The Spirit of Detroit
I have to first start out by saying that I’ve been writing this post for about a month now. It was extremely important to me that this particular post turn out JUST RIGHT, because it really does mean that much to me. Most of you also know my inherent ability to be extremely hard on myself to the point where I doubt this post will live up to my own expectations for what I had planned, but here goes. My only hope is that you enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Not too long ago, I was asked why I always post stories and videos about Detroit on my Facebook page. I think the most obvious of the many reasons I do is the fact that I, along with my entire extended family, was born and raised in the city and a majority of them still live in the area. And while I’ve lived in Chicago for almost nine and a half years now, I still like to keep up on what’s going on at “home.”
Both of my parents, as well as all of my aunts and uncles were born and raised in the City of Detroit. East side. The Wolfer’s in the “house on Runyon” and the Lehman’s in “the house on Rochelle.” I, too, spent the first year and a half of my own life in the house on Runyon; the house on Rochelle, I’ve heard, is no longer standing. Both were blue collar families. My Grandpa Wolfer, as many of you know, drove a Wonder Bread truck, while my Grandma worked as a nurse’s aid at Holy Cross Hospital, where my brothers and I were all born. Until the day she died, my Grandma would constantly be telling me stories of how the nurses at the hospital would always ask, “How’s Autumn?” remembering me as “Mary’s granddaughter” because of my unique name. Caring like a second family. My Grandpa Wally (Lehman) worked for the city, servicing the city’s landscapes and trees on its streets and in its parks, while my Grandma Rosie worked at home, raising their five children – all of them products of Detroit Public Schools.
And it wasn’t just my “family.” I’ve watched several home videos of my parents growing up – playing with the neighbor kids, learning to ride bikes on Runyon and Rochelle. Stories from my father about his childhood friend – known to me as “Uncle Jimmy” – and the mischief they caused. Family names like the Kuhn’s, the Armstrong’s, the Finkbeiner’s, and the Tarte’s – I can’t remember faces, but know from stories that all of these “names” made up a big part of my parent’s extended families.
Their Detroit family. A family that shocked even my father this past February at my grandmother’s funeral, when news literally spread like wildfire of her passing. Deciding to have only one viewing day, since we didn’t think many people would come, when instead they came in droves. All the “kids” from the old neighborhood coming to say goodbye to “Mrs. Wolfer,” some even crying as if it were their own mother’s passing despite the fact, to quote my father, “I haven’t seen him since we were kids.” While no longer in touch, that spirit of family, of their times growing up in Detroit, was still alive. And to quote one of my favorite authors, also a Detroiter, Mitch Albom, in one of my favorite articles that he’s ever written, it was a reminder that it was “Family. We’re all in this together.”
And THAT is the Spirit of Detroit.
A couple of weeks ago, Time Magazine dedicated a series of stories to the City of Detroit. The cover of which contained the headline, “The Tragedy of Detroit” complete with an online photo show blasting the title, “The Remains of Detroit.” A dead city. A calamity. The heart of the city: broken. And while the articles painted a picture of despair, of the physical destructions of the city, what they also spoke to is what I know will 100% make this great city even greater once again – the heart of its people. The pride. The “spirit.” It’s unfounded. I can’t explain it. While it’s been well over a decade since the last time I lived full-time in the Detroit metropolitan area, I felt it last April when I saw all my friends posting pictures of their trips downtown to cheer on the Spartans during the Final Four. Vibrance. I felt it again, when my brother, who has been unemployed, like a lot of people in Detroit and Michigan for quite sometime now, was accepted into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – Detroit. Elation. I felt it again recently while watching a video of the remains of old Tiger’s Stadium being demolished. Memories. Progress. And most recently, I felt that spirit again, alone in my own apartment, while watching the Tigers lose to the Minnesota Twins in one of the most adrenalin-filled, heartbreaking losses I’ve ever witnessed. Intensity. Only proving that although you can take the girl out of Detroit, you can never take the Detroit out of the girl – it is a part of me. It lives inside of me. So much so, that to echo what I said in the first paragraph about this post not living up to my own expectations, I simply cannot find the words to express it. It’s a strength, a courage, and sorry for reusing this word so many times, but a spirit that cannot be mimicked.
Detroit IS and always has been a great and special city. We’re a little down on our luck right now, but the foundation is still there. A foundation that my Grandpa Wally planted its parks and on its streets, a foundation that’s built on strength and perseverance. Knock us down? Not a chance.
And one thing is for sure: As many articles as I read written by “visitors” to Detroit that call the city “dead” or “dying.” As many news stories that I hear about unemployment rates, or the numbers of foreclosed and vacant homes and businesses I see when I return. One thing is constant – that spirit. The pride for a “dying” city. That sense of we really are all in this together. Fighting, crying, hoping, and working… together. I still feel it – and I haven’t lived, full time, near Detroit since I was in my teens. It’s alive in streets named Gratiot, Woodward, 8 Mile and Trumbull. It’s alive through names like Tiger Stadium, Joe Louis, the People Mover, Trapper’s Alley and Greektown, some replaced now by the bright lights of the casinos, Comerica Park and Ford Field – lights that I’m proud to say were wired an installed by my Uncle Dale and his brothers from the IBEW at Motor City Electric – the same union that my own brother now belongs to, and the same company my brother now works for.
So, you see. The Spirit of Detroit is far more than just a statue on Woodward Avenue. The true Spirit of Detroit is in the hearts of all those the city has touched, and who have been touched by the city. My grandfathers and their fathers, my parents, and their siblings and mine. And someday my children and grandchildren. I’m not going to pretend that I know where life is going to take me. Whether I stay in Chicago, or one day move back “home.” But I do know that regardless of my permanent address, I will take my children to Comerica Park and Ford Field. To Belle Isle and for “rides” on the People Mover. They’ll wear Honolulu Blue and Silver, and hats with an Olde English D. And they’ll learn that the only thing that matters in life is heart and spirit. And it’s because of this, that I truly believe the pulse that beats through the empty, but not forgotten streets of Detroit, will be “alive” once again.
All my love forever to the D!