Detroit, a love song


Tell people you live in New York City, and they ask which neighborhood. Tell them you lived in Rome, and they ask how you could ever leave.

Tell them that you lived in Detroit, and they ask, “Why?”

They offer condolences. They wonder how quickly you fled. Maybe that’s especially true in my case, because Detroit stands out among the cities I’ve called home over my post-college years: New York, Rome, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. One of these things is not like the others. One isn’t a beacon and magnet, a synonym for exciting, lucrative or at least balmy times.

That’s exactly what I loved about Detroit. And I did love Detroit, not in an electric way but in the way you love something honest and unforced, the way you love someone who doesn’t wear any masks or makeup and doesn’t insist that you do.

I was there in the early 1990s, and Detroit wasn’t in straits quite as dire as it entered this month, when it became the most populous American city ever to declare bankruptcy. But it was pocked with abandoned houses, riddled with crime, rife with trouble. There was no longer a proper department store within the city limits. There were only a handful of first-run movie theaters.

The city’s plight was best summarized by a pitiful slogan its boosters put on bumper stickers and the like: “Say Nice Things About Detroit.” As if positive thinking - and positive talking - could save the day.

There is one nice thing in particular I want to say about Detroit, by which I mean not just the city but the broader metropolitan area, including Dearborn to the west, Oakland County to the north and, to the east, the Grosse Pointes, where I lived for two years after three in downtown Detroit. Bereft of vanity, Detroit is bereft, too, of pose and pretense. The people there don’t tether their identities to the luster or mythology of their surroundings. Their self-image isn’t tied to their ZIP codes.

That’s undoubtedly true of many, if not most, American cities, of Cleveland and St. Louis and probably Omaha and maybe Houston.

But if you inhabit the gilded precincts favored by those of us who fancy ourselves power brokers or opinion makers or players of one kind or another, it’s a remarkable thing — and a welcome one.

The political operative in Washington, the financial whiz or magazine editor in New York, the studio executive in Los Angeles, the Internet impresario in Seattle or San Francisco: all are creatures not just of a profession but of a profession that blooms and struts in a given self-regarding place. Many have egos nourished by that terrain, which feeds a hyperawareness of status, a persistent jockeying for position.

And the denizens of cities with inimitable landscapes, nonpareil party scenes or idiosyncratic political sensibilities often bask in that geographic glow, the pride of the Miamian or the Portlander sometimes bleeding into smugness.

I encountered little smugness in Detroit. Sure, there were people who talked boastfully about buying a house in Grosse Pointe Farms rather than Grosse Pointe Park. There were people invested in the cars they drove. This was the Motor City, after all.

But Detroiters didn’t dash as madly to the hot new restaurant. They didn’t chatter as preciously about their preferred summer weekend destination. And that wasn’t just about limited means. It was about different, more down-to-earth priorities.

They lived in the Detroit area not because it puffed them up but because it made sense. Maybe they had family there. Maybe they had other deep roots.

Maybe the Detroit area was where they’d found the best career opportunity at a key moment, and then they went on to build a life around it. That’s what drew me to Detroit: a better job than the one I had in New York.

An even better one than that lured me back east, and I returned with mixed feelings, because while Detroit doesn’t have mountains or an ocean or streets with much of a pulse, it has a terrific farmers’ market in the city center. My friends and I bought our basil there and made fresh pesto for backyard barbecues.

Detroit has an arts institute with a first-rate film series that residents, not taking art-house fare for granted, relish. It has a 985-acre public park that, while needing more faithful upkeep, is situated majestically in the middle of a blue river. When I’d run there, I’d sometimes have the path to myself.

And the Detroit area has no paucity of smart, decent people. Most of the ones I was lucky enough to befriend remain there. They’d like better restaurants and music and theater and all of it, and they root for the city’s resurrection.

But that’s not because they want bragging rights. They long ago made peace with Detroit’s absence of flamboyant beauty, its shortfall of romance. Home isn’t about such shimmer. Their home, at least.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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