of any other city where the citizens, in addition to property taxes, pay seasonal taxes on their property. When we were making the cars that packed the nation's highways, and creating the music that had the entire world dancing, it was a different story. We were Motown!

Ironically, it is still Detroit that gives the suburbs a sense of place and America a reason to hope. Long before there was a Silicon Valley, there was Detroit. We were an industrial model for the rest of the world. Americans should be the last ones to try and turn this great city into an icon of despair. Trample on our symbols and you trample on our dreams! We should neither let the Washington Mall nor this great city go to seed. In our part of the world, we have the greatest systems of lakes on the planet. The St. Lawrence Seaway could take wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid cars to the rest of the world. And the idle workers from this city's automotive plants will be key to the success of these new industries. Detroit will rise again from both dirt and the ashes. Get on board as we chart a course to a new tomorrow.

Before dropping me off at my house, we take a ride down Woodward Avenue, past the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the Main Library where I used to work. We end up at a bar and grill called the Northern Lights over behind the old GM building, which is now the Detroit office for the State of Michigan. This is my first time, but Rodney has been going since the early 60's. In fact, he brought his daughter here the week before for lunch. We have a great hamburger with fried onions, lettuce and a slice of tomato. My diabetes tells me to skip the fries. He orders a beer and I a Diet Coke. We talk about old times and departed friends. He lights up a Pall Mall and blows out a halo of smoke that seems to frame the moment.