Monday, January 31, 2011

Detroit: My Adopted Home Town

Growing up in a small town in Western Michigan, I was taught from an early age that we West Michiganders were not like the people from the east side of the state, the east side of the state being the greater Detroit area. I can remember family vacations out of state when I was quite small, and my parents, upon meeting other couples, were asked where they were from. If they responded with only "Michigan," the inquiring party would blurt out, "Oh--Detroit!" This assumption that all people from Michigan were from Detroit irked my parents to no end, and they went to great lengths, including using the famous readily-available hand map, to demonstrate that they were not from Detroit. They believe to this day, arguably correctly, that there is a stigma associated with hailing from Detroit, a stigma they wanted in no way attached to themselves or to their kids.

Once when I was about ten, I asked my parents why they were so angry when people assumed we were from Detroit. I had no idea--I had not been to the Detroit area since I was four years old, and remembered little about it. Despite obligingly following all the Detroit professional sports teams, as almost all good Michiganders do, my parents never traveled to the Detroit area. They much preferred Chicago as a destination, also a three-hour drive from our house. My parents frequently raved about the virtues of Chicago--the lakeshore, the friendliness of the people, the abundance of culture. In response to my youthfully ignorant inquiry as to why my parents would be upset if anyone assumed we were from Detroit, my parents told me, "We're not like them. They don't hold doors open for you. They don't say 'please' or 'thank you.' They are big city people and don't care about others. They would walk right past you if you were dying on the street and not help. They have big mouths and always think they are right. They drive fast and recklessly. They are even so stupid that they feed seagulls on the beach!"

Being young and impressionable, I just believed that we West Michiganders were truly classier and superior to our eastern counterparts because we were quiet, unassuming, caring, and polite. (In retrospect, I wonder how much of what I was told they were like had to do with the rather physical characteristics that set us apart.)

When I was in my mid-20s, I took a job as a computer software trainer, based in Grand Rapids, the second biggest city in Michigan, but definitely characterized as a Western Michigan town. While most of my workdays were spent in West Michigan, my company had three offices in the Detroit area. It wasn't long before I was asked to travel to one of those locations to teach a class. I was filled with so much anxiety--would everyone there treat me rudely? Would I get run off the road on a five-lane highway? (There are approximately six miles of highway with more than two lanes in all of West Michigan.) If I got lost, would anyone help me? Would I be mugged or murdered? I left late at night in the darkness, cranked up my tunes, and after two hours, hit the three-lane, and then four and five-lane, expansion and 85 mph traffic! It was a rush! Everyone drove quickly but safely. Tall, uniquely lit buildings were everywhere, and I felt exhilarated, like I was really an adult in a big city.

The next day, I was surprised to see that the students in my class were just as friendly and polite as those in my classes in Grand Rapids, although the physical makeup of the class was much more diverse. And, while I was teaching at that office for a couple of days, the other instructors, who I'd never met before, took me out to lunch and dinner and did their best to make me feel welcomed. I even made a few lasting friendships.

After that experience, I was not reluctant to travel to "The D" at all. Sarah and I started going there for Red Wings games, museum exhibits, shopping, and for the variety of ethnic restaurants that we were sorely lacking in Grand Rapids. The Detroit airport became our airport of choice and was far easier, faster, and more efficient than either of the main Chicago airports we had been using. All the while, I felt kind of cheated that there was so much going on in Detroit that I had not been allowed to experience as a kid.

Most importantly, I learned that I had quite a bit in common with the Detroiters, even more than I had in common with my fellow West Michiganders. Clearly opposite was the political climate. West Michigan is about as red as Alabama politically, yet Michigan tends to show up as a blue state in federal elections. This azure can be credited only to the voting predilection of the Detroit area. I wasn't ridiculed by the Detroiters for mistrusting Bushes or for thinking that it's a good idea to protect the planet, and being gay was not as much of an issue in The D. Another obvious difference was the Detroiters’ tendency to participate in sports as well as be spectators. The Detroit area had so many more opportunities for women to play sports than in West Michigan, both at an adult recreational and high school level. When I graduated from high school in the early 1990s, my high school didn't even have a women's soccer team. Yet, my female counterparts in Detroit had women's soccer at all their high schools. Girls' or women's hockey? In West Michigan, that was also non-existent, yet Detroit had classes and leagues (and even salespeople at sports stores who didn't behave oddly when a female went in shopping for hockey equipment). The other very noticeable characteristic of the Detroit area was the prevalence of Catholics. In West Michigan, I was definitely in an often-shunned minority being Catholic. Most West Michiganders are protestant, and specifically Dutch Christian Reformed. I had frequently felt like an outsider when I was in school because I didn't go to the same youth group as my classmates--I went to CCD. I didn't go to the same church as the majority of my classmates. My parents were not afraid to drink alcohol or mow their lawns on Sundays. To my classmates and their families, this was sacrilege.

Upon moving to Ontario, anytime I mentioned that I was from Michigan, I would be encountered with the now-familiar assumption that I am from Detroit. I would be told stories about times when people were lost in bad neighborhoods in that city, I would be asked if I knew so-and-so who lived in X suburb of Detroit, told stories of experiences at kids' hockey tournaments in X suburb of Detroit, and approached for information about my favorite casinos and restaurants in Detroit. Out of learned habit, I would insist that Michigan was bigger than Detroit and that I wasn't from Detroit, but to no avail. When my hockey teammates nicknamed me "Motown" during my first year playing, I decided that resistance to this conception was futile. I have some friends in Canada who I've known for over two years who will still ask me, after holiday weekends, if I went to Detroit to visit my family. I've stopped trying to explain, stopped pulling out my hand map, and just resorted to simple yes or no answers.

Since I've lived in Ontario, I've been to Detroit several times, and not just on my way to other parts of the state. Detroit is only as far from where I live now as it was from Grand Rapids. Add the time at the border crossing of course, but if timed right, it's a worthwhile trip. Most often we are going to Red Wings' games, but we will also go shopping, out for dinner, or to meet up with friends. On our most recent trip to the Detroit area, Sarah and I were sitting in a restaurant near the entrance of a mall, and I was watching all the locals coming and going. It was nowhere near baseball season, but almost everyone that came into the mall had either a Tigers hat, sweatshirt, or jacket bearing the big Olde English "D." After about 45 minutes of observing this recurring characteristic, I thought about how people in Detroit are very proud of being from Detroit. Detroit is commonly thought of, in both Canada and the US, as the worst possible city to visit. Clearly, the people who live in the Detroit area or who grew up there feel this stigma and know that any misconceptions of the city are automatically extended to them as residents or products of the area. Therefore, they have reacted by becoming even more proud of their hometown. On the highway in southeast Michigan, you'll see the big "D" decals on so many vehicles. I can't back this up with statistics, but I certainly believe that not all these people are avid baseball fans--the "D" has come to represent something much larger than the Tigers. "Defiance" and "determination" come to mind.

I recently overheard someone from Ontario remarking that Detroit was the ugliest city he'd ever seen. Someone else then chimed into the conversation about how "scary" Detroit is. I've been all over downtown Detroit. I've seen some "scary" areas, and I've seen some great areas. I also have seen the area just off the Ambassador Bridge that Canucks see when they come into the US via Detroit, usually on their way to somewhere other than Michigan. If that neighborhood is all they've really experienced of Detroit, I can see how that memory would mesh with the other stereotypes of Detroit as seen on TV. I can say honestly, though, that I've been scared out of my wits in Chicago more times than I've ever been afraid while in Detroit.

I certainly admire people who live in a not-so-pleasant climate in a state with a decimated economy who can still be proud of that place. In the same way that I have no tolerance for unfair stereotypes of Americans, I have no tolerance for unfair stereotypes of Detroit. I have also tired of trying to explain to people that though I'm from Michigan, I'm not from Detroit, and so for all these reasons, I'm calling Detroit my adopted hometown. I feel an inexplicable sense of belonging when I'm in Detroit that I don't even feel yet in Ontario. And I know that, because of the reputation of Detroit as tough, I pick up instant street cred by claiming it as my own.

Sarah is from northern England, and similarly to the US, there is a big north-south divide there. She also grew up being told how she, as a northerner, was different from southerners (ie, Londoners). When she moved to North America, so many people she met instantly assumed she was from London. For a while, she vigilantly fought this perception, but then after a while, stopped trying to explain that she was from Nottingham and not from London. Her gradual attachment to London has been similar to my gradual attachment to Detroit. She spent so much of her life defining herself as not from London, but when she moved to a different country, suddenly she found she actually had more in common with the people from that city than she did with her new countrymen. I can't help but think that all the Ontarians I have observed contemptuously identifying themselves as not from Toronto would feel much more affection towards Canada's largest city if they moved out of Canada.

1 comment:

Holly said...

There is an ad campaign here with the tagline "imported from Detroit." Reading this made me thing that maybe this line applies to you as well....