8 Mile is a road that runs along the border of Detroit. It’s an east-west road, and is one mile north of 7 Mile and one mile south of 9 Mile, part of an ingenious naming system that makes navigating the region’s immense grid a snap. 8 Mile has, appropriately, eight lanes, with gigantic power line towers running down the middle. A major commercial thoroughfare, it’s flanked by gas stations, repair shops, strip clubs, dollar stores, and other grim examples of low density, low income retail.
Living in Warren, there were two worlds: above 8 Mile and below 8 Mile.
Above 8 Mile – where I grew up – was “the suburbs”. That’s where all the white people lived. It was safe, suburban, a great place to raise kids. Below 8 Mile was “the city”. It was majority black, disinvested, and feared.
Never go below 8 Mile. That’s what they’d say. It’s full of crackheads. And if you do find yourself south of 8 Mile, don’t stop for anybody or anything until you’re downtown. You’ll get carjacked, killed, maimed, raped – you name it, buddy, it’ll happen to you.
If you have to pass through the city, stay on the freeway and keep your fingers crossed.
8 Mile took on a mythological import in my adolescent mind, right up there with communism and Al-Qaeda. Crossing 8 Mile was like crossing the Rubicon. You took your life in your hands. Drug addicts hid in the bushes with pitchforks, waiting for the first unsuspecting suburbanite to walk by.
But that’s ridiculous. 8 Mile is a street, with everyday people on either side. Could it really be that messed up?
Don’t you just want to see for yourself? (Original photo by ClarkSui)
As soon as I got my license, I started driving into Detroit. Because they told me I shouldn’t. Because I didn’t think it could be as bad as they said.
It wasn’t. Yes, there were abandoned homes and businesses everywhere. And yes, Detroit is a city that calls for serious street smarts.
That said, nothing bad ever happened to me. OK, well there was that big guy in Palmer Park that whipped his dick out right in front of me and pissed on a tree. Yeah, that happened, but he waved and was very polite.
See, what I didn’t know at the time that Palmer Park was where gay men “cruise” – it was a simple case of not being equipped with the appropriate level of street smarts.
Now that I think about it, I suppose there was one other weird thing.
It’s story time, folks. Get your popcorn.
It was around 2 AM. I was walking with a friend on 7 Mile, towards Van Dyke. If you live in the Detroit area, you’re probably wondering what the fuck I was doing there at that hour, in what is considered a rough neighborhood.
My street smarts were definitely lacking. I’d gotten overconfident, I guess. I’d always been pretty lucky, and I figured most people would be asleep, anyway. A lot of the streets looked decent enough, too, on par with Hazel Park and Warren north of 8 Mile. I’d swing through and then head back to the ‘burbs.
I realized my mistake when we ran into a DJ unloading his van into a nondescript building.
“What are y’all doing here?” He asked, laughing. “Are y’all lost? How are y’all out here right now? What y’all looking for?”
I tried to play it off like we were just heading home. He kept asking where we were coming from and where we lived, and I kept repeating that we were on our way home. A couple women were with him, dressed in short skirts and tight jeans, and they stared at me as I fumbled through the conversation.
We continued down the street as he went on shouting at us, louder and louder, like an alarm that’d been tripped. What was this guy’s problem?
When he finally shut up, I looked to my right and saw a motorcycle gang – yes, a fucking motorcycle gang – hanging out under a busted street lamp. The gang must’ve been fifteen deep, and it seemed they were staring right at us. It was so dark where they were standing I couldn’t even tell you if they where white or black. All I could make out was their outlines and the red glow of a massive blunt.
Everyone was dead quiet. It was extremely eerie. I mentally prepared myself for a nerve-racking encounter, but they didn’t say a word to us.
It was a miracle.
I was relieved to see the corner of 7 Mile and Van Dyke ahead. Van Dyke is a major road. In the suburbs, it’s lined with strip malls and industrial buildings for miles. From 7 Mile to 8 Mile, it still retains outward appearance of being a functional commercial road.
I wrongly assumed we were more or less in the clear, a delusion quickly shattered when a prostitute approached us.
She wasn’t looking for a “John”. She was quietly begging us for help, to let her borrow a cell phone. People were watching us from the gas station, and cars were circling around, driving slow.
As much as I wanted to help her, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. For all I knew, her pimp was at the gas station.
We told her we didn’t have a phone on us and started walking up Van Dyke.
Of course, my friend picked that exact moment to clumsily tie his shoe.
“You really can’t wait to tie your fucking shoe, man? C’mon.”
“It’ll only take a second, fuck.”
He was worried he’d lose one of his precious boots if he had to run. An ’80s Chevy Impala pulled up to the curb while he triple-knotted his laces. It was like I was in a movie.
The windows rolled down in slow motion. My friend and I ducked into the subdivision and booked it, zigzagging through the grid. We didn’t stop running until we crossed 8 Mile.
I’d never been so happy to be in Warren in my life.
A few months later, I was looking at apartments near Wayne State University, and the leasing agent told me that she also had some great, cheap properties by 7 Mile and Van Dyke.
“If you’re not freaked out about living in Detroit, they’re really nice.”
Either she didn’t have a clue or was purposefully misleading me. That neighborhood was absolutely crazy at night, and not even remotely comparable to the neighborhoods around Wayne State. I wanted to live somewhere where I could walk to the convenience store at night without having to worry.
About a year after that, I visited Nortown Bakery in search of paczkis on Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, and it’s time-honored tradition for Detroiters to gorge themselves on what are essentially Polish jelly doughnuts, in stoic preparation for the fasting nobody does anymore.
Nortown Bakery had been mentioned in blogs and message boards as an off-beat place near 7 Mile and Van Dyke, where you can escape the crowds on Fat Tuesday and get great paczkis.
What I found was a sad older man selling boxed paczkis inside a cold, damp building. The sign outside was covered in rust, the awning sagging. The shelves and counters held a startling array of junk. It was a damn wake. The guy was cashing in whatever equity the name “Nortown Bakery” had left.
It was so sad. It hadn’t always been this way. I thought back to my family members and their programmed fear of 8 Mile and wondered if it hadn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My great-grandmother was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, off of Van Dyke between 7 Mile and McNichols/6 Mile. Some of my family members are afraid to visit her grave.