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.

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