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.