Better sorry than safe


It’s interesting to read about whether Detroit’s recovery will be mired in the racial morass of gentrification. As Detroit continues its emergence from bankruptcy, a number of red flags are up. Is the residential recovery limited to the “core” — Detroit’s midtown and downtown areas? Will the neighborhoods ever come back? And will a sustained recovery serve all Detroiters, or only a select few?

As we approach our 4th year back in Detroit, I think these questions are legit, even when they’re directed at us. After all we are white and we are not poor. At times, this makes us the source of some suspicion. I get that.

Years ago, Detroit’s economic growth was carried on the backs of various Eastern European descendants mixed with African Americans migrating from the deep south.  Nowadays, we need to be open to new strains of immigrant migration if we are expecting our population and economic fortunes to rise.

When Kay and I first moved to Detroit after 25 years in Ann Arbor, we did so without any grand ambitions. We just wanted to simplify our lives. Although we can’t necessarily say we downsized (our pre-war condo is physically as big as our home), we did get rid of half of our “stuff,” the accumulations that come with 25 years of raising kids. It was more about getting out of yard and home maintenance, and the complications that come with midlife. But now it’s so much more than that.

It’s become an opportunity for us to re-energize our lives as a couple now that our boys are independent and living successfully on their own.

Living in Detroit has also become a matter of choice, and becoming part of a larger narrative about our city. After all, five years ago it was a bit more surprising that middle aged white people would choose to move back to Detroit. At the same time many African Americans without means feel they have no choice but to stay. We’ve developed our own gauge for this– it’s often measured in the number of times we see the word “aghast” flashing on the foreheads of folks as we tell them where we live now.

Once having moved here, we’ve found it easy to plug into the rich and diverse mix of urban life downtown. Every day we are reminded of how lucky we are, and every day we meet interesting new characters gritting it out in the city with pride, resolve and determination. It gets tiring at times to drive everywhere because public transportation is spotty at best. And in driving everywhere it’s sometimes difficult to stomach the sheer mass of blight down major thoroughfares like Gratiot, Michigan Avenue and Woodward. We’ll begin to know Detroit’s comeback is real this time when Woodward Avenue sports more than liquor stores, wig shops and the offices of bail bondsmen. And when more of the neighborhood parks and libraries are bustling with activity again.

Often, when someone asks us about living in the city, their first question is “Do you feel safe?”

The truth is– no it’s not safe! Public safety remains a huge issue. A few months ago, a young man was shot in broad daylight right down the street from us, and the only strange comfort lies in the fact that it appears to have been a targeted hit on a convicted drug dealer heading off to prison the next day. Scant comfort that none of us needed to have been worried on this particular occasion. Then there are the countless other weird, and depraved murders and mishaps that regularly make the headlines in Detroit.

But when are we supposed to play it safe? Detroit wasn’t safe back in 1967 when the riots erupted (or in 1943 before that). I remember as a kid living under the anxiety of nightly curfews, and the arrival of the National Guard on the streets. It wasn’t safe in 1991 when a distraught juvenile dropout walked into my grandmother’s bedroom and strangled her with her stockings. It was years before I could stomach the thought of visiting Detroit again, much less living here again. Clearly, larger forces have conspired to bring us back to the city of my youth.

We are back in Detroit for a reason.

And even though at times we wonder what that reason might be, we are getting a solid idea it has to do with that midlife yearning to be part of something greater than oneself, and to start giving back in greater measure.  When we first started our married life together in New York City, I remember walking down Fifth Avenue, and seeing all the wealth and abundance, and feeling this anxious need.  Now, I can’t look anywhere among my current surroundings without seeing a profound need, and I feel useful and alive.  Able to help in some small way.  This happens every day, and it’s profoundly energizing.

Still, we know full well Detroit won’t be safe for sometime to come. We have to start by getting comfortable with the idea that if we don’t start helping those who need a hand up, our safety will continue to evade us. Generations of young people– African American, Muslim, Hispanic, foreign born, transgender, urban, and etc. will continue to become radicalized not because of some purported, distorted religious ideology, but rather because they don’t see a way forward. It would be wrong to suggest we live in the middle of a war zone, despite telltale signs that make it suspiciously similar in appearance. After all, many of the disenfranchised appear ready to take up arms.  When people don’t see options and opportunity it’s easier for them to sign up for the revolution. Safety doesn’t lie in the suburbs either, as recent events across the country suggest. Cinemas, schools and public places are often destinations for the unhinged and unstable to unload.  This means that the age-old logic in the region that we could just ignore Detroit and it would go away is fallacious.  Public safety, and economic development go hand in hand. If we’ve learned nothing after numerous economic false starts, it is that you can’t have one without the other.

We have to get creative solving some of our city’s more intractable problems like multi-generational poverty, and under education in a city that has so poorly served students for so long we’ve induced an epidemic of underemployment and under achievement.  Right now, if you are male between the ages of 14 and 17 living in our neighborhood, you stand a 1 in 4 chance of getting your high school diploma.  Your odds increase by 2 to 3 times if you are a class A felon, convicted of murder or sexual assault.  That’s because our educational interventions for adjudicated youth are more effective than many of those available at our public schools right now.  This is a sad fact that should be mobilizing us all.

Better to be sorry about the fact that we’ve made it easier in recent decades for the haves to have more, and the have nots to have no chance at all. Somehow the five digit code representing our zip code says more today about the chances for a decent education than anything else.

The alternative doesn’t have to mean a hand out, nor the massive public assistance required to create some imagined great society. But we do need to come up with a blueprint for a good enough society where none of us would be embarrassed to show our faces and everyone would have a fair shot at a decent life.

Ultimately, this means bringing all the right players together in a room and dealing cards from the top of the deck, ones that haven’t already been marked. Isn’t it about time, after all?

Far better sorry than safe. Safe is vastly over-rated.


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Gerry’s recipe for Caramel Corn

Gerry Stefanski passed away on this day 39 years ago after a five year battle with cancer. She was 40 at the time.

Gerry was the ultimate mom. She dreaded anyone addressing her by her full name, Geraldine, after Flip Wilson created his own vivid female persona with that name, and made her a household character. In the days before it was fashionable, Gerry was the consummate DIYer. She made all of her own clothes and most of my sisters. She knitted, she sewed up a storm, she crocheted. She cooked and baked, she canned. She made strawberry jam every June and in the late summer she canned tomatoes and pickles and chow chow. We trekked off with her in our station wagon to the Eastern Market on Saturdays in the summer to haul back home bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. She made and froze oodles of pierogi, mostly prune and potato, and she baked. The deep freeze in our basement housed a six month supply of pierogi, stews, stuffed cabbage, and casseroles after she passed.

But man, could Gerry bake! These current baking show competitions have nothing on her!

She made kruschkiki, light as angel wings are supposed to be, dusted delicately after frying with confectioners sugar. At Christmas time her preparations began in earnest around thanksgiving. She made loaves and loaves of babka, enough for all our teachers, and then thumb print cookies and kolachy, kiflica and fudge. She stored all of these on the stairway leading to the upstairs apartment at our house on Tappan Street. They were all carefully wrapped to ensure that she could detect even the slight hint of tampering.

Then there was her Vietnam Caramel Corn. Her caramel corn was in a category all its own. She got the recipe from our neighbor across the street when her son Tommie shipped out one spring. It was called Vietnam Caramel Corn because you could bake it and extend its shelf life long enough to ship it to the boys overseas.

Gerry’s cooking and baking displayed such command that when she first became ill it wasn’t apparent to us kids she was preparing us, not only teaching us how to cook and bake, but training us for life without her in the kitchen. Soon enough, we were prepared to make everything ourselves. That’s not to suggest it was ever the same.

Such trust and confidence she had in me! thinking back to how she allowed me to stir hot caramel by myself, no more than 10 years old at the time! and pour it over the popcorn after it was done. Keeping it stirred but not over stirred so it never burned, and there was never a burn on my hands in all those first attempts.

That’s the thing we have with Gerry’s recipes. They offer a blueprint, a way forward, a way to remember, a way back. How can you be sad when you’re eating Gerry’s fresh homemade caramel corn? All these years later, I still remember the time she sent off a batch to the Detroit News. She made it in the shape of a wreath for the holidays and adorned it with cherries. She received a call from a reporter a few days later, and was so excited to learn she had won the newspaper’s annual recipe contest. They were going to publish her recipe and her story AND send her a check in the mail for $5. She was thrilled as we ran around the house proclaiming she was now famous, our very own celebrity.

Years later, Gerry’s recipe for caramel corn has taken on mythic proportions in our family. It’s the stuff we make when we get the cousins together in Kentucky, or need a treat at work, or something for teachers at the holiday season. Last year when we hosted our first party after moving back to Detroit, I made a double batch.

On this day, Gerry’s recipe for Vietnam Caramel Corn is but one sure sign of her enduring celebrity.

Je Suis Paris!


My prayer for those responsible for evil in Paris

Evil by its nature is inexplicable. But it is embedded deep in our DNA that we must find answers when violence or tragedy strikes. This is in our basic nature, so we simply must stiffen our resolve to aggressively resist the rush to judgment.

As we look to the recent coordinated acts of terror in Paris, let’s be clear Muslims did not do this. People professing a dangerous and false fealty to Islam did. This is an important and critical distinction. Faith in God and a higher power can only be validated by love, respect for life and equality. True Islam, as with true Christianity and Judaism all proclaim these values as a core tenet of true faith.

The heinous crimes against Parisians were committed against all people of faith, of all of us who yearn for a civil society. And just as we liberated Paris what seems like eons ago in World War II, we must return in a strong stand of solidarity toward Paris and all those who adore freedom, practice love and desire peace.

What happened to innocents aboard is deplorable. Let’s stand in unity to bring those responsible to justice. Let’s stand in solidarity as we showcase the best in our arsenal of blood-steeled values. It shouldn’t be an eye for an eye– that is not true justice. Only the light vanquishes darkness. Only love extinguishes hate. Only mercy exalts justice.

The toughest truth about tragedy is the recognition that mercy is honorable, not retribution.

It is tough not to want to hurt those responsible. But we are tougher. And we will prevail when we stand in solidarity on this. Yes, bring them to justice, sequester them from those who are free among us, but display God’s infinite mercy.

Leave behind talk about how this confirms the need to be more militarily involved abroad or buttoned up at our borders. Leave the final judgment to God, and bring resolve to our efforts to restore peace.

Je suis Paris!

Just Stuff

Somewhere in the middle of your midlife you will come to the same inescapable conclusion I did: that most of the stuff you’ve acquired along the way is vastly overrated.

This revelation might hit you any number of different ways. For me I first realized it while cleaning out the kitchen cabinets one day. I pulled all the cups and glasses out of the cupboards and chanced upon several Power Ranger sippy cups. The thing is, both our boys were out of the house and away at college. Why did we still have them?

Earlier that day I was feeling the tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes with having just removed all the carpeting in the house and replacing it with hardwood floors. I was on a roll cleaning the house, reclaiming space previously occupied first by the great plastic empire– the Flintstone tiny tike cars and buses, which then gave way to Brio trains, then in later years a vast complex of Legoland, and then most recently a technology outpost that had taken over the living room with game boys, iTunes, DVDs, MySpace and possessed more storage space than the computers that NASA used to put the first man on the moon.

When the floor guys arrived on the scene I thought for a minute they were going to need to remove the carpeting with hazmat gear since it had absorbed and sustained the abuse of two growing boys for the better part of 15 years.

But soon enough it was gone, replaced by spare shiny new wood floors. The best thing is actually what happened next.

Once the house started looking more spare we found we enjoyed it more. We were less stressed, we weren’t tripping over stuff. So for the six weeks that followed I put a sign in the driveway that said simply “Help Yourself.” And then Kay and I went through the house, room by room, and piled up stuff, pitching anything broken, or with missing parts. The useful but no-longer-useful-to-Kay-or-me things went on a separate pile and were placed in the driveway.

Each week a steady stream of passersby stopped. Some looked casually and then kept going. But the vast majority lingered, then gingerly approached the hoarde of items. A few folks looked around as if they were expecting someone to approach them as they were loading things into their car only to be told it was all a big practical joke and they had been punked for our amusement. No such trap. In the weeks that followed it seemed we had attracted a loyal and returning following. And what neighbors and passersby left each week was sent off to Goodwill Industries. In the process I learned a lot about Goodwill. It’s fascinating how they take things that are discarded and turn them into useful assets that can help others. Anyway, before long the house was empty of much of our accumulated stuff.

It seemed we were far from done, maybe just beginning. Kay and I had spent a long frustrating winter in self-examination, me while traveling for work and her while telecommuting 3 hours away to a condo we had leased for her when her job moved to Columbus, Ohio. Sitting around one weekend getting ready to write a check for a new roof, we started re-evaluating the decision. Why were we replacing the roof? Yes, the house needed a new one. The water dripping into our bed during a rainstorm the previous weekend made the requirement abundantly clear. But why did WE actually need a new roof? To protect all our possessions and stuff inside? Possessions that we were now slowly concluding we didn’t really need anymore, if at all. Maybe if we jettisoned the house itself instead we wouldn’t need to worry about all that was involved in a new roof along with a dozen different things.

Over a dinner and drinks later that week we started daydreaming together. What if we gave away most of our stuff, and sold the house and ditched the condo, and moved into a loft somewhere together. What did we really want? What did we really need?

First, the obvious need. We needed to be together. And we needed to spend more time together. After almost thirty years together we were both blessed with this same realization. After raising our two sons and seeing them successfully launch their adult lives, we actually wanted to go back to doing what we did before kids. (No, keep your head out of the gutter!) we wanted the pleasure of each other’s company. We were increasingly frustrated “commuting to our marriage.” Long distance is tough under any circumstances, and it can cause you to forget what’s most important in the long run. Being together. Doing things together. Hanging out and doing nothing together. We also wanted to exploit the fun that comes with the freedom of not taking kids to soccer practices and music lessons and scouting activities. We wanted to be spontaneous again. To look on Flixster for a new movie and head to the theatre at the last minute. To grab coffee after a show, freed of the need to get home and relieve babysitters of their duties. To connect with friends and to travel.

No, we didn’t regret one day of doing all those things we did raising a family, it was glorious packing all those activities into the days with our beloved boys. We wouldn’t have missed a second of any of it for the world. But all these things prepared both our sons for life on their own, free and independent of our daily parental oversight. We needed to re-introduce ourselves to each other, to expand beyond being just parents. They were taking their next steps toward discovery and growth. We needed to do the same thing.

We also had the good fortune of flexibility. We had a number of places we could live and work.

How we ultimately decided to move to the city of Detroit is another story in itself. But as we put our house of 25 years on the market, something else was actually nagging at me.

It was all that stuff we had cast away.

We had a lot less to move to our next stop. But what about all those things we gave away? Lawn mowers and snow blowers, rakes and shovels, shelves of endless items, toys and clothes and games and gadgets that seemed for so long to be worth having and saving and keeping. But for what? Had they actually been the source of some of our stress?

Because here’s the thing. When you acquire stuff, you also acquire the obligation and burden to house and maintain it. And when it breaks or bleeds oil on the driveway, you take on a new role as keeper. Keeper of stuff and endless things. And it becomes very hard over time to rationalize that you actually need much of it.

I can only hope this stuff doesn’t prove to be a curse for the folks that heeded my invitation and hauled it away.

To all those benevolent strangers, maybe they were able to put those things to good use. On the other hand, maybe I’ve simply vexed them with a terrible curse. Maybe much of that stuff carries a heady price for them instead.

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Weirdly, true confession, one of the things to which I falsely assigned considerable value was an adult “toy,” a 1939 Buick Special, which took up a huge footprint in the garage, notwithstanding all the additional tools and parts it required. Why did I need this is a question to be left for therapists to resolve. In the end it had stopped working and had become a burden and an effort to maintain. In other words, just like so much stuff ultimately does.

Detroit As I See It


The grit, the blight, the benign and the beautiful. The concrete rises up in Detroit. Riding a bicycle within minutes of our home, you see it all.

Something about the Detroit River, the pull of a five mile an hour current, the coast guard racing from time to time, flashing lights signaling some fortuitous retrieval.