I was a newborn. Outside the house, the first one my parents had ever owned, sat the white stork: “Welcome home, David!” The door was freshly painted bright red, the grass just starting to become its impeccable green that early May. Down the street, on the corner of Mack Avenue, was the local grocery store, the Village Market, alongside a doctor’s office and a bank. This block of neatly lined houses was my whole world as a young child. A world that included little more than the arms of my mother I rested in, the yard I crawled in and the street I played on. My world was flat, and across that corner at the end of the street was the edge of the map.
I was seven. I had the new freedom of a bike and more energy than my mom could put up with inside my house, so I discharged it by pedaling around. I rode to friends’ houses, to the park, to baseball games. If my wheels could carry me there, I went there. Everywhere, that is, except across Mack. When I hit Mack or Alter Drive, I reached the end of my ride in that current direction. I had reached the edge of the map.
This was no rule anyone told me. No signs were posted. You hit Mack or Alter and you turn left or you turn right. There was no straight.
These streets are the border of my bubble of a town and Detroit. This is where the suburb meets the city. Where the neat rows of houses and lawns give way to a neighborhood of blocks with abandoned homes, overgrown grass and charred wood left behind from a structure gone up in flames, neglected roads that haven’t been repaved in years. This is not the downtown Detroit of renaissance and revival; this is the rawness of the outskirts, the realness of the desolation, the reality of the economic and racial divide that relegated the city into ceaseless recession. If you go straight through those border streets into the city, you risk popping the bubble.
I was 13. I wore a basketball uniform emblazoned with a falcon on it, the mascot of my parish. Our church was on Mack Avenue, my team a mix of kids from either side of that street. I had grown up in a completely homogenous school on my side of street, and here I was on my first team that didn’t fit this uniform lack of diversity I knew. The thought never crossed my mind; the new uniform was the one we wore. The team won every game that season.
I was 16. It was a cold December Saturday morning, trunk of the car loaded up with bags of gifts piled all the way to the roof. We stopped at the light on Mack and drove through. We stopped at houses with porch steps crumbled in disrepair, houses neighboring boarded-up properties and at doors with iron bars across them. We walked into homes with the gifts and bags of food; homes with families and children who decorated their houses for the holidays the best they could, ecstatic, cheerful and thankful. I had left the bubble to go over to where I once would never venture and found that the human spirit is identical in the most opposite of places and situations.
It’s easy to see the border as a statistic of inequality, as a line of socioeconomic divide, as a contrast of black and white and of different hues of lifestyles. Long and complicated history has created these invisible walls. The same history has caused us to forget that the other side is filled with the same human emotions, the same lives and the same desires, only transformed across a couple of streets. The suburb forgets that the people merely across the street deserve the same good education, the same safe streets and the same privileges because they are people. The difference of socioeconomic status and tax revenue is merely the result of the systematic societal inequality that is evident all around, sometimes blocks away.
I’m now 20. Some things move forward, like the gorgeous, brand new baseball field built where cracked and abandoned tennis courts once decayed a mere two blocks from the border. Others hinder any progress: a fatal shooting a block north of the new field, and another shooting merely a week earlier of four kids from across the border, right before Christmas; one lost her life. There are problems that cannot be fixed with simple solutions. The border remains dangerous, a stark juxtaposition and symbol of a world riddled with inequity, the bubble suburb trying to escape from this reality for years until it realizes that the bubble it subsists in is only figurative.
I was lucky to be encouraged to explore, to learn that there is no graffiti-filled concrete wall between the cities that must come down. Instead there exist walls of a different kind, walls that society has built up for years; we sometimes fail to notice they exist. These walls, too, must be torn down.
David Harris can be reached at email@example.com.