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Saturday, July 9, 2011

My View of Detroit: Diamond Resort Destination?

My View of Detroit: Diamond Resort Destination?
It's difficult being a native Detroiter.  Having grown up on the eastside of Detroit during the 60's, we get slammed constantly.  The headlines are riddled with reality-TV versions of the Motor City gripped by graft, decay, and greed. Most recently, Kwame and his drama have become a symbol for the worst of what Detroit represents—a grand promise gone bad, a broken record of missteps and malfeasance. But have we reached the point where there is really no hope for Detroit?  To some, this is a foregone conclusion.
No question, Detroit faces grim challenges.  But I didn't give up on the city when my grandmother Vicki was murdered here in the 90's, so I'm not giving up now.  I remember at the time mourners whispering, "She should have known better. Why didn't you move her out of Detroit?"
Truth is, Vicki would NEVER have considered abandoning Detroit.  After arriving from Poland, she hopped in a Model T with my grandfather, pointing that car toward Detroit as if it were Mecca. The automotive industry in those days possessed the force of an organized religion to new immigrants, providing new life and hope to millions.
No longer.
Over a quarter million people have left Detroit since the last census. Less than a quarter of ninth graders graduate from high school.  Upwards of 50% of adults may not be able to read and write, and until recently, Detroit was known as the murder capital of the world. That's still not to say Detroit is without assets or means.  We just need to summon our imagination to put it all together.
Throughout Detroit, treasures abound.  The DIA, the Detroit Public Library, the Science Center, the African American History Museum, Belle Isle, Chene Park and the Detroit Yacht Club.  Hang out at any one of these places and you meet interesting people, a diverse community, all refusing to give up on Detroit. I've renewed friendships on Facebook with old acquaintances, all connected by our pride and memories of Detroit. 
Anita Rutkowski still remembers the Cone Zone on Van Dyke, and picnics on Belle Isle.  She comes to Detroit each year for vacation, long after her family moved away. Vacation in Detroit?  The city as resort playground?
Mike Happy writes a blog about our old Eastside neighborhood for the Detroit News.  A few years ago Mike started a community organization to reclaim our old childhood park, Fletcher Field.  "Friends of Fletcher Field" put in new playground equipment, removed years of detritus and debris, and cuts the grass grown wild.
Wendy Felcyn, who lived on Tappan down the street from us, reminds me of all the games we imagined for ourselves as kids, making up rules as we went along until the street lights came on. 
We all grew up under similar circumstances – i.e. in small frame houses on tiny city lots with large vegetable gardens, and big families with working class dads and stay-at-home moms. We may have lacked in material things but didn't really know that at the time.  We had a ton of imagination, an abundance of hope, and from our point of view, the best of everything.  Vernor's, Better Made Potato Chips, Sander’s, Velvet Peanut Butter, Faygo Red Pop. Sting Ray bikes with banana seats and sissy bars.
The bookmobile provided all the books we could digest.  An open fire hydrant cooled off hot summer days, and Klatt's Candy Store, Leelex's Drugs and the New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck provided sugar fixes in all shapes and sizes.  I thought about Anita's vacations in Detroit as we made plans to sail from Lake Erie to the Detroit Yacht Club.  A vacation in Detroit.  What a concept!
As we sailed past the ominous stacks of the Fermi II nuclear plant along the Erie shoreline we caught the faded signs of Boblo Island along the Detroit River near the Ambassador Bridge.  The Ren Cen rose up in the distance, factories and idled steel plants littering the view along the way. Both majestic, and maddening at turns.
It turns out, the DYC is an exceptional resort destination.  The people here are wonderful, members and guests of all ages and color. Walking around the island brought back trips to the Dossins Great Lakes Museum. Belle Isle is a Detroit gem, a refuge from the summer heat, a diamond destination. This Fourth of July included picnics, parties and the famed Cardboard Boat Regatta.
Recently, I read another Detroit story about Eric and Kim Bruce, living in Atlanta, longing to get back to the Detroit area.  They missed many things in Michigan, Velvet peanut butter among them.  They discovered, Velvet was bought out by a bigger rival, and closed a few years later.
They are rejuvenating Velvet Peanut Butter with its original slogan. Fresh, Pure Delicious.  Returning to their Michigan roots, they set their imagination in motion, already distributing Velvet to over 500+ Michigan stores. A fresh pure Michigan story.  Delicious.
I'm afraid the jobs my uncles and grandfathers held in the factories are not coming back anytime soon.  But I believe small companies can grow jobs and restore economic vitality to Detroit. We may be down, but we're clearly not out. 
We also need sustained collective social impact among community leaders, businesses and public servants to fix our schools, restore a vital library system, and critical city services.  Lots of work to be done, but Detroiters are ready and willing to work. 
Special interests are blocking the new bridge that would increase Detroit’s role as a distribution gateway to Canada, our largest trading partner, as well as the mayor’s plan to “defrag” decaying neighborhoods, turning open land into an urban farm.  In fighting continues to plague the school system.  Let’s give Roy Roberts and Dave Bing a chance, so we can turn our attention to the real casualty—the kids.  All the controversy around charter schools and re-organization plans obscure the harsh truth.  Parents in Detroit are at their wit’s end, looking for ways to get their kids what should be a right, not a privilege—a quality education.  Everyone needs to rally around the central premise that a high quality education should be the birthright of every child in Detroit, accessible to all. 
Jo Anne Mundowny, director of the Detroit Public Library, recently said to me,  “Without a vibrant library, this isn’t a vital community anymore.”  She’s right, and has the energy and vision to make this happen.  Let’s give her a chance by getting her the resources, and arresting this reality-TV inspired media coverage.  Enough. 
Remembering Detroit back in the 60's, it occurs to me that the Race riots in 1967 happened virtually in tandem with Detroit's first World Series win in years.  It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It's in these times that our imaginations need to run wild. 
Let's hope.


  1. You captured it all perfectly, Ron. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Well said Ron, this really strikes a chord in me. Anyone who grew up in the Detroit area can relate to what you are saying. On a recent flight home, I sat across the aisle from a man who spewed negativity about Detroit for most of the flight. He was slowly infuriating me. I thought, "Who does this guy think he is, coming into someone's home and speaking these ignorant statements?" I finally hit my boiling point when the plane landed, I stood up, looked him in the eye and said, "I've listened to you trash talk the whole flight, you have no idea what you are talking about. You are wrong about many of the statements you have made and it's rude to talk like that as you are entering someone's hometown." His reply to me was,"Are you in the union?" then he turned to his seat partner and said, "See what I mean." It is unfortunate that this man represents the perception of many people. I have hope for imagination also. Detroit needs creative, "out of the box" solutions for the "out of the box" problems. I hope people will read this and feel hope for Detroit.