The ruins of Detroit aren’t a postapocalyptic nightmare. It’s a dream collapsing in on itself. It’s a common trope in Hollywood, when whatever force that sustained reality vanishes and the world we thought we knew literally disintegrates before us. And usually you only have so long to escape, before you too are consumed.
The only difference is that in Detroit, there’s no Hollywood magic, no dramatic climax to bring about a swift resolution. The system, the organism that is the city stumbles on blindly, unaware that it’s damaged and borderline irredeemable. In doing so it manages to provide just enough for just enough people that there’s a semblance of hope, that the dream can be sustained within tiny bubbles of gentrification simply because we believe it can.
Maybe it’s possible. People move to Detroit because they want something they couldn’t find elsewhere, and that’s its blessing and curse.
Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve gone all over Detroit to different businesses trying to craft meaningful narratives from such bubbles. To date, I’ve largely failed. For one, I’ve published barely a word about Woodbridge Pub, Redford Theatre, Dakota Inn Rathskeller, Mazen Foods, or – most recently – Vicki’s Barbecue. Certainly, all would’ve theoretically made great stories, and I knew some vital truth had eluded me every time I hit delete and consigned my febrile ruminations to the great literary trash bin in the sky.
My mistake, I now realize, was that I approached each as a hermetically sealed bubble, a celebration of life, a self-contained dream within a dream. When it turned out that the underlying dream was permeable, the underlying complexities beyond words, I retreated to the safe confines of less challenging topics. Sure, I could’ve written about the vegan “Pho Philly” at Woodbridge, the fake stars in the ceiling of the Redford Theatre, the campy German drinking songs at the Rathskeller, the small miracle of Mazen’s fresh produce in an otherwise desolate neighborhood, or the bullet proof glass at Vicki’s.
But in and of itself, is it really worth writing down? Always, the underlying human suffering ruined any inspiring story I could conjure up. At the Rathskeller, for example, it was the empty look in the eyes of the bedraggled parking lot attendant that watched over our cars in the hopes we’d toss him a dollar or two on the way out that did me in, my fleeting inspiration lost in the artificial sheen of the lipstick on the prostitute walking up John R. Suddenly, the rouladen I’d eaten wasn’t as good as I’d imagined.
What was the real story? What dream was I actually living in?
To keep the blog going, I’d drive to the illusions of the suburbs or far off big cities where previously unseen wonders could distract me from the broader picture. I’d dive into the dark underside of Saginaw, but before we got in too deep, I’d steer us to the light of local Greek cuisine, an easier topic. It was all too contrived and calculated; food was a way for me to mediate my impulses, to toss a carrot out to the hapless reader.
It was the wrong approach.
I’ve now come to the difficult conclusion that neither stereotypes nor exceptions can provide an accurate depiction of reality. It’s easy enough to confirm an audience’s biases or to show them and yourself that the world isn’t what they thought it was. The trick is showing them what the world really is, which is an endless series of people and places that – frankly – can’t be encapsulated within tidy narratives. Writing dreams within dreams isn’t for me.
Going forward, I promise to do better, to write about what exists, not what we wish did. I owe it you, and most of all, myself.