Devil’s Night came of age in Detroit

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DETROIT — Devil’s Night wasn’t born in Detroit, but it came of age here.

Beautiful and broken are the only ways I can think to describe Detroit, a city I thought I understood because I’d done some reading and I’d seen some pictures. I had no idea.

Fresh off my adventures in Los Angeles, I planned this tour carefully and arrived via Tunnel Bus from Windsor early on a Sunday morning. I had written directions in careful block letters the day before. My plans were stark blue on a white sheet of paper, except this: that I’d be awed, and afraid, and heartbroken.

Cass is a wide boulevard that hesitates every block or so over half-hearted construction and road repair that looks like revitalization but smell likes despair, my first indication of a city that means well but can’t quite keep up.

Detroit’s decline has been slow and painful. It has been punctuated by riots in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s. Street gangs took over in the ’70s, when heroin was king. Crack came later. Detoit became the arson and murder capital of the nation. Throughout the ’80s, setting fires was a favourite Devil’s Night activity, with hundreds of abandoned homes being set alight. In 1984, according to Wikipedia, 800 fires were set that Halloween-eve. Finally the community fought back with Angel’s Night, but the damage had been done. And besides, Devil’s Night was never more than a symptom. Crime, fires, and economic devastation had taken its toll. The auto industry was in freefall.

Detroit had been scarred.

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I wasn’t alone on the streets. Almost, but not quite. Two security workers climbed into a golf cart with their company’s name emblazoned on the side.

“You got a coffee!” one of them hollered good-naturedly. “Ain’t none of us got coffee yet. You watch out for that!”

“You betcha,” I laughed back. “It’s dark gold right here.”

The other men I met—it was mostly men out on this clear Sunday—were of the same sort. Black, in their 40s and with a lovely, drawling accent that was almost Southern. I made eye contact and smiled at each of them. Each of them smiled back and said, “Mornin’.”

The people aren’t heartbreaking. They’re wonderful. But everything else: This is a ghost town that still has people living in it. Building after building—houses, high-rises, storefronts and duplexes—are crumbling back into the earth, most with windows blown out, some with plywood half-heartedly nailed up. It goes on for blocks and blocks blocks. It’s not that there are abandoned homes: it’s the scope of this thing. The enormity. There’s no way to prepare for this.

But the people. In a coffee shop two miles up Cass, in a city with a history of brutal, deadly race riots, two veterans, strangers, one black, one white, struck up a conversation. “It’s a blessing we both got up, got a little sunshine on us,” one said. The other answered with a “mmm-hmmm.”

I won’t lie: I didn’t feel completely safe in Detroit. Most of my walk was a lonely affair and if I’d been jumped or straight out shot I’m not sure anyone would have come to my rescue. At one point, while I was the only awake human for about there blocks, a man in a giant black SUV drove real slow behind me. I eventually turned and he, maybe realizing I was just a middle-aged lady who doesn’t look like money or much of anything, drove away. At another section of road an unkempt man with tangled red-blond hair watched me hotly and with narrowed eyes from across the street, sizing up the situation. That last one had my heart beating with real concern.

And then, on Woodward heading south, a man with long, heavy dreadlocks, coming toward me in his electric wheelchair, suddenly stopped and took out his earbuds. “Do me a favour,” he said to me, and I stopped walking. I took out my earbuds, too. “Can you do me a favour?” I nodded. “Stay beautiful!”

I don’t know about the devil, but I can tell you this: There are angels in Detroit. Stay beautiful.

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One thought on “Devil’s Night came of age in Detroit

  1. Having grown up in the Detroit area, I can tell you that after awhile, you start to tune out the decay. And not intentionally. It just slowly fades into the background, becoming as unremarkable and natural as a tree or a fire hydrant. You forget how bad it truly is.

    Lower Cass is definitely one of the more haunting areas in Detroit. It’s like being surrounded by the ghost of a great city. Very strange.

    If you ever make it back to Detroit (I’m assuming you’ve left), check out Vernor Avenue. Heading west past Grand Boulevard, it’s one of the liveliest streets in the city. It’s still rough around the edges, to be sure, but you can get a bit of feel for what Detroit was like in the better days.

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