Even though I was silent for a few months, I was still writing as if I were going to post something. I have posts in every notebook I’ve carried around during this hiatus, half-written drafts saved here. For the most part, I think I’ll just let them all die a quiet death. This one, however, I wanted to put up. I went to Detroit last month for the Equity Summit. I’d been very much looking forward to it. The agenda was interesting, and I thought there was the possibility for some great conversation and interesting connections. And I got all of that, but I also got body-slammed by Detroit itself. On the first afternoon, pretty much the second I arrived, I boarded a bus to take a tour of part of the city. I was with a few co-workers, and we’d all signed up for one of the various tours the conference folks had arranged. About mid-way through mine, I wrote the next four paragraphs thinking I’d post them when I got back to the hotel … but instead I needed to unpack my bags and register for the conference and meet my boss and get ready to spend half a week talking about equity … and it never got posted. It stayed with me, though, the despair and anger. I’ve talked about it with a lot of people since that trip, but I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, still want to put it up here.
So depressed. I’m in Detroit today, here for the rest of the week. I’m on a tour bus for this conference and I’m touring the neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit.
I read all the time about poverty, about economic and environmental injustice, about urban blight, about graft, corruption, racism. I have experienced a number of these things. I work in a community and live in another community that are dealing with many of these things. I have never in my life felt the kind of pain that’s lodged in my chest right now, have never visited a place that made me want to burst into tears.
I don’t understand how it’s possible to so completely devalue people. Oh, of course I’m not that naive. But I am, too.
I know that I should read this pain as a call to action, that I should understand it as a reaffirmation of why I do my work, why the project I’m directing is as important as I know it is. I know this, but right now my despair is too pronounced, too overwhelming. The tour leaders are trying to inspire us to fight the power, but right now I’m waving a white flag. I know I’ll move on from here, but right now the pain and desperation are overwhelming. Right now all I want to do is cry.
Yeah, that was a fun-filled afternoon for me. I kept wondering how I could have grown up poor but not have realized I was actually living a life of obscene privilege and opulence. No one else around me on that bus seemed to be having the experience I was having. They were talking to one another, taking pictures and comparing notes on what we were passing compared to wherever they’d come to Detroit from. And I was taking pictures, too. I was comparing Detroit to my neighborhoods in Brooklyn, too. But I was also having a meltdown. I must have looked miserable and unapproachable. After our second stop on the tour, no one even tried to make conversation with me. My feelings were too strong for me to keep them off my face. I wouldn’t have approached me, either.
Before I left for Detroit, my mother warned me to be careful because the city’s supposed to be so horribly dangerous. I’m not saying it’s not dangerous, but … you know, my own city can be pretty rough, too. I figured I was prepared to take care of myself. What I wasn’t prepared for was what I saw and heard on that tour. We visited sites where we weren’t allowed to get off the bus. And that was for our protection from. the. air. Yes, we were told quite plainly that the air quality was so bad, we’d feel the ill effects in our breathing and our eyes in maybe about five minutes. We pulled into two locations and people from those sites came onto the bus to talk to us. We got to sit in our plush seats, listen to their stories and then watch them walk back into the poison.
This is a playground next to a community center, one of the stops where we stayed on the bus. Notice the yellow plumes of smoke next door, the sulfur filling the air where kids are coming to hang out and play. That play space used to be on the other side of the community center (a few breaths further away from the sulfur smoke) until a tractor trailer fell off the highway that runs overhead and landed smack on the playground. I listened to the stories about this center and I stared out the window. How did anyone think it was okay for children to be playing there? How did anyone think it was okay for anyone to live there?
We drove past burned out foundations and boarded up houses, past lot after lot after lot where whole communities had been dislocated and their homes razed and the land just left fallow. For such a big city, I was shocked by how many open fields there were in Detroit.
But at the same time, it wasn’t all dismal. Right next door to these boarded up houses is a mural: and murals, even when they’re sad or painful, always make me feel a little bit better. And this one has the Dunbar/Angelou reference, which makes it that much nicer.
I know there are wonderful things happening in Detroit. I know it because I made a point to do a little research and find out about some of those things. I know it because my co-worker is a native and she made a point of sharing some of those things with me. I know it because we got to see a tiny little bit of that at the tail end of our tour. I know it because the Equity Summit folks showed us fifteen minutes of Lemonade Detroit. I know it. I know. But I also know what I saw on that tour. I also know all the things I’ve learned over the last year about the group in River Rouge that’s trying to develop the same kind of community revitalization project that I’ve been working on in Brooklyn for the last year. All of these things fit and don’t fit together.
Detroit made my heart hurt. It’s definitely not the only place in the country with the power to do that. No. I’m sitting in my mom’s house right now in Maryland. If I want heartache, I can ride up the road to north Baltimore and it’ll be right there to smack me in the face. I’ll be home tomorrow, and I can find it in my own back yard. There’s plenty of heartache all over. It’s not my job to “save” Detroit. There are plenty of worthier, more capable people stepping up to that challenge. It was definitely Detroit’s job to wake me up, however. I needed that slap in the face, needed to see more clearly the importance of the work we’re trying to do in Brooklyn, of the role I play as part of that work.
I need to go back to Detroit. Any place that grabs your heart as aggressively as Detroit grabbed mine needs more time, needs attention. So I’ve put the city on my “must return” list, not for a conference and a whirl-wind tour, but for the city itself, to really see and be there. Even in the places where it’s hard to breathe. Even in the places that make me want to scream and cry. If I want the lemonade, I need the lemons.