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The Wild, Wild MidWest

I recently enjoyed a vacation in the lawless frontier town of Detroit, Michigan.

Yes, you read that right! You know, as a native Detroiter, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life defending my fair city from comments like “You’re from Detroit - do you carry a switchblade?” and “Detroit? Does anybody still actually live there?” Now, it’s an interesting change of pace to suddenly find myself wanting to talk about how wild and crazy Detroit is!

Granted, I don’t really mean wild and crazy in the ways that YOU might mean - mostly. Yes, Detroit is still a struggling American city with some criminal activity and areas that are virtual wastelands of urban renewal. And yes, there are still some city resources that are lagging behind and folks who are fighting City Hall to protect their communities.

And it’s easy to get nostalgic about a place like Detroit, the place where I grew up, the place where I developed my consciousness. I grew up in a place where people of all races, religions and ethnicities shared neighborhoods and schools and commutes. A place where ‘can-do’ may as well have been invented. A place where we always felt we were creating the future, and likely were.

Today, in 2018, Detroit looks a little different than it did during my childhood and even my early adult years. Since I moved away from Detroit (in 1991), each visit back home has both reminded me of the past and demonstrated something new about this place that formed me.

On my last visit (September 2015) I was inspired by the ingenuity of the people of the greater Detroit area - those who have wisely learned the lesson that when you cannot be what you once were, you build a new identity. America, I have long argued, could wisely pay attention to what is happening in Detroit. Other communities identified by foundering industries - coal, steel - could learn great lessons from Detroit about how to respect your roots while drawing up new plans for your future. From city farming to the arts, new manufacturing and whimsical repurposing, my 2015 visit to Detroit was defined by the newness I saw around me.

This October 2018 visit was defined by the rawness of the city. I will admit that there are whole neighborhoods crumbling into oblivion and stagnation on an epic scale. There were also streets that felt downright forlorn and haunted. And strangely, that got me excited.

There is a lawlessness, a frontiers-like feel to the Motor City today. I suppose the criminals and the hucksters are loving their wild, wild freedom but I also think that entrepreneurs are gonna thrive in this culture. I know I would.

Every visit to Detroit is a bucket-list of wanna-sees: the DIA, Lafayette Coney, Belle Isle, vintage shopping and classic architecture. It’s also an opportunity to remember my own ancestral roots - families that made their way to Detroit well over 100 years ago. To pay homage to the people I descend from - never more important to me than this particular visit, in light of the anti-immigration sentiment that has infected our nation. I remind you that I am alive because my maternal great-grandparents fled Europe at the right damn moment in time to escape eventual genocide. My paternal grandparents too, who came to America during famine. These people all somehow wound up in one little riverside town where big dreams were put on an assembly line.

I was heartbroken, therefore, to discover that Al’s Loan on Gratiot had closed. My great-grandmother Celia opened this shop (originally on Hastings Street) in the 1930s, cobbled from the flotsam and jetsam that thirsty customers had long left behind when they purchased illegal hooch from her secret distillery years before during Prohibition. Originally named after a great-uncle (who was killed in a mob hit in the late ‘50s) his more-practical brothers Bert and Percy (my grandfather) took over the operation and ran it until the 70s. My Papa Percy retired in the late 70s, Bert in the ‘80s. It remained in the family, passing from generation to generation for probably close to 90 years. It was never in a good neighborhood. It was never a sound and safe business model (all but 7 pawn shops in Detroit were destroyed during the ‘67 Riots) but it was OURS. It was OUR story, our history and our hopes and dreams. And today, it is gone. Sold off by an interloper who had no clue what this place had created for my family.

But I suppose that’s emblematic of much of Detroit’s story today: what once was, cannot always be. And when something is gone, something is taken from you, you don’t sit around and wail at the grey skies. You roll up your sleeves, you look around and you ask, “what can I create from this?”

I’m not a maker, not a doer. I’m a writer and a storyteller and so that’s what I’m going to do with the story of Al’s Loan at Gratiot & Chene, and the story of the Swartz family and the story of our survival and the story of our renewal. Just keep telling the stories. It sometimes feels like all I have left.