“Great Lake inheritor, fit me for the crown. Hoes used to spin me, now look how they turn around.”
“Used to slang for weeks without Degree under my underarm.”
Over spring some break some Whitman students and I shipped off to Detroit for a service trip based around “urban renewal.” The story of Detroit is easy to romanticize; a great American city of a bygone age fallen to globalization and greed, subterranean currents of race risen to the surface, exodus, remnants of the past utterly devoid of vitality, like a forest of charred trees, and the apparent potential of this vacuous and fertile world in which the institutions of the past no longer hold sway. Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus is the city’s motto: “We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.” And in the spirit of the liberal arts we would challenge the dominant narrative, show our solidarity with the good people of Detroit that the energy and spirit of yesteryear might begin to cycle back, but with the accompanying baggage removed, with a vigor renewed.
I didn’t tell people at home what I would be doing. I remember over winter break I told some Seattle high school friends (a cynical bunch) that I would be going on a “service trip” to Detroit, and I was literally scoffed at. The pious self-righteousness of those former voluntourists who were set right by the grace of the Gods for whom they had once evangelized, who confessed onto the internet the sins of their paternalistic and privileged ways, has made people leery.
I listened to Eminem in preparation for the trip. We arrived in the midst of thaw; sub-zero temperatures of the week previous had warmed to a pleasant fifty-five and the sides of the highway were patched with brown slush. We rented two mini vans at the airport and I navigated the lead van from shotgun. The distant skyline appeared for a second and then went away. I put on the pop-of-the-fifties radio station – Johnny Hartman felt right – and looked out at the billboards flashing by. One, for a church, said “No perfect people welcome.” We drove by a few advertising a new flashy MGM casino downtown; even more frequent were personal injury law firm ads with some white square-jawed suit grinning and pointing at you. “We turn crash into cash!”
My favorite building we saw was the old Michigan Central train station, c. 1913, once the tallest in the world, which towers over the city in shattered and post-apocalyptic grandeur. It is currently owned by Manny Maroun, who also owns the very profitable and infamous Ambassador toll Bridge connecting Detroit to Canada, and who an employee for a non-profit we would later work for described as a “slumlord” and a “dick,” the veracity of which statement is easily confirmable by Google search.
As for the blighted houses, it is a story well told: seventy thousand of them scattered throughout the city, abandoned ten, thirty, fifty something years back, stripped for scrap, flooded basements exposed by arson, the grass of the adjacent vacant lots browned into dreary dead sterility by the recent snowfall, the asbestos in the insulation slowly seeping into the lungs of the unfortunate squatters who it has been written would live within.
The City of Detroit recently declared bankruptcy and owes something like fifty thousand dollars in debt per resident. Not much money is available to tear these houses down. Enter Blight Busters, which like so many non-profits exists in that kooky grey area between public and private, inhabiting the concrete space opened up by theoretical debates on the role of government in America.
Blight Busters is well-known around town and beyond. The women at the first non-profit we visited told us — with perhaps a hint of spite — that you can be sure any documentary which hits the city will feature them. What Blight Busters does, naturally, is bust blight, tear down the old, make space for the new.
Our task: to spread mulch on a half acre-ish lot they had just cleared. Jamie and D were our leaders. “Where are y’all from?” D asked on the walk over. I said we were from Washington. “Oh, so y’all are like, preppy?” I looked myself over in the reflection of a passing car window. I was wearing my grandpa’s old brown shoes and a very sensible grey sweatshirt. I guess in theory my roots are vaguely WASP-y, and I do on occasion let my inner metrosexual free in a seasonal trip to the Seattle H&M, where I’ll indulge in a sky blue V-neck or two and imagine for a moment that I have the fashionable earnestness of the models on the wall, but generally I stick to the Coogi t-shirts at Value Village.
The previous day we had picked up litter: condom wrappers, seat belts, brisk iced tea bottles, swisher packaging of every flavor imaginable; to a more cogitative soul the colorful and diverse petroleum-based array would have served a clarion symbol of the banal excess of our capitalist society. Mostly I just felt uncomfortable, acutely self-aware, like I was watching myself in the third person. On a certain level, picking up litter is an objective good thing. Everyone is down with picking up litter. Later in the day when, plastic garbage bags in hand, me and the rest of the Whitman squad were combing the dreary meridian of East Outer Drive, among the many passing commuters honking in support was a middle aged black dude who made eye contact with me, stuck up his fist, and then bobbed his head up and down in approval. “I feel super bad ass,” I immediately wrote in my notes.
But, the occasional spirit rousing show of swaggtastic support notwithstanding, the occasional honk did little to assuage the unease that comes with such visible and cliché do-gooding. Tacked to a tree on the meridian was a white t-shirt with a guy’s picture on it and the brief span of years his life comprised. Old candles laid about and we wondered whether we should pick them up. Every time I bent down to pick up a Burger King cup, I imagined with horror the satisfaction that each passing driver must have thought, that I, this skinny white boy from out of town, must have been deriving from what he (I) must have considered these pure acts of altruism. It was the same sensation of sheepishness as when, because for some God forsaken reason Whole Foods is the only real grocery store within miles of the church we were staying at (food deserts yo), we returned and shuffled in to the kitchen with our organic-ass produce and a dude chillin before the service observed with twangy interest to another dude that “they went to Whole Foods.” He said it with this unnerving curiosity, like we were an alien species or something.
And who could blame him? This Whole Foods, which has been ballin’ out since it opened by the way (it turns out people like it when they can feed their families from a place that isn’t the dollar store) felt absurdly out of place. Among the various healthy living magazines displayed in the checkout line was the March/April issue of Vegan Health & Fitness, whose cover featured none other than sexy Vegan punk rocker Davey Havok seated upright wearing a suit in an empty bathtub. With his left hand he fondles his ankle; with his right, he holds up a green apple in much the same way a young debonair at a cocktail party might, palm upwards, wrap his fingers underneath the bowl of a glass of merlot. “DAVEY HAVOK: YOUR FAV SEX/FIT CELEB LIVING CLEAN.” Our credit card was rejected on account of us being in Detroit and we were given the time to delve deeper. “I’m just inclined, whenever given the opportunity, to help make people aware,” said Havok in a featured quote.
So it was refreshing to be in a quieter section of the city the next day, spreading mulch with D and Jamie and the rest of the Blight Buster crew. Jamie, who was named by Buzzfeed as one of Detroit’s top-ten black leaders – an accomplishment he noted at least three times – was in charge. He and I discussed our dream houses. He focused on the man cave. It would be underground and feature a fish tank jacuzzi with a secret passageway up to a treehouse. His bedroom would have a bathroom on each side – one for him and one for his woman – and a massive wide window through which he could oversee his domain. I suggested that it would be funny if he made it his thing to press himself up against it motionless and naked for long periods of time to intimidate the neighbors. Jamie thought that was weird. He went on to describe the state-of-the-art security system he would implement. “You gotta be careful about the bathrooms,” he said, noting that bathrooms, since they are unlikely to fall under camera surveillance, are a common entry point for intruders. He also would have dogs at the ready so that he could say, “Release the hounds!” like Mr. Burns. I asked him where this house would be located and he said if he had money he’d get out of here, go to the burbs.
With D, who was nineteen – around my age – our conversation was largely characterized by the chip on my shoulder carved out by his ‘preppy’ comment. I began by exaggerating my interest in Danny Brown, a product of Detroit who I do legitimately think is great, but whom I listen to only because my generally mediocre music taste is buoyed on the coattails of my more musically engaged and refined friends. I figured a Danny Brown mention would serve duel purposes: it would illustrate that I wasn’t just some prissy white boy who only listened to “Head and the Heart,” and it would also bridge some enthusiastic common cultural ground between D and I. “Who is Danny Brown?” he asked.
I asked him how the fuck, as a hip-hop fan who lives in Detroit, he’s never heard of Danny Brown, and he responded that if he hadn’t heard of Danny Brown, it had to be because Danny Brown did not sufficiently rep Detroit. D said he was all about Team Eastside. They rep Detroit. I said that was stupid. D hollered to Jamie, who had heard vaguely of Danny Brown but didn’t have thoughts on him, and a pudgy fifteen-year-old employee named Justin, who was unfamiliar. Connor, who was part of the Whitman squad and Danny Brown fanboy numero uno, was even more flabbergasted than I was. I showed D and Justin a picture of Danny Brown, who is a pretty goofy lookin’ dude, and they broke out laughing. “That nigga’s gay,” said D.
I also mentioned the new Kendrick, which I had listened to the previous night before bed. D dismissed Kendrick because he had released a diss track or something a while back that D thought was out of line. I’d thought “To Pimp a Butterfly” was pretty great. The album brought to the surface this perverse thought I have sometimes, where I’ll wonder at what it means to come out of a place of disadvantage – be it the result of systemic oppression, poverty, tragedy, what have you – and a glint of irrational envy will flash at the built-in narrative authenticity the situation outwardly seems to provide. People are down with ‘started from the bottom now we here’ type shit; credibility is lent to action; legitimacy to voice; it makes people like me, of the insipid surface-level tale, uncomfortable, and its why statistically most rich people consider themselves middle class, every shitty campaign autobiography peddles a personal narrative of humble beginnings, and why even I get a pathetic satisfaction out of telling my well-heeled Whitman College peers that I went to a public school. It’s an American preoccupation, and what Kendrick does is – in the funkiest way imaginable – synthesize down and find meaning in his own narrative’s confusing tensions and contradictions. You can’t be high up there, whether by birth or luck or cut-throat-skullduggery or hard work, without some tricky questions being raised, and Kendrick grapples with them with some real insight and style.
The one thing about the album is it’s not very subtle. It goes for the whole pie of race in America in the same way and spirit that East of Eden is literally trying to provide the meaning of life, and it turns out it’s hard to capture the essence of such things without being a little heavy handed because in going that big you cross the point where it all becomes ineffable, and so the artist will almost by definition be committing the sin of telling rather than showing.
Which is why some of my favorite songs on the album are the low-key ones (though Blacker the Berry is also dope). I gave D my phone and headphones and put on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie,” which will be my personal anthem to chillin and just doin your thang for many summers to come. He dug it.
D told me that I was in the hood. “You’ve never been to the hood before,” he told me. “The hood’s alright.” He pointed across the street to a government agency office whose roof was decked out with barbed wiring and cameras. A six-figure installment according to D, intended to stop scrappers once and for all from stealing the AC units – each worth about fifty dollars in metal – from the roof. We shot the shit here and there – on Russell Wilson’s intercepted pass in the Super Bowl, D recalled that he “threw his blunt in the air” in excitement; on the bodacious woman sauntering by in colorful leggings on the sidewalk, D whispered that usually round here guys never let their girls out the house lookin’ that good.
This went on for a while and we continued to spread mulch, and then he paused, considered what he was about to say, and asked me: “What are you about?” I stopped raking and looked up. I mumbled about my major and good music and straight-chillin and sports, but I took the question very seriously.
Gordon, who was a military veteran in catastrophe response partnering with Blight Busters in the idea that Detroit was an ongoing disaster zone and thus ideal for training for storms and the like, had showed us a video made by another volunteer group which had previously come in. It was set to a Christian rock song and was just generally super lame. D had overseen and worked with many such groups in his tenure with Blight Busters, and told me himself that, lacking the means to travel and see other parts of the country, it is through the visiting volunteers that he gets to know the world around him, develops a sense of what people from various regions and backgrounds really are all about. The reputation of my hometown, at least as D knew it, was in our hands. A heavy burden indeed, I thought to myself at the time.
Oakland County is an affluent suburb that begins on the other side of Eight Mile Road. Its commissioner is named L. Brooks Patterson. L. Brooks Patterson has joked that “what we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.”
I was reminded of L. Brooks Patterson when a woman from CASS, the group-consensus-favorite non-profit, told us a story. A homeless man was discharged from a Medicaid funded hospital in sub-zero weather without a hat or a jacket. Usually hospitals have a person to make sure that kind of shit doesn’t happen. Like any hospital you or me would go to would absolutely make sure that we had somewhere to go, maybe find us a hat, at the very least call a cop or something for transport to a shelter. But this hospital didn’t do that because it just can’t afford monetarily to look out for people like that. So the guy walks around in this absolutely freezing weather with this vague notion of the existence of a shelter in some vague part of this city, which remember is the geographic size of Manhattan and Chicago and San Francisco all put together. He just keeps walking. He doesn’t stop to sleep because he’ll freeze to death because again he is wearing a t-shirt and so he goes through the night and just keeps walking. He walks like this for four days and eventually walks into this CASS warming shelter utterly delirious, and his hands, which we were shown a picture of, are literally black and purple. Fin. End of story.
The reason that story reminded me of L. Brooks Patterson is because, despite the guy’s sharp wit and homey charm and his apparent knack for running an economically booming homogenous and well-educated suburb, the guy has no compassion. L. Brooks Patterson doesn’t give a shit about this homeless guy in Detroit.
Now Mr. Willy, the cook for CASS, a man twice homeless himself, the youngest in a family of twelve, with a spirit that engulfs and lifts you like a hug from the Michelin Man, who sings lyrically personalized songs for each volunteer group to the tune of that one “There Was a Great Big Moose” campfire song, he gives a shit; or Gordon, the Blight Busters military vet guy, with his cooking-oil-fueled disaster response bus he modified; with his bad-ass stories of defying turret mounted soldiers with moronic orders in the first days of the hurricane Katrina disaster, with his groovy long gray hair and his kind of irritating but also endearingly naïve social media obsession, he gives a shit.
The thing about giving a shit is that it can only be shown. It is a commitment to basic propositions of human equality; it is in no way passive; it is an accountability to your own good-fortune; it has nothing to do with the spectrum of cynicism and idealism and everything to do with compassion, a faith that everyone at some level does their best, that everyone is at once a product of the world and an active producer unto that world, and a belief that that fundamental circularity is malleable by the connections we make, by the individual agency we take.
Whether or not I personally meet that criterion I’m not sure. I was mostly concerned with having a chill time and meeting cool people and making D think the Pacific Northwest had stank. Which he apparently decided it did. I was absolutely overjoyed when Connor reported that D, as we were about to leave, told him that “You guys are soo chill.”
I suspect it was the Danny Brown song that won him over. When Connor played him “Let’s Go,” he bobbed his head and admitted it was hot. He insured us that he would ask his mom if she was familiar and, satisfied, we said we would check out Team Eastside (my personal favorite song is “Getting Paper/Sippin Lean with Thugs”). At this point the day was nearing its end and we were picking up the soggy garbage that had built up under the snow around Blight Busters’ property. But still D had his digs to get in: “This was general stuff,” he said. Danny Brown wasn’t keeping it fully real. We rolled our eyes, It was tongue-in-cheek posturing; he knew it would annoy us and he clearly got a kick out of saying it. Besides, he added, couldn’t anyone rap about “drivin down ninety-fo’ with nowhere to go?”
Jamie wandered to the far end of the lot, by an abandoned garage, and summoned us to come look inside. A newish silver hatchback with a rear wheel missing rested at an angle where the wheel should have been. Screws and other bits of the axle machinery were littered about. It looked like a car a mom would drive her kids to soccer in. “Probably stolen from midtown,” Jamie guessed. He called a police contact of his to come check it out. We all went to pose for pictures, such that our accomplishments might be disseminated out to the masses, and, instead of “cheese,” Jamie instructed us to say “Eff Blight!” in unison. We bade our farewells and hopped in our vans. We passed a grocery store under construction. My pop-of-the-fifties radio proposition was vetoed, and so I stewed in the back for the remainder of the drive back to the church where we were staying. It was a quick ride. Detroit may be huge, but you can get around fast; the infrastructure of the Motor City was built in accordance with its nickname. Highways web the city – on stilts you glide above the action – one minute, its boarded up houses with roofs caved in; next it’s the massive cement skeletons of the factories where the former residents of those houses once worked. Occasionally the General Motors sign atop the downtown skyline pops into view, and maybe you’ll pass a street lined with well-kept brick walk-up apartments – the kind I associate with Brooklyn – and a pleasant brownish-green meridian. Even in the evening light, it all moves fast. These days, there isn’t much rush hour traffic to worry about.