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.