Detroit, My First Love

Looking north on Woodward Ave. - DIA on the immediate right, GM headquarters on the left in the distance.

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, USA, western hemisphere. I was first brought into the world at Grace Hospital just south of Seven Mile Road. I’ve lived in the city of Detroit longer than any other locale. The city is in my blood. It always has been.

Detroit is a word with which people all over the world are familiar, but hardly anyone has ever actually been there. It’s not exactly a tourist destination anymore, if it ever was. When you say that you’re from Detroit, people think they know a thing or two about it. It either calls to mind cars, Motown, the best hockey team on earth, techno music (did you know that techno started in Detroit?), racketeering teamsters like Jimmy Hoffa, arson, abandoned neighborhoods, political corruption, murder or riots. All of those things would be true. I experienced all of them when I lived there. However, the city is so much more than that.

Having Detroit as your hometown is a kind of calling card. Just that single word says something about you. I’ve witnessed people from all over the world perk up when I say that word. “Oh, really? Is it as bad as they say it is?” It has a certain je ne sais quoi that being from other cities, like Des Moines, Iowa, just doesn’t have. It says that you’ve experienced something. You were born and raised in the former murder capital of the world.

Looking north on Woodward Ave. – DIA, immediate right, GM headquarters, distant left.

When I say I’m from Detroit, I mean that I’m from the city of Detroit. Lots of people will say they’re from New York City when they’re really from Connecticut. I lived in Detroit’s suburbs for a while. My parents decided Detroit proper wasn’t a place to raise children when I was in high school, a little too late if you ask me, and dragged us out to the stifling suburbs. I hate the suburbs. For three years, I lived out there in the boonies, far away from the love of my life. The first chance I got, when I was eighteen and my parents could no longer legally stop me, I moved right back to Detroit. My very first apartment was on Woodward Avenue at Grand River, near General Motors headquarters and just north of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

I lived all around Detroit in houses, apartments and sky rise buildings for more than another decade before I moved away for good. I saw whole neighborhoods set on fire on Devil’s Night. I didn’t know that Devil’s Night didn’t exist anywhere else like I knew it until I moved away. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Devil’s Night is the night before Halloween. In Detroit, it means, or at least it used to mean, setting your own neighborhood on fire. One of the last years I lived there, there were over 300 fires in abandoned buildings on Devil’s Night. The last year I lived in Detroit, I volunteered for Angel’s Night, patrolling my neighborhood with an amber light on my car equipped with a walkie-talkie patched straight to the police. There was only one fire in my immediate neighborhood that year. I’ve heard that this ridiculous tradition has lessened since I left and there are hardly any fires at all anymore. That’s progress. When I visit now, some parts of the city are hardly recognizable.

Detroit breaks my heart. It’s part of the reason why I left it; I could no longer watch something I loved be slowly destroyed and be powerless to stop it. I didn’t want to watch it dying, so I left, which actually just helped it die a little bit faster. My departure was inevitable though. I left because I had wanderlust. I needed to break off the shackles of the familiar and see the world for myself. It had nothing to do with my city. I would have felt that way had I been born and raised anywhere.

When I left, I thought I would come back. I thought I’d only be gone a year or two, and then I would come home, settle down and begin the process of adulthood. I considered subletting my house in southwest Detroit so that I’d have a place to live when I got back. Things didn’t quite work out that way. It’s been over fifteen years since I lived there.

Even though I still feel a twinge of guilt for abandoning my city, and it still is my city, all hope is not lost. There are people trying to change it, one abandoned building at a time. Who knows, maybe when I get old and gray, I will move back. Maybe I’ll retire there. It is a pretty city in an absolutely beautiful state. Detroit is old and full of grace, unlike the city in which I currently reside, Los Angeles. Detroit has character and I have character because of it.

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