By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published April 13, 2015
On the first day of English Prof. Jeremiah Chamberlin’s Rust Belt Narratives class, we brainstormed ideas that we felt were representative of Rust Belt cities like Detroit.
“Blight,” someone said. “Industry.” “Factories.” “Economic downfall.” “Choice.” “Hope.”
Then someone raised a hand and said, “The Rust Belt narrative is a discourse of those who stay versus those who go.”
Those who stay versus those who go.
As a senior about to graduate in May, I have thought about that notion over and over again, tumbling the idea in my head like it a stone I’m determined to polish. Do I move to Detroit and remain in Michigan, or do I leave to pursue opportunity elsewhere? If I leave, am I a total hack for spending half my college career preaching about the great rising of the city down the road?
I ask myself these questions every day, especially on days when I’m reporting. I sit down and chat with passionate business owners, exuberant artists, witty writers, and their love for the city drips off of their words. In Detroit, Tyree Guyton works away at his inextinguishable Heidelberg project, while a University of Michigan student sits in a small desk at Woodbridge Community center, teaching an elementary schooler ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on the cello. A group of writers gives houses to other writers, and in one 90-year-old’s backyard, he’s built a towering structure of found objects that he lovingly refers to as “Disneyland.” A docent at the Motown Museum gives her best rendition of Diana Ross, and a photographer snaps photos of a city he’s captured for more than 80 years.
At the end of the day, I drive my car down Woodward Avenue and watch the skyline shrink in the rearview mirror.
My grandmother was born in Detroit on February 5, 1928, and she grew up on Longfellow Avenue in Boston Edison. My grandfather grew up a few blocks away in Highland Park. They were from two utterly different worlds: she was the daughter of a wealthy business owner, and he the son of an autoworker. I imagine them sneaking out of their houses at night and rendezvousing in Voigt park, laying in the grass and talking about their future together — a future that would eventually lead to me. I drive by her house and think about what she must have looked like in her 20s, skipping up the walk in a striped ’50s dress that she’s wearing in the photos I have tacked to my wall, the Cadillac she’s leaning against parked in the drive.
My grandmother died on Sept. 7, 2011 while walking the Detroit River Walk with my grandpa. It was a beautiful day, and she was happy until the moment she got a headache, sat down and had a stroke. She was brain dead within a minute, closing her eyes after one last look at the river and the city she loved. A silver bench near the carousel has her name on it now.
The day I found out I’d be moving to Washington D.C., I visited her. I sat on the bench next to the plaque inscribed with the name we share and I told her I’d be going, and I didn’t know when I’d be coming back. I will come back, I said aloud. To her, to the skyline, to the Renaissance Center that was casting me in shadow as the sun set. I will come back.
“If you’re so good, then why are you still here?”
That’s the Rust Belt question. Businesses close with signs that read “No Opportunity Here” and we graduate with the idea that leaving the state signifies “making it.” A story published in The New York Times shows the percent change in young people over more than a decade, by city. At the very bottom is Detroit with ten percent less young people over time. People are leaving, the great migration in rapid reverse. I am contributing to that percentage.
Yet, when I go to Detroit, that’s not the reality I see. I see people opening businesses instead of closing them, people turning ruin into creation, rebuilding, rising. I see the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1805, a city of people who fought to put the fire out and use the last ember to spark ideas for the future. We hope for better things. It shall arise from the ashes.
But I won’t be around to see it rise. I won’t be around to see it contribute to the upward mobility of a city that a Google search brings up terms like “slums” and “abandoned.” Most of us won’t be. We’ll come back to a bustling metropolis in 10 or 20 years and be able to muse to one another about the “Detroit we once knew” or the “way things used to be.” Old abandoned factories will be expensive flats and the city will be layered with remnants of its boom in the ’20s, buried under the rubble of the early 2000s, polished and presented in the future as a kind of urban renewal. This palimpsest will become such a salient part of Detroit that it will be a selling point – an entire city that serves as an interactive museum of layered artifacts around every corner.
There is value in leaving, in seeing the rest of the world outside of the Rust Belt and exploring opportunities that may not be attainable here. There is value in gathering this experience and then making the active choice to return to the city instead of passively staying. The Rust Belt has taught us the value of determination and tenacity that easier places may not have cultivated in its people. This tenacity will carry us to pursue great opportunity elsewhere, but this tenacity will lead us back to where we began.
The Rust Belt narrative may be a discourse of those who stay versus those who go, but there are also those who return. We can leave and come back better than before. If anything, that’s the Rust Belt narrative: it’s the story of the comeback.