the author

the author bw

[detroit]

intro’d to the author here:

why i bought a house

 

She would leave her front door unlocked so I could go in and shower whenever I wanted. Most people have bars on their windows.

Her roommate was a musician with the voice of a towheaded angel. She would sometimes strum on her guitar and sing sad, soft songs while I let the steaming water wash away the cold and filth from my unwinding body. “You never know how good it feels to be clean,” she sang as she smiled at me, “until you’ve been really dirty.”

I’ve lived in the house for more than three years now. The neighbors don’t think I’m so crazy. They’ve brought me lemonade while I was working on my house, or they’ve cut my lawn when my mower was broken. They’ve invited me to barbecues and into their homes. I guess they’re happy there’s one more set of eyes looking out. “We’re glad you’re here,” is a refrain I hear often. I’m still very aware I am a young white kid in a mostly black neighborhood, but for the most part people have made me feel welcome. I’m grateful and feel an even deeper sense of responsibility to stay.

during the week I was a substitute teacher in an ultra-high-security juvenile prison.

At the school, I started a program where the students wrote a newspaper. The day before we were to go to our first print, one of my favorite students stayed up all night to finish a picture he drew for the paper, handing it to me just before I walked out the door. It was a pencil drawing with a jagged streak cutting diagonally across the picture plane. On one side of the line was a depiction of what his neighborhood “on the outs,” in Detroit, looked like: broken beer bottles and windows, overgrown grass, gloom. On the other was what he imagined it could have looked like, the place he wanted to live: shining sun, nice clean homes, neighbors, flowers.

Just weeks after he was released from the prison, he was shot and paralyzed.

Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans, has moved more than 7,600 employees downtown. He also just sent a notice to one of my ex-girlfriends, explaining he has purchased the apartment building she’s lived in for the last 16 years and his future plans don’t include her. The city is talking of disinvesting in entire neighborhoods such as mine — literally letting the neighborhood go to seed and removing city services, shrinking the city in what some have termed as “white-sizing”; upstarts backed with foundation money are talking abouttransforming an entire neighborhood into an 2,475-acre urban farm. The state just approved a $350 million subsidized giveaway for a hockey stadium with a suburban fan base that’s going to tear down another portion of the city and push more people out. Of course, the divide between the gentrifying Detroit downtown and the bankrupt Detroit that is the rest of the city mirrors what is happening in a lot of this country.

These changes are making me feel a bit threatened and defensive. Instead of a lone weird white kid buying a house in Detroit, now I’m part of a movement. I shop at the Whole Foods, knowing every step into that store is a step away from a brand-new city that could be. And if someone tries to break into my house again I will not hesitate to defend myself and someday my family. Some days I feel caught in a tide I cannot row against, but these are the realities. Maybe I’m feeling a bit like the good people of Detroit must have felt to be counted amongst the citizens of “Murder City.”

But there’s another Detroit, too, of which I am but a small part. It’s been happening quietly and for some time, between transplants and natives, black and white and Latino, city and country — tiny acts of kindness repeated thousands of times over, little gardens and lots of space, long meetings and mowing grass that isn’t yours. It’s baling hay.

It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself.

The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape. I’ve attended a four-person funeral for a stillborn baby that could have been saved but for poverty. I’ve nearly been shot by the police during a stop-and-frisk. I’ve seen three structure fires within a block of my house. But I’ve also walked out of my house to see hundreds of tiny snowmen built by neighborhood children. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of a grown man releasing a baby raccoon into a city park that he had saved from being beaten to death by teenagers. Some scrappy teachers just opened a school in a formerly abandoned building behind my house. I stretched a ladder through the missing window of the abandoned house next door and nailed it to the kitchen floor to reach the peak of my own roof.

As we rebuild this ashen city, we’re deciding on an epic scale what we value as Americans in the 21st century. The American Dream is alive in Detroit, even if it flickers. I hope this time it includes that kid who drew a picture of two neighborhoods and was shot in the one he went back to.

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invited vs invented ness

 

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cities detroit