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Saul: In central Wisconsin, thinking of Detroit (column)

The news is bad from the Motor City. But I just miss my old hometown.

2:54 PM, Aug. 16, 2013  |  Comments
Jenna Saul of Marshfield grew up outside Detroit in a General Motors family. This 1973 photo shows her at 2 years old playing with the family Chevrolet in the background. Watching Detroit's deterioration has been an emotional experience, Saul writes.
Jenna Saul of Marshfield grew up outside Detroit in a General Motors family. This 1973 photo shows her at 2 years old playing with the family Chevrolet in the background. Watching Detroit's deterioration has been an emotional experience, Saul writes.
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Last summer, I drove my family through Detroit to visit Greenfield Village, the museum complex that was a favorite place for school field trips when I was growing up in the city's suburbs. It was obvious that no one was maintaining the roads or the grass and weeds beside them. Garbage was blowing around. Entire city blocks were boarded up, burned out, demolished.

One of the foreclosed-upon homes there belonged to my brother and his new family. He'd purchased the home with a balloon mortgage and couldn't refinance after the house dramatically depreciated.

In some ways, the destruction and deterioration of Detroit would have been easier to comprehend if it had been caused by a sudden disaster, a hurricane, a tornado, perhaps.

It wasn't. Detroit has been running on fumes since the '80s, and its decline was partly self-inflicted. Nevertheless, I have mourned the loss of the Motor City while following the news from my new home in central Wisconsin.

Memories of the city

I grew up in a Detroit suburb, Canton, in a General Motors family. My grandfather and father worked for GM. I was born in 1971, and Detroit still had a reputation as a dangerous, volatile city, an aftereffect of the 1967 riots.

But I've always been proud to be from the Motor City. I still own the shirt they gave to kids at the Livonia Spring & Bumper picnic that reads "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie & Chevrolet." I remember sitting at Buff Whelan Chevrolet to buy our new car - a Vega - and eating a bright blue sucker, shaped just like the Chevy logo.

I remember taking pictures at Hudson's on Woodward in 1982, in anticipation of the flagship's closure. My aunt worked at AM General until it was sold in 1985. My family made fewer and fewer trips to downtown Detroit, but there were always great things to see and do there; the architecture of the old Maritime Church, the Detroit Science Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was at the DIA that Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals revealed to me that I can enjoy and understand history through the arts.

I was a bit of a punk rocker in adolescence, and I have great memories of seeing Big Black at the Graystone on Michigan Avenue, Husker Du and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at St. Andrews Hall and other bands at the Shelter - one of the first stages Eminem performed on, though I never saw him. These venues are abandoned buildings today.

Throughout my childhood, if we traveled, I watched strangers stare at us with eyes like saucers when we identified Detroit as our home. As a privileged white female, I never felt the racial tensions that others seemed to think I should. Perhaps my step-siblings helped because they were raised in and attended Detroit schools, and shared their friends and their school events with me. They had comfortably integrated as the white minority. In fact, when my step-brother ran for state representative, an African-American former classmate wrote that he was "white but might as well be African American because he was raised over at 7 Mile and Southfield."

Look past headlines

I left Michigan in 1997 because my postgraduate training was not in the state, and I always believed I would return. When I arrived in Wisconsin, I found people with similar values and ideas. In fact, the "Wisconsin Idea" with its values of truth, self-governance and interpersonal connectedness felt familiar. Only the fixation with football and lack of appreciation for hockey seemed foreign!

I've reconnected with two classmates who have built businesses that promise to lead Detroit into the future. Rich Rice, of Detroit By Design, has a refreshingly optimistic perspective of Detroit. "A lot of cool new things can blossom in the city," he told me, both for-profit and in social-entrepreneurial ventures, because there are such low barriers to entry in the development of new businesses.

This is actually drawing creative, innovative minds from cities like San Franciso and New York, to Detroit. Rice says "What's happening in Detroit is that people from the last generation are having a hard time wrapping their hands around the edgy new culture that's creating new opportunities in Detroit." City development, he notes, is happening through the private sector. He says there is no more exciting time to be a Detroiter, and I felt his excitement when we last spoke.

It is difficult to be away from all of this hopefulness, positivity, and energy, especially when the perspective from the news media captures only the decline and deterioration. Watching the news, it becomes easy to feel a sense of despair and loss when the purple "demolition completed" dots surrounded the homes of friends and family. It is easy to settle into thinking that Detroiters reaped what they'd sewn.

Even Maryland attorney Kevin Orr, Detroit's emergency financial manager, has denigrated Detroiters, saying that "For a long time the city was dumb, lazy, happy, and rich." (Orr has apologized.) But Detroiters have been misunderstood since the 1967 riots. And they're being misunderstood now.

Detroiters are strong-willed. There is a strong sense of identity within the city. In my youth, Detroit was a great place to be from. It was a great place to experience my adolescence. Detroit has the opportunity to be a global leader in urban redevelopment and social justice.

Why it matters to us

As much as I've felt frustration with Detroiters for refusing to make changes, the city's troubles today could be ours tomorrow. Detroit was among the first victims of a shift in manufacturing and production in the global economy. Are we any safer in Wisconsin? Detroit's residents had their self-governance seized by the state. Our self-governance is equally threatened. Our Wisconsin leadership has lost the vision of the "Wisconsin Idea." Pivotally important decisions that will affect our schools, our finances, our social well-being and our individual rights are being made quickly, without debate or deliberation. Wisconsin families are struggling financially, with an increased number in poverty.

We cannot criticize Detroiters if we do not learn from their history, reflect upon ourselves and explore innovative ways to adapt and change.

Part of me longs to return to Detroit to be a part of the deep challenges and potentially exciting transformations taking place there. For now, my roots are firmly planted on a ranch in central Wisconsin, where I can advocate for positive changes here.

Someday I will take my children to Detroit to tell them its story, even the parts that are unwritten today. For now, I'm just going to go drink a Vernor's, the best ginger ale in the world. It's made in Detroit.

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

Retrieving results.
Watching practice is fine.(Your vote)
15%
576 votes
I'd rather watch a scrimmage.(Your vote)
23%
856 votes
I don't want to pay to watch practice.(Your vote)
27%
1018 votes
It doesn't matter to me.(Your vote)
34%
1272 votes

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