Letter from Detroit

At a party recently, someone who found out where I grew up told me he considers Detroit “like Third World, America’s first postcolonial city.” I admit, when I see Jim Griffioen’s photographs, or the BBC Documentary on a place I haven’t lived for nearly twenty years, I’m startled myself. But I still find such comments offensive, along with what sometimes seems a morbid national fascination with the fall of Detroit.

When I go home and drive into Detroit, north on West Jefferson, along the river, I have trouble seeing boarded-up buildings even when I’m looking at them. Instead, I see my mother’s childhood home in Wyandotte, my father’s home in Ecorse, and the Pier 500 Bar, where they drank when newly in love. I pass the dock where my father saw the launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the former Great Lakes Steel mill, where his father was a foreman. Just past the Ambassador Bridge is Mac’s on Third, where my sister served beer and cashed in big before Red Wings’ games. When I’m back in Detroit, part of me is always five, and the place is harshly exuberant. I’m back with slag and steel and a not unfriendly aggressiveness with which I will always feel most at home.

We didn’t live in the natural world, but we did live in a physical one, and that was nearly as good. Every day, we saw—in freight cars and on freighters and on car trailers—the tangible results of labor of people we knew. And in spite of grim unemployment figures and deserted city streets, there’s the same energy in the air that there has always been. Detroit feels like a place where things are made. Things are being made: urban gardens, art, an underground bicycle culture. Don’t call the city a new frontier, though; too many people (my family, for example) have been here all along.

I’ve since built a life in Minnesota, but when I go to Detroit, I momentarily think, as Michael Dirda does of his industrial hometown—Could I go back? I can’t, and Detroit won’t have an easy comeback, either. But I believe in the place that makes things, and made me.

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of Atlas: Poems, a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.


  1. Thank you- You have spoken volumes. I am a 47 year resident of the city…The death cries are insane to me as I walk to the Redford Theatre for a movie, stop in at Sweet Potato Sensations for a coffee and a treat, then pop in at the Artists Village for a poetry jam.

    I see life. I see art. I see myself and my neighbors…alive and well.

  2. What is most disturbing about the general US attitude towards the “decline” of Detroit is what it reveals about the publics’ cognitive dissonance about our national downward spiral.

    There is much beauty in decay, and we should not be afraid of that. The gradual collapse of our communities and infrastructure is everywhere, but when viewed in high concentration in Detroit, people get angry. They don’t like being reminded of the holes in the fabric of the America Dream.

    Our cultural end economic identity is one that demands things always grow larger, more extreme, more dramatic, selling more, buying bigger. We cannot fathom how another market bubble bursts so soon after the last one. Why can’t it just go on forever? we ask. How we create more jobs? we ask. When we people start buying cars again? we ask. Never do we ask Perhaps we could use less? Build smaller? Value our limitations? Live within our means? Never.

    Detroit is making a comeback, though not in the way many hoped it would, and not a way that again masks our lack of vision for a long-term sustainable future. As stubborn and arrogant as we are, you cannot help but learn something about rebuilding after staring at a pile of rubble for 45 years.

    The MSM is not designed to report on the foundation of our nation. They rent pundits to comment on opinion polls, they don’t interview urban activists or volunteers. The story of our economy is written by Wallstreet, not the organizers of your farmers market or your low income housing advocate. However, these are exactly the people who have given their lives to maintain Detroit, and these are the people who are now in a position of power, they have a say in this new direction the city is and will be taking.

    Yes, there are corporate interests who want to take over land, there always were and there always will be. Monsanto is going to be pushing GMO soy on urban farmers when urban agriculture ramps up, no doubt about it. But there simply is not enough money or will from government to make all of the changes the city needs right now.

    We shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to watch films about the end of the world, our cities laid waste by crazy weather, volcanoes, earthquakes. When it happens in real life it’s nonstop, round the clock news. When it takes a generation to transpire, we do our best to ignore it, and snicker at it to avoid guilt. Someday we’re going to miss the layers of decomposition of Detroit. Someday urban planners will travel to this city to study the paradigm shift from sprawling car town to re-invented bike-networked community garden. It’s already happening, and people who watch these trends are already giddy with the possibilities. How far will it go? How many will come? Maybe the wave will break and roll back and we’ll wonder what we could of had. Right now, though, Detroit is poised to become once again the greatest of American cities, half the size, but twice as smart.


    Hart Noecker

  3. Thanks Katrina! This is beautiful writing. My younger sister and her husband, both art professors, are transitioning from Portland, Maine to Detroit with their children. They’re all very excited about the move.

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