Zorba’s: Saginaw, Michigan

In Saginaw, in Saginaw,
There’s never a household fart,
For if it ever did occur,
It would blow the place apart, –
I met a woman who could break wind
And she is my sweet-heart.

Excerpt from Pulitzer Prize winner Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Saginaw Song”. Roethke was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan.

The people of Saginaw made things. They saw the rough-hewn wilderness, the white pines with trunks so large you couldn’t wrap your arms around ’em, and built sawmills. Later, when they found a little bit of oil, they drilled like Saginaw was the next Houston, Texas. For decades they took ore from up north, lit great big fires and cast iron for General Motors. Hell, Saginaw was even home to the world’s tallest bean elevator for a time.

Saginaw in the 1940s.An artist’s depiction of Saginaw in the 1940s.

It was a proud city of blue collars, as blue and grand as the sky over nearby Lake Huron. In fact, it still is, but they don’t make things in Saginaw like they used to. General Motors skipped town awhile ago and the acres of virgin forests are but a distant memory. Like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint – all also along I-75, the Michigan autoworker’s trail of tears – Saginaw is searching, yearning for a new identity in our post-industrial society.

A typical scene.Typical scene in modern-day downtown Saginaw.

It’s also, quite literally, a tale of two cities: East Saginaw and Saginaw City, straddling the two sides of the Saginaw River. Though the cities were combined into one all the way back in the 1889, when you cross the Court Street Bridge onto either side of the river, you can feel the change. The colors, the people, the shadows – all somehow different.

The “east side”, a term coincidently used in Saginaw as a euphemism for the African-American community, has the musty smell and stillborn atmosphere of a dying big city. Embers of yesteryear glow in the ashes – The Temple Theatre! The Second National Bank Building! – to remind people that yes, this place does matter. Bums walk up and down the streets, as Roethke once did, with watchful eyes.

Those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Excerpt from Roethke’s “The Waking”.

The “west side”, on the other hand, has a sort of eerie, fragile small town vibe, livelier and homier than the east side. But you have to wonder how long it’ll hold on. Abandonment lurks like a ghost, threatens like a storm. Industry was the backbone of Saginaw. Without that, what is Saginaw?

It’s a difficult question.

Scene from the west side.Old Saginaw City, on the west side.

But, hey, Zorba’s on the west side is still kicking, at least, and it’s a inspiring all-American story. It goes like this: owner Tom Veremis left his homeland of Greece after World War and landed in Saginaw, then a bustling, hopeful city, with the help of his uncle. He worked in several of the city’s many machine shops, until finally – finally, after 30 years – he was able to open his own successful eatery on the corner of Gratiot and Harrison.

A nice Greek diner.

Veremis, with his thin white hair and wire-frame glasses, has cooked in back ever since, serving up classic Greek dishes like spanitikopita (spinach pie), moussaka (eggplant casserole), and – of course – delicious, delicious gyros. All cooked, thankfully, with real butter. For well under $10, you can order a lamb and beef gyro with a drink and a side of Grecian potatoes. Now, that’s a good deal, man.

Naturally, as something of a gyro whore, I couldn’t resist. Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, scraps of tasteless lettuce, and a mysterious lamb and beef loaf on a soft, warm pita, with tzatziki sauce? How about two, please?

Lamb and beef gyro with Grecian potatoes.

Veremis’ gyro is pretty close to what you’d expect from a gyro at any self-respecting Greek restaurant, with a few irregularities. The tzatziki sauce – a blend of yogurt, cucumbers, dill, and other ingredients – was lighter and less sour than usual, the dill more prominent. I also thought the seasoning for the meat was a bit unique. It reminded me of how you might season a sausage patty.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, there was no lemon juice in his Grecian potatoes! What? It just tasted like, well, old school roasted potatoes. How daring, how unexpected. Had Veremis cut his culinary teeth in the Detroit area, were there’s a Greek “Coney Island” restaurant on just about every corner, it’s hard to imagine he’d have had the opportunity to take such liberties. The incessant demand for cheap conformity would’ve drowned out any original impulse, and I deeply respect how Veremis prepares his gyros and Grecian potatoes.  It fits.

Maybe that’s the value of Saginaw, the answer to the difficult question I posed earlier. Here, you’ve got all the ingredients for an American success story: human diversity, natural resources, iron will, and hope. Saginaw is a little out of the way, but that too is a strength. Here, away from the great metropolises,  you have the space, the independence to imagine a different future, to resist the lure of the horde. It’s not an easy task, but do you think it was easy carving Saginaw out of the untamed Earth?

No way.

God bless Saginaw, Michigan.

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2 thoughts on “Zorba’s: Saginaw, Michigan

  1. “The ‘west side’, on the other hand, has a sort of eerie, fragile small town vibe, livelier and homier than the east side. But you have to wonder how long it’ll hold on. Abandonment lurks like a ghost, threatens like a storm.”

    That’s the problem with the I-75 “trail of tears” corridor you speak of. Future investment is deterred by the likelihood of financial loss. I was all set to buy a beautiful brick house in Mott Park near Downtown Flint, but the city neighborhoods continue to bleed people. It was difficult to see how I was going to get my money back.

    As much as I root for and contribute to the revival of Michigan’s urban centers, no one likes to lose a bunch of money.

  2. Unless businesses are willing to invest in our ‘urban’ cities again, there isn’t much we can do to fight the decay. And it’s shame, because major cities are what drive economic growth. The population of the I-75 corridor has pretty much been stagnant since 1970, when coincidentally the industrial cities along it entered a serious decline. Since, we’ve created a sort of feudalistic “I’ve got mine” society, despite it being clear that areas that work together do better (cities like LA, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and etc. work so well because the governments were allowed to annex more land and thus promote broader regional development).

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