The unrest in cities coast to coast overnight Friday, and the governor of Minnesota’s mobilization of the National Guard, and Trump’s invocation of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” drove me to my backyard shed, to dig out from a plastic tub an unpublished essay about Detroit that I wrote in 1992. Having grown up in Milwaukee’s equivalent of what then-Detroit mayor Coleman Young notoriously dubbed “the hostile white suburbs,” I had a lot to learn, and Detroit was where I began learning some of it.
My first introduction to Detroit – before I moved there a few months later to co-write with Michael Betzold the book Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story – was in January 1991, when Frank Rashid, a co-founder of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, the grassroots group that was remarkably successful in delaying the destruction of Detroit’s classic-era baseball stadium by about a decade until they were defeated pretty much by the sheer brute bullying might of the establishment, showed me around the city.
Frank Rashid had become a reluctant public figure, often quoted in the papers and on local TV on the stadium issue and fondly called Ballpark Frank by his friends and admirers. But in real life he was a mild-mannered English professor at Marygrove College. He was and still is a lifelong resident of the city of Detroit. On my first brief visit that cold January, the main thing he wanted me to know was that the stadium fight was only one aspect of Detroit’s often ugly and always raw reality. One location he made a point of showing me that day was his father’s neighborhood grocery store. Disused now, it was the only building still standing on its block. The store had been gutted during the infamous Detroit riot of July 1967. Sixteen-year-old Frank and his father had cowered on the floor amid fallen canned goods, until some of their black regular customers arrived to escort them to safety. The adjective Frank used to describe Detroit’s racial syndrome was “Faulknerian.”
“People will use blacks as scapegoats for other problems,” he told me. He remembered an uncle “who resented my father and used our living in the city with blacks as a way of getting at him.” In Faulkner, he said, whites’ self-hatred is expressed in violence toward and scapegoating of blacks. “You see it over and over again in the call back to the land, what the land was before ‘we’ whites ruined it with the cotton crop, and by cutting down all the forests. Because the vehicle that allowed us to do that was the slaves, we hate and resent and blame the vehicle.”
During Detroit’s periods of industrial boom “the blacks came into our neighborhoods,” he explained. “The fight over housing was very, very serious. It was brought on completely by the auto industry, which drew up whole bunches of people for which the city was not prepared. We ended up with the 1943 race riot as a result.” The car companies, he said with heavy irony, “made this town what it is. They brought my family here too [from Illinois]. Not to work in the plants, but to sell groceries to the workers in the plants. To me, Faulkner wasn’t writing about the South. He was writing about Detroit. I learn a lot about the effects of race on both the victims and the victimizers, by reading Faulkner. I learn as much about the similarities between Detroit and the South as I do about the differences. Detroit needs its own Faulkner.”
As I got to know Frank Rashid I came to see that, although he was a professor and drove a Toyota (which in Detroit amounted to making a statement), he was not any sort of stereotypical bleeding heart or cuddly liberal. He was leonine and bristly, the moralistic product of a Catholic education (he had considered seminary). I also saw how the stadium fight had robbed him of much of the pleasure he had always taken in following the Tigers. He knew too well that the issue was not really baseball at all, or even the unique and irreplaceable historic building, but rather whether hundreds of millions of dollars in public money should be spent to subsidize a for-profit business owned by a billionaire, in a city with a Third World infant mortality rate.
“There’s a whole history in this town of not having adequate programs for youth,” he said. “But we’re building a playground for millionaires, and we’re going to bend over backwards to do it, when Detroit’s kids have so few clean, safe places to play that it’s scandalous. Which is not to say that’s the most important thing that has to be done. The real scandal in this town is the schools.”
He also told me: “I’ve gotten to where I really resent when people tell me to keep up the fight. They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to help you, but keep fucking up your life, since you have nothing to lose.’”
The essay I wrote way back in 1992 had literary aspirations, not to say pretensions. I was young when I wrote it, still pretty inexperienced both as a writer and in general. But rereading it now, I honestly find it not half bad. And it’s at once both a heartening reminder to me that already in my mid-twenties I was paying the right kind of attention, and a disheartening reminder of how little things have changed in the nearly three decades since.
On Friday, Jenny and I took our daily walk to Sip ’n’ Ship, some eleven or twelve blocks away, so I could pick up a piece of mail. At Dayton Avenue N and N 77th Street, we stopped to look at the many colorful drawings and handwritten sayings tacked onto the telephone pole on the southwest corner of the intersection. It’s true, as Jenny said in exasperation, that if she hadn’t suggested we stop, I might well have absentmindedly walked straight past it. I’m glad we did stop. Here’s a sampling of the quotations on the telephone pole:
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa
Tug on anything in nature and you will find it connected to everything else. – John Muir
You’ve made this day a special day, by just being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are. – Mr. Rogers
It always seems impossible until it’s done. – Nelson Mandela
Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light. – Albus Dumbledore
Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds. Shine. – Buddha
Reading these and more, I found myself moved to the edge of tears, as – to my embarrassment – I find myself again now, writing this. Jenny pointed out a laminated white sheet higher up the pole, announcing:
We walked on and then turned right on 76th Street to trudge steeply uphill towards Greenwood Avenue, where Sip ’n’ Ship is between 76th and 75th across from Phinny Ridge Lutheran Church. As always on our walks, Jenny continued pointing out to me trees, flowers, raised vegetable beds, and houses that she especially liked.
But as we passed 350 N 76th Street, which was one of those obnoxious big new houses that lately have been getting shoehorned into Seattle neighborhoods like ours, I happened to glance down and see the Lexus parked in the garage. It had a bumper sticker that read:
And in an upper window of the house hung a large American flag.
Jenny was greatly enjoying our walk after a long day indoors, working with her students on Zoom. So I refrained from telling her what I had just seen. But I could feel my NIMBYism kicking in. Writing this up, I considered not publishing the house’s address, out of respect for its owners’ privacy. But then I thought: They’re the ones that put a Trump sticker on their Lexus and a big flag in their window, like two middle fingers, plainly visible to any passerby. So screw ’em, whoever they are. Assuming this is still a free country, I suppose they’re free to buy and live in that house. But frankly, I really don’t want that kind of element in my neighborhood.
Earlier this afternoon, I was out in Ballard running errands (Trader Joe’s, Office Max, the Top Pot donut shop), when I got a text message from Dennis: “I’d stay away from downtown today, unless you want to write about it.”
“It did cross my mind to write about it, but I really don’t want to risk my physical safety,” I replied. “Am writing something else, broadly on topic.”
I got home, unloaded my groceries, checked in with Jenny, had something to eat, sat down to write. Then another text came from Dennis: “Westlake is in flames. Turn on KING 5.”
So I did. At least four police vehicles had been torched, cops were using pepper spray and teargas on demonstrators, and Nordstrom’s and other retail stores were being vandalized and looted. While we were watching, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a 5 p.m. curfew. Soon after, Governor Inslee called up the National Guard.