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I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Durham, North Carolina, where I spontaneously drove yesterday after spending the weekend with a dear friend at her home near Detroit. The drive, at 12 hours, was too long for me after not sleeping well the previous night, and I had plenty of time to think, listen to music, and think some more.

Today, North Carolina smells like the wide, white blossoms of magnolia trees, and today the air is humid, thick with the promise of thunderstorms.

Hard to tell the blooms from the sky peeking through the leaves.

Hard to tell the blooms from the sky peeking through the leaves.

I’ve been sitting here for about an hour, trying to write a thoughtful, interesting summary on my time in Detroit. I am fascinated by the city, and wish that I could understand it. It is a haunting place. I’ve made the mistake of occasionally comparing it to Baltimore, which has more than its share of empty rowhouses and forgotten people, but that isn’t really an accurate comparison. The pain of Baltimore is real, yet the ache of Detroit is everywhere.

When the Michigan Railway Station was completed in 1913, it was the tallest rail station in the world.

When the Michigan Central Station was completed in 1913, it was the tallest rail station in the world.

There are other sides of Detroit, though, just like there are other sides of every place. Brunch at a Zen center serving family-style meals and selling spices in bulk was evidence of that; so was a coffee shop with vegan items on the menu, local beers on tap, and plenty of seating for hipsters and their Macs.

The other bathroom door said "Better Flush" - does it say something about you if you choose that one?

The other bathroom door said “Better Flush” – does it say something about you if you choose that one?

We went to a baseball game and a park; to a bar where everything from mint juleps to kangaroo sliders cost $3; to a farmers’ market that dates back to 1841. I bought antique postcards to send to no one, though I wrote them out quickly in my mind.

I spy Canada!

I spy Canada!

I admired a man painting a Miro-esque mural and I coveted a row of old bicycles that made me want to actually be one of the aforementioned Michigan hipsters, riding back to the coffee shop for a beer and pretending to be carefree.

All I need now is an ironic t-shirt and some cutoffs!

All I need now is an ironic t-shirt and some cutoffs!

On my last day there, I went to a nearby salon for a haircut, which – perhaps oddly – I often do on a whim, in places to which I may not return. The stylists, local with strong Midwestern accents that made me want to sit on someone’s old flowered couch and eat too much fruit pie, were incredibly friendly. They chatted with me the entire time, full of enough genuine interest that I’m fairly convinced I could walk into the same spot a year from now and pick up the conversation without preamble. I heard about their lives, and I told them about mine.

And I keep thinking about them, when I think about my time in Michigan, how they made me want to stay. I don’t pretend that I can add to the conversation about what has gone wrong in Detroit, and what needs to change; it’s a complicated place. But the city has its charm; there is something about its intangible, lonely independence that has gotten under my skin both times I’ve visited.

I think Detroit knows what it is and makes no apologies for that, even as it works to change. It has its quirks – Eminem, as a hometown hero, is in near-constant rotation on local radio, and the highway system of “Michigan Lefts” had me driving in circles when I first arrived – that somehow translate into a sense of acceptance for itself. That acceptance seems to filter down into its people, who are some of the most real I’ve ever come across in this country.

It’s as if Detroit knows it has nothing to lose by being itself. You might love it, or you might hate it, but however you feel, there’s no way to pretend that you are anywhere else. For what it’s worth, though I am in North Carolina now, I am already thinking about my next trip to the Motor City, and the people I might meet when I arrive, after a too-long drive once more, even if I am again on my way to somewhere else.

Proving that people can make a place beautiful.

Proving that people can make a place beautiful.

6 comments on “Motor City/Rock City/Detroit

  1. Jodie says:

    I love this. While searching Google for a specific “Motor City” t-shirt, I stumbled upon your blog. And I’m so glad I did. Happy I decided to look for that t-shirt and instead found this. Love it so much I had to share the link in my Facebook status, for others to read. Thank you. — Jodie (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) of Detroit

    1. Anna says:

      Jodie, that is an amazing and kind comment. I don’t think I’ve ever been shared on Facebook before! Thank you for that! And just out of curiosity, did you ever find the t-shirt??

  2. Jodie says:

    Yeah, others here in Detroit read it after I posted the link on Facebook. They liked it — a lot. And no, I didn’t find that t-shirt. I don’t doubt a “Motor City” t-shirt will be too hard to find here in the Metro Detroit area. But this specific one… it’s from Urban Outfitters — past season, they sold out, quit selling it. And it’s just the neatest t-shirt. You’d have to see it. I will find one though. Determined. I’m a thrift store/vintage/second-hand junky. The treasures I’ve found… Might take a bit of hunting down, but I will find me one. *smiles*

  3. Jodie says:

    I was admiring your photo you have up there of the old rail station. There’s some big, old abandoned buildings behind it, down the street… It’s somewhat risky to go in these buildings (never go alone), where there’s a lot of drug using, needles all over the ground/floor (watch your step), where there’s so many homeless people living in. I used to go in to photograph, with a couple male friends. The walls are covered with the most amazing paintings, graffiti, etc. I have some fantastic shots of it. One day, in coldest of winter, I was standing there in a room (the building has so many rooms. It’s like a maze)… anyway, I was standing in the room with my camera held up to my face, eye looking through the viewfinder, getting ready to take a shot of this painting on a wall. Next to the wall, there’s an open doorway — with what looked like part of a fence chained blocking any sort of entrance to the room. Just as I’m about to take the photo, suddenly, much to my shocking surprise, through my camera’s viewfinder, I see a man’s head poke out of the room from behind this chained fence. Wasn’t expecting *that*! I stopped, lowered my camera and asked his permission to include him in the photo. He said, “yes”. I proceeded to take the photo, then walked over and talked to him. After talking with him, asking questions about him, him being there, etc, he told me he had been living in that big, old, broken windowless, cement, cold abandoned building for 5.5 yrs. I was just in awe by it, and the stories he told. That room was “his” room — reason for the chained fence, to keep others out. He had minimal things. Thin blankets, no pillow to lay and sleep on, on the concrete floor. A big barrel to build fires for heat. A smaller barrel, which was his toilet. I was just… so saddening. He was such a nice man.

    I went home that evening, and couldn’t get the man out of my head. Couldn’t stop thinking about all the people that were living in that building. People sleeping in almost every hidden corner of the building. I remember walking up this half-broken staircase and once I carefully made my way to the top step, there were three people laying there under a blanket sleeping on an old rotted out floorboard. Below them was a man who lived in his own made tent of what looked like old tarps, dirty sheets, just whatever he could use to make a tent to live in within this building. Before this day, I’d never known, seen of this ‘hidden’ part of the city. Of course, we all know it exists, but… to walk in it, explore it, talk to and observe the people…

    After that day, for the rest of the winter and the two following winters after, I started taking great big bags of warm thick blankets, pillows, coats, warm thermal clothing, anything I could find that they could use, benefit from and would drop it off inside the building. Always a little extra for the man living in the room behind the chained fence. I often wonder what happened to him — where he’s at, what he’s doing, is he still there…

    I should go down there. It’s been too long.

    Anyway, your photo of the ole’ rail station brought those memories about. You taking the photo of the rail station, you were so close to them, that building. And one would never know it.

    1. Anna says:

      That’s an amazing story, and such a good reminder of looking beyond first glance, and caring for others. Thank you for sharing it.

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