True Confessions: Why Have I Lived in Detroit All This Time?

For the last 40 years, my husband Russ and I have lived in Detroit.  At first, we lived in the Cass Corridor.  Then we bought my Aunt Anne’s house on the northeast side.  We have lived been here for 31 years because Russ didn’t want to leave Detroit.

The Cass Corridor had a bad reputation back when we lived there.  My own family stopped coming to visit us because they thought our home in northeast Detroit was in a dangerous area.  My sisters were amazed that I would continue to live here because of my husband’s wishes.  I don’t usually invite people over to our house anymore, since the foreclosures took over the area in recent years and the Emergency Manager took away some of our public services.

So why are we here, and what’s good about Detroit?  There are lots of reasons, from the personal to the ideal.

The Cass Corridor in the 80’s

During my first years at Oakland University, I became a founding member of the Motor City Free Arts Group (MCFAG).  We were a multi-media, improvisational performance art group that lasted for 25 years, until our manager retired to Florida.  We performed throughout the state of Michigan and on radio and produced a few videos.  After a short break from Oakland, I moved to Ann Arbor and completed my Bachelors degree at the University of Michigan.  It was in Ann Arbor that I met Russ.  Meanwhile, MCFAG often had practices and performances in Detroit’s Cass Corridor.

In the Cass Corridor, I became connected with the counter-cultural, underground artist network that was thriving there.  It was an exciting time and place for creative artists, and we were breaking boundaries in our work.  Theaters popped up in found spaces and there were spontaneous street theater gatherings.  MCFAG’s impromptu performance in the Fisher Building lobby at lunchtime gathered a crowd (and some of the guards), and we performed in the Fox Theater when it was crumbling before it’s redevelopment.  It was like performing in the Roman ruins; it was actually quite magnificent.

Fisher building lobby
Part of the Fisher Building lobby

The social network was just as active.  For my part, I became a member of the Cass Corridor Food Co-op where I watched young chefs build their own solar ovens, make veggie burgers out of spice blends that ended up really tasting like meat, and light a cookout fire with a magnifying glass.

Russ had moved to the Cass Corridor to finish his Bachelors degree at Wayne State University.  He has always been involved in social justice, and it was just as stimulating for him to be there as it was for me.  He became president of the student government for two years and later editor of the college newspaper.  He was also involved in political groups on campus.  We got married after I graduated from U of M and lived within walking distance of Wayne State.

Now that all that the old tainted reputation of the Cass Corridor has become history and it is rebuilt and gentrified, I can look back and see that history for what it was.  I feel very lucky to have been a part of the richly creative society of the time, something like the bohemian artists of old Paris.

MCFAG792010
Motor City Free Arts Group

Our House in Detroit 

When Russ and I were expecting our first child, we began to look for a home for our family.  At first, we put a deposit on an apartment in the beautiful historic Indian Village.  But then, I discovered that my Aunt Anne was selling her house.  She offered us a super deal on it and we moved in before our daughter was born.

Aunt Anne and Uncle Ed had the house built in 1940 when they married.  It was not far from her parents’ home.  It is solidly constructed, with wet-plastered walls and ceilings, hardwood floors, beautiful hardwood doors, ceramic tiling in the bathroom and kitchen, and a marble slab leading into the bathroom.

As I was growing up, my family often visited my Aunt and Uncle’s home.  I played on their piano, played in their attic, and was a part of celebrations and holiday gatherings there.

When Russ and I moved in, the neighborhood was still full of all of Anne’s friends.  But they were aging.  A couple of years after we moved in, her friends began to get sick, sent to nursing homes, and passed away.  Then young families moved in and were there while our children grew up.  Then problems began to seep into the area, although not on our block.  (I learned from the beginning that which block you’re on makes a difference.)  Our block was always an oasis, with good people across from us, next to us, and behind us.

Then, beginning in 2008, foreclosures began to force people out over time (the good people and the bad people) and houses were left abandoned.  At that point, I wanted to get out, but Russ saved our neighborhood.  He started a block club which grew to cover two one-mile streets.  He has been president of it ever since.

We got to know our neighbors better, and Russ mobilized them.  I was happily surprised to find out how many good people lived all around us.  They were all wondering how to survive in the economic downturn, and Russ gave them hope.  He invited community representatives from the police force, the City Council, the House of Representatives and our Senate District to meet with our community at block club meetings.  Our neighbors were able to make requests and get some of their wishes granted.  They formed a connection with our police department.  They went to civic meetings that Russ informed them of.  They became empowered and mobilized.  Many of them also to stayed and thrived.

So those who would commit crimes began to know to stay out of our neighborhood.  Neighbors got together to clean up blight as it encroached.  Russ organized people to remove dangers like old, dead trees or overgrown brush.  He made a friend of the guy down the block who owns a tree removal service, and won an Outstanding Community Action Award for our block club.

I was happy with our neighbors and my parents lived just a few miles away, across the border of Detroit in the suburb of Warren.  Then, after my parents passed away, my daughter moved into Warren just a mile and a half away from us.  I was happy to be near her and my grandchildren.

The Ideals That Keep Us Here

One of the many things that I love about my husband is his integrity and his ideals.  I am proud to be by his side and support those ideals.  I believe that his mission in life is to make this world a better place, in whatever way he can.  He is brilliant, too, and has a historic understanding and informed worldview.  I learn from that, and I think our neighbors have learned from him, and I think we can all benefit from learning from him.

This is what Russ says:

“The growth and creativity of cities have been the hallmark of civilizations throughout history.  

     Detroit was a magnet city that created its own identity and character on the world stage.  That some abandoned the city reflected a failure to commit to the great tasks of civilization.  Having divided geographies and populations is a mark of failure that I will not be part of.  I continue to see many strengths in the city that can be built on by people of goodwill and commitment.

     Detroit has contributed to the world stage in industry and the performing arts.  There is no reason that we cannot creatively contribute again.  That’s what cities are for.  Cities are what human beings make them.  All people of goodwill can make the urban community and the lives of its inhabitants more meaningful by simply making decisions to do that.

diego rivera mural
Diego Rivera Fresco depicting Detroit industrial workers at the Detroit Institute of Arts – photo by Onasill ~Bill Badzo~43M

     Multi-racial and multi-national communities offer the greatest environments for discovery, learning and social growth.  In the process, not only personal and community growth can occur but you build a better country and a better world as well.

     The Metro Detroit area is one of the most highly segregated areas in the United States.  There is much to be done…there is much experiential learning, healing and reconstruction to be done.  I consider it part of my responsibility as a human being to further this task.  The elimination of racism would dramatically improve the landscape of this region and this country — to the betterment of every citizen.”

Tearing Russ away from his mission here before he is able to give it everything he’s got would hurt him and everyone who could benefit from him.  I love and support and look up to him for his passion and abilities, and I take it upon myself as part of my social responsibility to encourage him to carry out his mission.  He has formed so many meaningful relationships in this city that he does not believe he would find elsewhere.

However, it goes both ways.  He loves and supports me and my mission as an artist as well, so I don’t feel stuck here.  That’s why we are still in Detroit and still together after 35 years of marriage.

Do you have any experiences with this city?  Do you live in Detroit?  What do you think about Detroit?    Let us know in the comments below!

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