My mum and her two siblings came of age in Detroit in the late fifties. I grew up listening to stories about how my aunt sat in the back of her math class with Diana Ross and how my mum spent her childhood in the city’s museums and libraries.
I’ve only been to Detroit once and I was five, so my own memories of it are slight. But for all that I feel like it’s in my bones and my blood anyway. When your family holds fast to certain identities it’s pretty much impossible to distance yourself from them. And from Detroit I’ve never wanted to. The pride my family takes in being from Detroit is something that’s stuck with me.
My grandad was a stoic, silent Finn who worked as a welder on the factory floor of the Ford Motor Car company from his twenties until he retired, so my family absolutely depended on Ford, on the automobile, on the manufacturing base of this country. So for me it’s personal, the loss of American manufacturing. And I can’t help but see Detroit like a canary in a coal mine, a bit of a bellwether or a tidings of things to come if we don’t collectively get our heads out of our asses. What’s happened to Detroit could happen anywhere.
And it’s a loss. Make no mistake. The way my mum describes getting on a bus and traveling to the city center for art classes every week from the time she was ten has always had a hold on me. The way she talks about those museums and libraries – it’s the way some people talk about church. Those places were havens for her, beautiful, graciously appointed public spaces that expanded her understanding of the world and her place in it. Places that grounded in her a firm sense of the importance of public space, of education, and of art and beauty in one’s surroundings.
So tonight, while watching the Detroit episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown my eye caught on the image above more than anything else in the show. I snapped it somewhere in the middle, during a series of shots of the abandoned buildings in the city. It seems like a room my mum could have spent time in as a child, from the ornately tiled fireplace to the beautiful framing of the windows. My heart caught in my throat and tears sprang to my eyes.
Of course I know about the deserted buildings in Detroit, the abandoned Packard plant, the grass growing on the 72 city parks that have been closed, but somehow, magically, the spaces in my mum’s stories hadn’t been touched, hadn’t been deserted, the books left behind, as if the occupants were just in too much of a rush.
Ruin Porn, Bourdain says at one point. He says native Detroiters can’t stand the way people come there just to take photo’s of the photogenic decay. Who can blame them? But I’m glad his videographer snapped that one. This shot made the story of this American city more real to me than any other ever could. How could we abandon this city? How could we leave the people there?
This show is amazing, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Bourdain, with his patented passion for story and people and food really captures a powerful sense of Detroit today. He isn’t optimistic about the city’s chances, either. He asks at one point, “is Detroit going to turn things around?” Only to answer, “I could lie and tell you yes, but you know what? This city’s screwed. Only place I’ve ever been that looks anything like Detroit does now? Chernobyl. I’m not being funny. That’s the truth.”
But I’m not sure I agree with him. I’m not sure I can. Detroit runs in my blood, after all. My impression is that Detroit is peopled by stubbornness, tenaciousness, and, well, sisu, which is a Finnish word for a way of being that can not be broken by adversity, only sharpened. So when I think of Detroit I think of that and I’m inspired by it.