Detroit.

IMG_6557-0

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. To the casual observer it probably represents nothing more than a baseball team. However, it represents so much more than that to me. It is not just there to support the most beloved yet oft-criticized team in town. No, the Tigers are not really why it is on my window at all.

Instead it is there to represent, promote, and enlighten people about the most misunderstood, stereotyped, and disrespected city in America. It is there to tell a story about a city with a checkered past and a vibrant future. A story about decline and decay, but also about revitalization and renaissance. It speaks about race riots and the breaking down of racial barriers. Telling the story of a city falling to pieces, people being knocked to their knees, and somehow finding the courage to look past their differences and give each other a hand up and not hand out. It speaks for those who are choosing to help each other pick up the pieces and put them back together in such a manner that not even the most turbulent of times nor destructive of forces could ever tear them asunder again. It represents Detroit.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. If you look close enough it bears the destructive burden of the rays from the sun, the decay of an onslaught of salt, the beating of a hard rain, and the tattered edges left by the wind that flows violently over it. It bears scars like the city it represents, the once and forever proud city of Detroit.

Beaten down and diminished from its once pristine condition, it remains unmoved by the currents and elements that envelope it. I could purchase a new decal if I wanted, but why would I? It represents Detroit, not as how we hope to see it, or how it once was, but as it is today: diminished but not destroyed, faded but forever, raw, real, and resilient.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. It tells the history of my family and that of many other immigrant families that set out from distant shores in hopes of a better future and landed in Detroit. It represents my ancestors who immigrated from Poland generations ago and contributed to the greater good in a city still experiencing growing pains and surviving a great depression.

It tells the story of later generations of immigrants who arrived filled with hopes of raising children in a bustling, vibrant city with a bright future. The same immigrants who ended up dealing with the horrifying specter of another world war that would ultimately claim many of their own children. They carried forth, like Detroit, with their hopes and dreams nonetheless. Deferred but still in sight, a better life for their children in a city who’s only limits at the time were its borders.

It tells the story of my grandfathers who went off to war as boys and returned as heroes and men bearing mental burdens too heartbreaking to discuss. The burdens of the battlefield would always be there for those veterans. Often found in their quiet moments, sometimes represented by a solitary tear that had escaped their steely facades.

It tells the story of the grandmothers of my own generation who worked in Detroit’s wartime factories once filled by their now absent husbands.  How they spent their days producing the instruments of war and how at night they held together families and society while their husbands were off in distant unknown lands sacrificing their lives for the better of humanity. The same women who, when their husbands returned, would once again be marginalized as mothers and home makers and not the heroes they truly were.

It tells the story of my parent’s generation, born when the greatest generation had returned and restarted their lives, carrying forth the dreams of their mothers and fathers in a city built for dreamers and the future. How they would come of age in what had become known as the Motor City. A city that was the leader of early-to-mid-20th century American innovation and leading its own industrial revolution that would forever change the way products were produced for the masses around the world. It speaks to how that generation would go on to build vehicles in their own city that would be driven in every corner of this Earth, on roads near and far, dirt from the start but forever paved after Woodward.

Detroiters were different than the rest of their generation though. Bound together by their shared and varied immigrant origins, they were a collection of hard working, blue collared men and women who shared more in common with their neighboring immigrant families of different origins than they did than with Americans elsewhere raised. The stories of their families were unique but when united they formed one massive patchwork of Detroiters cut from a different cloth than the rest. They were proud of their city, proud of being from Detroit.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. It represents the decline and decay of that once proud city. A city stripped of its greatness, ravaged by archaic policies, corrupt politicians, social injustice, and the lack of legitimate leadership and problem solvers able to fix the issues. It speaks for a city that because of its openness and past promise attracted more people than it could adequately support. A city that was structured in such a way that it was unable to sufficiently expand to accommodate new residents, thus limiting opportunity for all of those who arrived seeking it.

Archaic policies, written and unwritten, often times further limited the opportunities of those who needed them most. Unwritten laws were even more damaging than those found in ink on paper.  Being de facto instead of de jure, they diminished the ability of the public to elicit change and dampened the hopes of the marginalized. It left citizens barely grasping at the fringes of what they previously saw as vast opportunity and endless upside. Exacerbated by government that was corrupt and unresponsive, the problems devolved into unsolvable puzzles. Such was the case of Detroit in the late 1960s when it exploded into rioting and violence in the summer of 1967.

There is an Olde English D in the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. It represents a city that reached a breaking point and could take no more, torn at the seams, collapsing under its own weight, it shattered and cascaded towards disaster. There is a vicious cycle to the bottom. It moves much swifter and more relentlessly than to the top, fed not by gravity but by fear and a loss of hope. Bringing with it an overwhelming feeling that what has been lost cannot be regained and that the best you can do is survive the decline until it hits bottom. Detroit experienced that decline for the next few decades. Politicians came, politicians went, many of whom were good intentioned but unable to induce change.

Others came and seen opportunity for themselves, exploited the city for their own benefit, and left its finances and reputation tattered and in ruins. After the riots, white flight occurred and the majority of Detroit’s white citizens who could leave did, heading for the suburbs and something more promising. White flight in turn produced urban blight. Minorities were left in a forgotten city. The city was stripped of half of the people who had for so long helped hold it together with them. Property values collapsed, tax revenues decreased, school funding in turn collapsed and left a generation of children forgotten and abandoned.

When legitimate opportunity and functioning government does not exist, people find alternate means to get by. Crime increased, communities dissolved, and people turned inward. The pride that once held the city together dissolved into destitution. Detroit was stripped of everything and the opportunity it once promised. A once bustling downtown turned desolate, full city blocks became burnt out houses, abandoned cars, and trash lined streets. Schools were shuttered, public services evaporated, parks closed, and businesses left quicker than unemployment forms could be filled out.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. From a distance, when the light hits it at just the right angle, it still shines as if nothing ever happened. As if the sun and salt, water and wind, never touched it. It has stood resolute in the face of all the headwinds and currents it has endured. Wavering and worn at points but still capable of shining should the conditions be just right. It remains, representing what it always has: a city that will not be forgotten, that will always carry on, no matter how broken or beaten, no matter how disrespected and disparaged by national media and those who do not really know the city.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. It represents the life that comes to the faces of the Baby Boomers who grew up in Detroit whenever a story about the revitalization of the city is mentioned. The joy in their voice when they talk about a childhood spent in a city that was so full of hope, opportunity, and freedom that it feels like a distant dream or fantasy to most today. Any talk of such a Detroit until recently would have been met with such cynicism and doubt that even the most ardent supporters of Detroit might have been left feeling defeated.

Things are changing though and today there is a genuine belief in a positive future for Detroit. The type of belief that not just a couple of new stadiums or casinos can ever produce, for they do very little for the actual citizens who live there. It is the kind of hope that a new park in a neighborhood brings. The type of hope that a grant for school improvements provides the citizens of a community. It is the hope that new citizens bring with them. The type of hope that a new grocery store or restaurant incites in the inhabitants of a neighborhood.

It is that exact type of hope that provides energy to a vast and diverse collection of people, some former residents, some folks who are not even U.S. citizens, but all of whom believe in the revitalization of a city once forgotten. A group of people who are tired of the cynicism and doubt, the talk about decline and crime and how it is just too big of a project to tackle. They are the people tackling it and things are changing. There is hope, tangible hope again.  Hope not just for a beautiful downtown but for a new midtown as well and beyond. Communities are being cleaned up, buildings are being torn down or repurposed. Pride is returning to the streets and neighborhoods of Detroit.

It is black, it is white, it is American and foreign, it is big and small. It is the smile of a child growing up in the inner city who feels hope for the first time. It is the life on the faces of former residents, the light in their eyes, the pride in their voices when someone mentions the renaissance occurring in Detroit. It is what no one outside of Detroit wants to acknowledge or believe, but make no mistake, it is happening.

There is an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze. It represents everything I love about Detroit and so much of who I am. It is the reason why I became so infuriated after sitting at the airport recently and listening to a conversation between two uninformed individuals about the “epic and irreversible” collapse of Detroit that I spent the majority of that day writing this lengthy and very personal article on my iPhone to let everyone know that I do not just have an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze to support my favorite sports team. It is not really even about them, it is about Detroit.

I may not have grown up in Detroit, I cannot technically claim it as my home, but I am beyond tired of hearing about its demise from uninformed people who do not care and are unwilling to contribute to its renaissance. Its the reason why every time someone asks me where I am from I say Metro Detroit. I want them to know that Detroit is a part of who I am. That I love that city, that I will never have more hope for another city to comeback and be successful. I want them to know that I am tired of their cynicism and will no longer allow it to be dismissed as a city of the past.

Outsiders do not know, they simply do not understand, they do not want to make the effort. It is easy to put people, things, and cities in a box. To stereotype them as violent, or desperate, or broken, or flawed, or hopeless. It is a lot more difficult to show people those stereotypes are inaccurate, that what they thought was the truth is actually erroneous.

Detroit is not a perfect city, but then again those do not exist, they never have. Every city has its own issues. Some cities have fallen farther from grace than others. The only thing that means however is that their comeback can be that much more impressive. Detroit and its people are getting back up, they are dusting themselves off, and beginning anew the work of rebuilding a great city. I have an Olde English D on the rear window of my Chevrolet Cruze and now you know why.

Looking back and moving forward.

Seven years ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Washington, D.C. and do an internship in the United States Senate. It was the most eye opening, humbling, exciting, and surreal experience I have had in my life. To work in the halls of Congress and brush elbows and ride trams with some of America’s most powerful lawmakers was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I lived five blocks from the White House and State Department, even closer to the the Watergate complex (yes that one) and just down the road from the Naval Observatory where the Vice President lives. I walked more miles around that city than I could ever recall. With every step I absorbed every ounce of history I could. The city energized me and I didn’t want to miss anything.

The buzz inside the Beltway at that time, being six months before the presidential election, was beyond comprehension. Everywhere you went you could feel the energy. Everyone was talking about it, no one could escape it, not even in your room at night could the vibe not be felt. I was there, in the middle of it all, living what felt like a dream. In some ways it was a dream. It was more than I could have ever hoped for.

In retrospect, I was nothing more than a kid who wrote a couple essays that must have been just good enough to be selected, but at the time I felt like I was part of something bigger, something important. Yes, I was just one of hundreds of interns who walk the halls of Congress each year, but for me it meant everything. I didn’t get there through connections (as I found out most of the interns did), I got there through merit and hard work.

One of the other interns (Josh Zimberg who I struck up an effortless friendship with) and I wrote a floor statement that was entered in the Congressional Record. It was in some ways, a validation of all of the hard work I had put into school and myself throughout my life. I felt that I had made it.

My time working in D.C. would come to pass faster than I realized or hoped though. A couple months after arriving it was time to head home. I remember my last day there, driving up Pennsylvania Avenue with the United States Capitol in my rear-view mirror thinking, no not thinking but truly believing, that I would be back sooner than later. What I failed to realize at the time was that the future prospects for almost every single person in my generation were about to get completely decimated.

The economic slowdown that started in early 2008, became a complete collapse by October and the ensuing recession that continued on for years changed all of our paths. It diminished our hopes, caused us to scale back our dreams, or at a minimum delay them until a date later to be determined. The recession hit like a brick. I had never felt such a loss of hope across literally everyone I knew before. Not even when 9/11 occurred did I feel that the future had slipped away. As much as 9/11 emboldened Americans, the financial collapse disheartened everyone even more. Growing up my dad always told me, “There’s always hope boy”. Hope, although never completely lost, became an endangered species.

In the month before I graduated from Grand Valley the United States economy lost over 800,000 jobs. 800,000 jobs in 31 days, that’s not a typo. That’s more people than the entire population of Detroit. You could fill the Big House in Ann Arbor 8 times and you would barely have the amount of people who lost their jobs in March 2009.

The economy would end up losing over 8,700,000 jobs across 2008-2009. If you took all of those who lost their jobs in those two years and put them in one state, it would have been the 11th most populous state in the country at that time. The unemployment rate literally doubled from 5% in January 2008 to 10% in October 2009. Our future disappeared before we even had a chance to start it.

The weather was stormy the day of graduation. Half of those graduating had completely saturated gowns. Looking back, the weather on that day was a perfect metaphor for the years ahead. It was surreal sitting at graduation listening to the speaker tell us that, “Even though times are tough you’ll find your way”. That was about as optimistic as things got in the entire speech. We’ll find our way, great, how up lifting I thought. A lot of us still haven’t found our way. It took me six months just to find a PART-time job, another fourteen months for that part-time job to become full-time. I was lucky, it took others much longer. The only reason why I did find one was because I had previously worked for the company and had a best friend convince his boss that I would be a good fit. Thank God for friends.

I had found work. It was not the work I thought I would have thinking back to that day less than a year before which now seemed like a lifetime ago when I drove away from D.C., but it was work nonetheless. As time went on it became clearer to me that whatever dreams I had of living and working in D.C., of being a public servant, of contributing to the betterment of our society, would have to be put on hold. I simply could not afford it. The financial collapse had suppressed everything, including wages. D.C. is an expensive place as it is and public service does not pay much to start.

When my loan repayments started, it became even clearer that those dreams would be pushed even further down the road. Even with a full-time job it was a struggle just to get by. My whole generation, or at least all of us who did not come from wealth, who were sold on the necessity of college, the availability of easy credit, and the flexibility of student loans are saddled with the same burden today.

I don’t regret going to college at all, not even for a moment, for I benefited in ways both big and small. I am better because I went, and even more so because I finished. However, $393 every month goes to my loans, it’s no small amount. Some of my friends pay even more. My payments would be more if not for financial assistance and Pell Grants. Once again, in a perverse way, I was lucky.

It has been almost six years since I started working with the company I work for. Six years since I officially put my dreams and aspirations on hold in the face of an economic disaster and reality. The lack of opportunities at that time led to a personally sensed loss of possibilities and so I gave in and became an adult as they say.

What I can also say is that I am so incredibly thankful for the time I have spent with my employer for it has given me opportunities and allowed me to grow in ways that I could have never envisioned. I am a better, more balanced, more confident and self-assured man today because someone took a chance on me all those years ago. It is an absolutely phenomenal company to work for that actually cares about its employees. If I spend the rest of my life working for it I’ll be fine with that. However, there’s a part of me that will always want that feeling I had back in 2008. Whether I ever pursue it is the only question.

Over the past seven years, while my hopes and dreams were suppressed, they never left me. What I did lose though was that feeling I had sitting in the basement of the Russell Senate building talking politics with the other interns. Conversations that were sometimes heated but always civil. Informed and at the same time enlightening, those conversations made me feel alive. It felt like what we did mattered. If I could have held on to the energy of those days forever I would have.

Somewhere I lost my passion for the conversations though. I even started to lose the will to express myself. I lost the driving force that took me to D.C. The things that once mattered, faded away. Maybe I became disillusioned with the discourse in our politics, or lethargic because of the state of our economy. I was never able to exactly pinpoint what happened but things started to feel stagnant.
Personally I feel more alive today than at any time since seeing the Capitol in my rear-view mirror. I guess in some ways the woman who spoke at our graduation was right. We did find our way, however meandering the path was, and now we get to decide wherever that path will lead in the future. We have taken our future back, gotten over the morass of the past 7 years, and are moving forward.
Over the past year my creativity and thirst for life and my former passions has returned. I have started to write again and express my opinions once more which has led me here, to my first blog. I know the preceding story has been lengthy, but I wanted you all to know why a blog and why now. To put something in context is essential to understanding what follows. Everything I have written in this post is in some part why this blog exists at all.

I would like to thank Britt (my sister) for suggesting I start this, who said my Facebook posts were inappropriately long and better saved for a blog. So here it is, for better or worse. In the weeks and months ahead I hope to write about topics of all sorts. I have a couple that I have started writing, but are not quite finished yet. They are coming soon I promise.

Some of you may agree with the things I write henceforth, some of you may not. My hope is that if we do not agree we can at least disagree without being disagreeable. I have my opinions, as do all of you, and I hope that in some ways this blog can be a place where we can share, debate, and better understand all points of view. The fabric of this country is woven of a more diverse thread of people with even more disparate beliefs and opinions than any other country in the world, and we are better because of that.

So here’s to rear-view mirrors, undying dreams, eternal hope, and the liberty to freely express ourselves without fear of suppression, intimidation or violence. Welcome to my blog, thank you for reading. God bless you all, and God Bless the United States of America.