Driving up Gratiot on the east side, even now – after Detroit has lost over a million people – can be an extremely irritating experience. Making a left turn out of parking lot? Forget about it. You have to wait, and then wait some more. And when you’re finally about to turn – that magical moment when the stars have converged and illuminated a divinely ordained path over the cold concrete for your vehicle – it turns out some punk leaving the parking lot across the street already beat you to the serendipitous punch.
Just imagine how bad it must’ve been driving home from work in the 1950s! No wonder they were in such a rush to construct the Edsel Ford Freeway (Interstate 94). A modern marvel, once it was completed you could zip through the east side at a blazing 55 MPH as you waved the days of agonizing red lights goodbye. In retrospect, the homes and businesses torn down to make way for the freeway marked the beginning of the area’s destabilization and eventual depopulation, but nobody knew any better back then. It was only after the fact that we missed the kindhearted butcher or the candy store owner that would give kids free penny candies.
They’d lost one piece like that, and then another piece. And it just never stopped. After the freeway, they kept right on destroying the past, knocking down old buildings to make way for shiny new Rite Aids and bigger parking lots.
You see, the neighborhoods around Gratiot were the kind of neighborhoods you’d move your family into after you managed to save up a couple months pay from the factory. It was good, solidly middle class area to call home. There are vestiges of that in what remains – the well-kept two-story homes and run-of-the-mill diners next to abandoned, blighted properties, the children waiting at the bus stops, the faded names on the side of the buildings. And who can forget the Better Made Potato Chips and Faygo Beverages plants, still active after all these years?
But, of course, it’s easier to focus bulk of the attention on images like this:
Or even this:
Glimpse the utter ruination and total decimation of this great American city. How could they? Never mind that nobody really understands who or what this amorphous ‘they’ is that destroys our cities whenever we turn our heads. Maybe it’s the multinational corporations, outsourcing all the jobs and tearing down the factories. Or maybe it’s the criminal class, mobs of natural-born thieves programmed to pillage and destroy. Or maybe it’s all because of drugs – yes, drugs. Who knows?
But don’t use the word “racism”. It was never racism. No, sir.
The east side of Detroit must be at least 90% African American now. At least. All the German and Italian immigrants that once called the area home fled decades ago. This was, after all, ground zero for blockbusting after the riot in 1967. The change in demographics isn’t hard to notice, either. Old bank buildings, built in the classical style, have been converted into African American hair and nail salons or churches – a common form of adaptive reuse that is often mocked by more affluent gentrifiers (look, it says “100% Human Hair” on the building). “You Buy, We Fry” fish stores abound at every corner. The small, humble Gothsemane Cemetery is now a popular burial site for African Americans, as evidenced by this unique headstone:
Gothsemane Cemetery, I should mention, also has the unique position of being situated by two – yes, count ’em, two – monuments to regional transportation failures. One, directly across the street, is an old passenger terminal for the interurban railway, today a decayed, burned out-building. The other, located to north and west of the cemetery grounds, is the somewhat infamous Coleman A. Young International Airport. Back in the 1960s, dignitaries and celebrities like John F. Kennedy and James Brown used to land their glamorous private jets on the airport’s runways, and about two decades before that, it was the main public airport in Metro Detroit. It’s been over a decade, however, since the last commercial flight successfully landed at Coleman A. Young, and the hulking body of the airport stands mostly as another bitter reminder of what used to be.
Again, though, I must reiterate – it’s not all gloom and doom on the east side. The closer you get to 8 Mile, the northern border of Detroit, the more strip malls and supermarkets you see. By 7 Mile, you might as well be in one of the suburbs. Yes, it’s not as polished and clean as neighboring Eastpointe (formerly East Detroit), but it’s a middle class, African American area fighting tooth and nail to hang on, and it deserves both our attention and respect. Forget the reputation.
In fact, I ended my trip up Gratiot with a cold beer at Capers, an old school steak by the ounce joint north of 7 Mile near State Fair Street. The night I walked in, the filet mignon was going for a cool $1.50 per ounce, while they were practically giving away the T-bone steak at $0.70 per ounce. How do you like that? Housed in a squat little brick building, Capers might not be Ruth’s Chris steak house, but for the price you’re getting some good, juicy meat, and isn’t that what really matters? Locals know it’s the spot, and the posters for films like Blade II and Training Day should make even the whitest, most suburban suburbanite feel right at home. It’s all class, man, with a nice bar and stained glass shades.
Tonight, let’s raise a glass to Detroit and Gratiot Avenue. It’s a road I think we could all drink to.