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City of Infamy - 60 Hours in "The D"

City of Infamy - 60 Hours in "The D"

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Published by Joey Grihalva
In early August 2013 I rode the rails to America's Great Fallen City to wrap my head around the tragedy and triumph that is Detroit.
In early August 2013 I rode the rails to America's Great Fallen City to wrap my head around the tragedy and triumph that is Detroit.

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Published by: Joey Grihalva on Nov 05, 2013
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04/21/2014

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CITY OF INFAMY 
 
60 Hours in “The D”
by Joey Grihalva
 
here was a period at the turn of the Millennium when my dad would be out almost every Friday night. He was a factory worker at the Master Lock plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "It's so-and-so's retirement party," he would tell my mom.
 
He would come home early Saturday morning or not until Saturday night. But he  worked most Saturdays so that was always a valid excuse. I like to think that my dad clocked so many overtime hours because he foresaw the exodus of American manufacturing.
 
 At some point Master Lock considered moving all of their operations to Mexico. My dad worked his way up from the assembly line to become an electrician and  was offered a position south of the border. This became an inside joke between my parents because my dad looks like someone who could pick up and move to Mexico. My dad’s parents came to the United States from Ecuador in the 1950s. But my dad is an American son who rebelled against his immigrant parents. He doesn't speak Spanish, he loves rock ’n’ roll and he married a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. That’s why I look white, but my brother has brown skin.
 
I always wondered about Detroit as a kid. I think it started with
 Robocop
. And  when I looked on a map, Detroit seemed so close to Milwaukee. It's more or less on the other side of Lake Michigan. Yet we never took a trip there. But I do remember being in our kitchen when my dad and his co-workers were preparing for a union meeting and every now and then they would mention Detroit.  At university I learned the term "Rust Belt," which is used to describe the part of the America from New England to the Great Lakes where factory jobs have all but disappeared. Some small-towns on the East Coast have been absolutely devastated by the decline of industry. As far as big cities go, Milwaukee’s had a rough time, but things could be worse. Like in Detroit.
 
The 2008 financial crisis brought the world economy into a Great Recession, but the city of Detroit has been in a Great Depression for decades.
 
----------------------------
 
T
 
 
If you move in circles of creatively inclined young people with capital at some point you’re bound to hear this refrain: "I'm just gonna move to Detroit, buy a house for seven thousand dollars and do my own thing."
 
For the record, "do my own thing" almost always includes urban farming. After all, real estate is dirt cheap in Detroit and the dirt is fertile (enough).
 
In the 1930s Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. Detroit was roaring like an escaped circus lion. But the last few decades have seen the city limping along like a sick kid with no healthcare who is also slowly being stabbed by greedy CEOs and lousy politicians.  When manufacturing moved to Asia, Detroit lost. Her massive frame can fit Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston within city limits, but today the few bright spots are overshadowed by rubble and ruin. Greatness has emerged from ashes. Modern day Detroit presents an opportunity to rethink the American urban landscape. And this idea has intoxicated the imagination of the young and the brave like the absinthe that sank into Van Gogh's gullet before he wrestled with the blank canvas, none as unique or as complex as the City of Detroit, circa 2013. But the truth is that Detroit is not a blank canvas. It’s mostly a dark-skinned canvas with a colorful and important cultural legacy. And lifelong Detroiters have certain feelings about the (mostly White) migrants moving into their city.
The Wall Street Journal 
 actually used the term "hipster colony," approvingly,  when referring to the emerging community in the historic Corktown neighborhood. In the same
WSJ 
 article Kevyn Orr, the (Black) Emergency City Manager appointed by (White) Republican Governor Rick Snyder, says, "For a long time, the city was dumb, lazy, happy and rich." Orr was referring to the fact that during Detroit’s heyday you could get a well-paying entry-level job without a high school degree. But the insinuation was clear; “Black Detroiters are lazy.” You can imagine this did not go over well with the good people of Detroit. Detroit is a physical, psychological and sociological wilderness. In early August I exchanged 3,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points for a round trip to Detroit in an attempt to wrap my head around the tragedy and triumph that defines the D.
 
----------------------------
 
 
 
DAY 1 - WELCOME TO DETROIT
 
Considering how vacant Detroit is, there’s a lot going on the night I arrive. 1. Ballots are being counted in a mayoral primary race where a write-in candidate  will get over 30% of the vote, a first for the state of Michigan. 2. Hollywood director Michael Bay is downtown shooting the fourth installment of the
Transformers
 series, entitled
Transformers: Age of Extinction
. 3. Hip-hop icon Jay-Z and pop superstar Justin Timberlake are rocking a sold-out crowd at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions football team. 4. The Detroit Tigers baseball team are on their way to a tenth straight win. Technically, the Tigers game is in Ohio against their rival Cleveland Indians, but I'm guessing a good chunk of Detroiters are watching and listening at home.  Anything to distract them from the real headline news, which no one seems to  want to discuss; the fact that Detroit is filing for bankruptcy. It’s the largest municipal case in American history, ever.
 
But this is not news to anyone in Detroit. For years the city has been downsizing, turning off street lights, getting rid of bus lines and shrinking the pensions of their former employees. Declaring bankruptcy is the last resort. Mayor Dave Bing proposed consolidating the city into a few dense areas and turning the vacant lots into large-scale urban farming.
 
“What the fuck is all these damn gardens?” asks a Detroiter sitting on his porch  with a few friends in a scene from the 2012 documentary
 Detropia
.
 
“That’s some bullshit. You gonna turn Detroit into a farm now?”
 
 As my train snakes into the city’s west side the line between developed property and nature begins to blur. Sure enough, there are entire city blocks with a single house left standing. Sidewalks are covered in cracks and grass. Abandoned homes outnumber the occupied. In the courtyard of a closed school a disheveled middle-aged White man stands next to an art installation, waving at the train. Towering above broken buildings, a billboard with an attractive brunette promotes the health benefits of veganism. This is Detroit.
 
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