I suppose it is now official: Detroit has gone bankrupt, or, at the very least, has sought protection from its creditors in a federal bankruptcy court. What was once the nation’s fourth most populous city is now the biggest municipality ever to throw up its hands in financial despair.
Detroit is a place I once called home. Even when the city was healthy, it scared me. I recall driving by some of the giant auto factories. Most of my classmates were headed there. You could make a decent living in those plants, enough for a small home in the city itself, and a small place “up north,” three or four hours away hear Oscoda, or Alpena. But one look inside of the belching behemoths was enough for me: I knew I couldn’t survive the monotony of factory life.
It turns out the factories died long before my working life ended. I gambled on college, an unheard of sort of thing, and then surprised everyone, including myself, by first teaching college and then becoming a lawyer.
For years, I wanted to go back to Detroit. I was once a finalist for the job of deputy editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press. I would have taken the job, had it been offered. That was a long time ago, before the City started dying.
I suppose I decided to leave the city in 1967. That was the year of the riots. The skies were dark with smoke. You could smell fire. There was random gunfire, too. Angry white men sat on the porches in my neighborhood muttering threats about what they’d do if a “jigaboo” wandered down our street. Then the 82nd Airborne arrived and decamped on our baseball diamond. I watched soldiers patrol armed with machine guns.
My mother and I couldn’t afford white flight, so we stayed in the city. When she invited a hard-drinking Irishman in to live with us, I saw a whole new level of violence. One night he sat out front armed with a handgun; I was told to wait out back with a rifle. He’d beaten up a local drug dealer, and we were told to expect retaliation. My mother wanted to call the police, but that’s not how things got done in the Motor City.
I was so anxious to leave the place, I enrolled in night school, shaving a year off the time it took to get out of high school. I packed my bags and left town the day after my last class. Commencement ceremonies were for sissies; I wanted out of town while I was still alive.
I visit the city from time to time. What I see there stuns me. Whole blocks are razed. Houses I lived in are gone. One of my elementary schools has been bulldozed; the street on which it was located has gone fallow -- trees grow through cracks in the pavement.
Detroit has been dying for a long, long time.
This fall, my high school class is having a sentinel reunion. I’ve thought of going. There are a few old friends I’d like to see. We were kids then, and reckless and wild. Surviving is worth celebration.
But I noticed the other day that the reunion is scheduled to take place in a suburb, well outside the city limits. I lived in the city. My high school was in the city. My friends were in the city. Why not return to the city for a reunion?
Yes, I know, you can’t go home. But I want to. Except the city is dying. It went bankrupt the other day...