Where are the Black People?

We need to get past race, my neighbor Curtis always reminds me.

We need to get past race, my neighbor Curtis daily reminds me.

Where are the black people? Read Nolan Finley’s piece here

Our neighbor Curtis Wynn reminds me almost daily that we need to get past race in Detroit. “You the story!” he shouts into the phone at me. No “you the story!” We both ended up here in the same historic apartment complex on the river for the same reason. Detroit is home to us both. Curtis is an African American rendition of my Polish grandfather and his brothers, all of whom worked in the factories. My grandfather was at Dodge Main, Curtis at Jefferson Assembly. Weekend warriors, my dad called them. Stroh’s types. Shot and a beer. Hard working, hardscrabble, plain spoken, straight shooters.

So we were talking about Nolan Finley’s provocative article on “Where are the black people in Detroit?” I loved it, and on the one hand, I get it. We should be looking to see that everyone in Detroit has an equal chance to benefit from a newly energized post-bankrupt city. At the same time, shouldn’t we leave “black” out of the question, and instead be asking: “Where are the people in Detroit?”

I certainly find myself asking that question as I traipse around town. The Detroit I remember from my youth in the 60’s was a colorful mix of Polish, Italian, German and black families many of whom were first and second generation immigrants from Europe, like my family, and the Deep South, like Curtis, who mobilized themselves toward Detroit as part of a greater movement to put the motor city and the world on wheels.

Nowadays, when leaving a restaurant or an event, it’s unusual to find anyone on the streets—black, white, immigrant, young or old. Which reinforces that as we rebuild our city, we need to consider ways to encourage people — a whole diverse group of them– to stay downtown after games or events, taking advantage of other cultural stops, restaurants, the vibrant Jazz scene or other local happenings. There is strength in numbers, and Detroit is at its best and safest with more people bustling around, the more interesting and eclectic the better.

When my wife and I decided to move back to Detroit in 2011, we had other choices. We were “empty nesters” who could take our careers to a number of places within our own organization—San Diego, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati to name a few. Selecting Detroit seemed an unusual choice to some, frankly even a bit crazy to others. But my parents had provided us with mobility, long after they left the city for the suburbs in the 70’s, and the rest of our extended family pretty much bailed on Detroit by the time my grandmother Vicki was murdered in her east side home in 1991. To this day, when Vicki comes up, most people presume the kid who killed her was black. As it turns out, he wasn’t. He was just a 14 year old kid—a horrible reality on its own. So, it’s not always about racism. Sometimes it’s just about what happens when we deprive ourselves and our community of education and opportunity even on the most modest scale. People run in all directions, havoc follows.

I get asked this question a lot: So why did you move back after your own firsthand experience with Detroit’s grim reputation? Because it is home. It’s where I grew up as a kid. We moved back to enjoy city life, and realized along the way that to participate fully in Detroit means that we are obligated to help others, and in particular our next generation, to have it better than we did. That’s what our parents were chasing–better schools, better skills, better opportunities. Trust me, I can speak volumes about what faces us when we don’t honor this obligation.

We’ve just completed the grand bargain, but should we entertain any grand illusion that Detroit will rid itself of all its massive problems, the 80,000 blighted buildings, the troubled schools, the tepid economic recovery— in my lifetime? Not likely.

But I do believe home is where the heart lies. And every day in Detroit, we witness an abundance of heart right here in our midst—in Hamtramck, along the riverfront, at Comerica Park and Ford Field, on weekends at the Eastern Market, and anywhere you care to experience Detroit’s extraordinary Renaissance with a wide audience of those making it happen.

Hearts aren’t differentiated by different colors, they beat as one. Detroit has heart, and where there is a strong heartbeat, the patient invariably recovers.

Resurget cineribus. We will rise from our ashes.