Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A tale of two cities

Detroit is the city that played a major role in changing the world for the worse. And in the end, the world got back at it, leaving it one of the most troubled – and troubling – cities in the hemisphere. Ann Arbor, I learned today, is the fantasy complement to the hard core reality of Detroit.

I started my day in lively Ann Arbor. It’s a small city, and it would feel too small for me to live there today, but its riverside parks and greenways and plazas around the University of Michigan campus provide a quintessentially college town setting. Before I moved there to go to college, I thought about why they would name this place Ann Arbor. I always pictured two young women sitting under a gazebo (I don’t know why I didn’t think of an arbor), and one of them was named Ann. I didn’t give a name to the other woman, but for purposes of reminiscing about a memory I don’t really remember, we’ll call her darling Deirdre. In my mind, they would meet every day and sit in a swing or on a bench under the gazebo. Ann was very kind and very smart. When Deirdre died suddenly in childbirth, Ann insisted to her father, the farmstead administrator, that he rename the gazebo for Deidre, perhaps calling it Deirdre Arbor. But nobody in the unnamed community liked it – so difficult to pronounce, they worried it would be called Deer Drarber – and they asked the administrator to name it after his daughter, Ann, because it was Ann who was so kind to want to name it for Deirdre. And when Anne died, they went ahead and named the whole town after that gazebo.

I don’t know why I thought of this story but it was one that made some sense to me. And today, my friend Robin and her mother Pam – the famed Guenzels of Ann Arbor for whom the town should later be renamed by Bob, the county administrator, accompanied me on a tour of their fine village. The streets were lined with artists manufacturing merriment, selling their Panera pan and Greek Chili dogs, but also woodcutters and whimsy-makers, fairies and painters, but mostly stern looking women from the Midwest with that look that would be accepted as lesbian anywhere else in the country, but here it’s perfectly normal to walk around without makeup and have your hair chopped into a hairstyle that looks unpleasant to touch. These women, and a host of retired men, toted marketing bags and pocketbook purchases from the Art Fairs of yore. They sought a perfectly executed painting or a colorfully felted bag or a wood block print or a block of wood or a local guitarist’s DVDs to play when one seeks harmony in the afternoon summertime heat. I bought a wood block with an old woman sprayed in black paint onto its pink flowery surface.

I always crave a good street fair and am often left disappointed by the trashy street closures that claim to be street fairs in San Francisco every weekend during the cold summer and balmy fall months. But this Ann Arbor fair was a spectacle with lots and lots of terrible art, some good art, bad [very, very bad] Splenda-covered microwave popcorn that Pam and I sampled, and lots of good looking and smelling food. I should also mention the booths filled with socialists and foreskin reclaimers and bunny rescuers and those freaky sad Jews for Jesus.

In downtown Ann Arbor, I discovered the fairies really do live there, and a few goblins, with many buildings having hidden entrances for fairies or goblins only. It’s a bit inspiring, especially for the children, but it also reminds me a little bit of the crap one would buy at a Mole Hole or Gold Crown Hallmark Store.

After Zingerman’s Road House and art and terrific hospitality at the Guenzel Inn, dining with renowned LEED-certified architect Dave Richardson and child language expert/author Debbie Feit, not to mention low-humidity 75-degree temperatures, it wasn’t easy to sneak away from a town that once was home, but now is a series of strange memory flashes. At one point, we walked along the side of a downtown building, and there I remembered hearing about vaginal discharge from a friend of mine in college. At another corner, I remembered meeting someone for a blind date. As we walked by Cottage Inn Pizza, my salivary glands remembered the flavor of Spicy Mediterranean pizza, and as I looked into storefronts that are not as they once were, I remembered what was there when I was there before. To me, Ann Arbor is a fantasy of what it was, and even when I see new buildings and restaurants, I still am unable to update my mental inventory of buildings and businesses and keep them current. I think they will always slip back to recollections rather than reality, like a person with short-term memory loss or Alzheimer’s.

Ann Arbor progresses; Detroit falls. Detroit is something different. I often read news stories about Detroit; I hear NPR features on Detroit. I remember spending some time in Detroit, being afraid for my life to see so much decay and inept political ruin. Detroit will always be America’s shame, and could fade to ghost status. Or it could become something remarkably different and special if it were undertaken as a special project to create something that matches the memories of how it once was. In every story I hear of Detroit, people talk about what used to be there: the successful hat shop, the glamorous restaurant, the remarkable lobby of a building downtown, a full block of houses. Young people working hard in good jobs. Neighbors who didn’t set the neighborhood on fire every October.

Unlike most American cities that have grown away from what they once were, with new housing developments and new urban communities, Detroit could recreate itself as it was: the classic, successful, robust American City built on manufacturing. Our country still needs to manufacture things: solar panels, computer components, water filtration systems, wind mills, building materials, energy-saving materials, transit rail cars, and buses. Even cars. But Detroit will have to get over itself to return to itself. New technology center? I don’t think so. The tech people will be happier in other cities. Union bosses? Probably not. They are to share some of the blame for what happened to Detroit, and a break from the promises of the Big Three would be needed to manufacture everything else our country needs. What Detroit needs is restoration, not progress. Restoration of good schools, low crime, good transportation, nice neighborhoods. With these in place, Detroit can change. Without them Detroit will wither.

Even if Detroit disappears, it will still have an airport. I ended my Ann Arbor afternoon at the Detroit-Wayne County Airport, major hub of what was once Republic Airlines and then Northwest Orient and then Northwest and now Delta. A center for reinvention if I’ve ever seen one. It was my first time in the airport for a long time, and I had never experienced the immensity and efficiency and cleanliness and self promotion of this marvelous airport. With Northwest’s nearly 40 year-old DC-9s, one of which I just flew, the only thing the airline had going for itself was its hub, and now it’s a Delta hub. Another point for Atlanta business management, another loss of what once was in Detroit. Detroit takes another step toward losing something that signified it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Selling frutas

There is a discussion in our house that one day we’ll recount for our children those rough days during the recession of2009 when people were so poor, they had to sell fresh fruit on the street.
This week I have had the opportunity to experience Houston, San Diego, and of course, my own home town, San Francisco. I’ve given each city an urban planning check-up and decided that San Francisco is the most Latin American of any of them, because of the fruit.

Although I spent the earlier part of this week in Houston – which is not unlike a large Latin American city in that it sprawls, has lots of poor people on the fringes, is incredibly hot and has a collapsing infrastructure of incomplete sidewalks, dangerous intersections without traffic signals, and oddly pieced together parcels of land with lots of gates around them – San Francisco has the fruit sellers. And I spent five hours in North San Diego County, which is just over the border from Tijuana, has popular radio stations broadcasting from Mexico, and has lots of signs in Spanish, but I didn’t see any fruit sellers.

In fact, in San Francisco, it is more than only fruit sellers. It includes a cotton candy man and a couple of churros sellers and paletas hawkers in Dolores Park. But it is the fruit sellers who have made their way into all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, including neighborhoods where the only people typically heard speaking Spanish are the construction crews and landscapers, and perhaps school children being sent to schools outside of the Mission District, the heart of San Francisco’s Latino community.

Growing up in Georgia. There were often some old white southern people who would park their truck on a bridge on Johnson Road and sell watermelons and peaches. Over the years, the old white people were replaced by younger black people who sold the same things in the same location.

I remember being in our bright orange station wagon, my mom driving, as we approached the produce-packed parked truck. My mother would remark, “Oh, there’s a farmer selling fruit. I wonder how their peaches are?” She would drive to the next block and turn around in someone’s driveway and return to the truck, pulling up behind it. She would get out and my sister and I would follow, standing there beside my mom, who was busy picking up peaches, looking at them for worms, and sniffing them. “They’s Georgia peaches ma’am,” the farmer person would say. My sister and I would look at each other, filled with pride that our state produced these little furry fruity gems, but knowing that they often didn’t live up to their reputation. We had learned several years earlier, while driving through Aiken, South Carolina, that South Carolina peaches are supposedly more flavorful than Georgia peaches. A South Carolina farmer had told us that, and we had felt like it was a truth to be reckoned with because those peaches we bought in Aiken from the farmer were better than anything the crappy Winn-Dixie ever sold.

At the truck on Johnson Road, I would gently squeeze a peach and smell it too. My sister would do the same. “Get this one mommy,” my sister said as she handed it to my mother. My mother added it to the pile the farmer was gathering for us.

“Mommy.” I had noticed something. “Look they sell corn, too.”

The farmer would say something like, “Yes ma’am. The corn’s real fresh. Just picked today.”

My sister and I would glance at each other again, knowing that if this corn had been picked earlier in the day, it could not possibly be good. Our family planted about 12 rows of corn in our backyard garden and we only picked it moments before we were prepared to eat it. My mother would insist on getting the water to a rollicking boil. Only then, when the pot was bubbling and the kitchen filled with steam, would she dispatch us to the garden to pick four ears of corn. My sister and I scattered into the towering stalks of corn, moving as fast as we could, to find four perfect ears: our hope was to pull back the husk at the top to reveal a wig of brown covering a glow of bright worm-free kernels. Once we had the booty, we’d dash as fast as we could back into the kitchen to shuck the ears and drop them into the boiling water. We had been taught from a very young age that these hurried hysterics were the only way to ensure the enjoyment of fresh corn and that anything picked earlier in the day would most certainly be a tremendous let down.

Although we didn’t buy corn from the farmer person on Johnson Road, we would gather the peaches and perhaps thump the watermelons, and with the old man’s assistance put the items into paper bags to carry to the car. My mom would pay the few dollars it cost for the produce and we would return to the station wagon for our drive home. When we arrived home, we’d sample the fruit. The peaches from the farmer person’s truck were really juicy and sweet, much better than those South Carolina Peaches any day. My shame of the Georgia peach faded away.

Street corner produce shopping. It’s different in San Francisco. You might expect people to sell fruit from small stands in the Mission District, or perhaps even from the back of their truck in the Excelsior District along busy commercial strips. But today in Cole Valley, Noe Valley, the Castro District – some of San Francisco’s core middle and upper-class neighborhoods – fruit sellers stand at the corner of two residential streets with a dozen flats filled with crimson, glistening California strawberries. Some also have a few large boxes of mangos. And lately, I’ve seen a few with oranges and cherries. On the corner, next to the house owned by a couple of yuppies and across the street from the home rented to two college students and diagonally across the corner where the older woman lives alone, as she has since 1978 in the same house, the man stands there all day and sells fruit to the white people.

Their buyers’ market is not only the scattering of pedestrians found on virtually any residential street in San Francisco, but also the people driving their cars to pick up their kids or go to the orthodontist or on their way home from Whole Foods. These are the people the fruit sellers eye, waving a hand and flagging the driver of a Volvo or Prius or Subaru passing by. And sometimes, the drivers stop and pull into the adjacent driveway, or double park or angle up to the corner, rolling down the window to inquire, “Oh they look lovely. How much are the mangos?”

The fruit seller tells them the entire box is available for ten dollars. Twelve mangos for ten dollars. And then the fruit seller hoists one box of the bright squash-toned Philippine-style mangoes from the small stack on the sidewalk. The driver extends a ten-dollar bill through the window and tells the fruit seller to put them on the back seat. The back window moves down, controlled by a button or small lever next to the driver. The fruit seller holds the box and leans awkwardly through the window. He places the box of mangos on the back seat, next to the empty toddler seat belted into position on the opposite side of the car. The car pulls away with a box of fresh mangoes. The toddler will learn to eat mangos when the parent arrives home.

In the evening, the fruit sellers are no longer on the sidewalk. Perhaps their strawberries sold. Or the mangos became too soft, and their bright skin wrinkled and blemished in the sun. Maybe somebody picked the sellers up and drove them away with their meager earnings. Perhaps the police told them to move on. Or maybe they sold their fresh fruits and returned home, to small flats in the Mission District, packed with other families with children and other fruit sellers and day laborers, leaving Cole Valley, Noe Valley, the Castro District and the other neighborhoods without fruit for sale at night. The seven o’clock streets of San Francisco’s Noe Valley, not unlike those of any city’s pretty midtown or old suburban neighborhoods, remain quiet. The sun begins to set.
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