Detroit shall rise again
Social change happens dramatically, yet is barely noticeable to most people. But to a patriot returning from afar to his/her native land, the change is obvious and can be shocking if not devastating.
Since I was — in a way — living in forced exile from the city of Detroit for 23 years, many people of all races, age groups, ethnicities and educational backgrounds have asked me more than casually in the last 43 days one burning question: How does it feel to be back in Detroit after being away for so long?
My response normally begins cheerfully, but quickly shifts into words that sound more like a lamentation. When sharing my observations, I realize how my comparisons of the Detroit I last saw nearly a quarter-century ago to the Detroit I see now are incredibly similar in tone and mood as the vivid description of two servants of Pope Eugenis IV in the 15th century, as they somberly recorded the remains of the Roman Empire while reposed on a scenic hilltop amid the ruins of the former great empire as recorded in Edward Gibbon’s monumental work, “The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Hence, when entering Detroit’s city limits, I was both elated to be back in the city I grew up in but dismayed at what my social scientist mind saw: Well-kept roads and highways that accommodated millions of vehicles were cracked and littered with potholes so gaping that one has to swerve around them like land mines. Sturdy family homes, which once housed many proud blue-collar workers were stripped to wooden frames as though vultures feasted upon them.
Had it not been for the street sign on the corner, I would not recognize the street I lived on. Grandmont St. (north side of Plymouth Rd.) looked like it was blown up by a B-52 bomber. And just around the block almost all the houses were gone. What remain are rows of vacant lots covered by trash and a forests of wild grass. The dozens of homeless people holding up cardboard “help me!” signs on almost every downtown corner was testimony that the Great Recession is still hurting Detroiters. (These beggars have essentially displaced the well-dressed members of the Nation of Islam who used to sell Final Call newspapers on the same street corners.)
And there is more.
The screeching thunder of landing and departing commercial flights on the eastside is no longer heard — City Airport is closed down. Packs of stray dogs roam its vast runways as prides of lions on the plains of Africa.
Prior to my departure people of Middle Eastern descent owned 90 percent of the city’s gas stations, supermarkets and party stores. They have since added Metro PCS and Boost Mobile to their investment portfolio.
Detroit’s social and economic woes compliment its dysfunctional political institutions.
For example, 23 years ago the late Mayor Coleman Young and a functioning city council were able to get things done for a bustling city that boasted 1.2 million content citizens.
Today, Detroit is a city of barely 700,000, in bankruptcy, and is controlled by an outside, unelected emergency manager. The City Council is composed of nine figureheads, and the powerless mayor plays only an advisory role to Gov. Rick Snyder.
In short, the political and economic crises have robbed Motown of its swag, and perhaps its special spirit that so many artists (like the Notorious B.I.G.) used to glorify in their rap songs. Many journalists — including local sellouts — caricaturize Detroit as a post-rated, severely burned, old man clinging to life.
There are pockets of hope, however.
Downtown is festive. Signs of another renaissance radiates from the sunny smiles of visitors indulging the amusements and events coloring Greektown and Woodward Ave. Investment is evident down here, too. The loud chorus of jack-hammers, cranes and bulldozers usually forecasts more job openings.
To be sure, the decline and blight Detroit is experiencing is not new. In fact, every nation, state, city, or organization inevitably goes through a necessary life cycle of birth, growth, plateau, decline and eventual decay. But not all civilizations or great cities are smart and resilient enough to survive multiple cycles.
Detroit has proven its toughness time and time again. For example, Detroit, the original capital of Michigan, was burnt to the ground in 1805, and nearly two more times in the bloody race riots of 1943 and 1967. Each time, The D recovered and regained its unique, working class spirit and personality.
For this reason, many say Detroit’s two Latin mottos written on its flag describe the city’s tenacity and history perfectly: “Speramus Meliora,” and “Resurget Cineribus,” which translates to “ We hope for better things,” and “It will rise from the ashes.”
For these reasons, we should be confident Detroit has seen its worst days and cheerful that a bright future is ahead of us. But concerned Detroiters must resolve not to allow Detroit to die as did the mighty Roman Empire (at least not in our lifetimes or our children’s), but will make it stand tall as the “Paris of the Midwest” at least one more time.
Dennis Samuel Boatwright II spent 23 years in prison and has only been back in Detroit for several weeks. Please contact this proud Detroiter at email@example.com or313.469.4756.