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This Is My Detroit: What the Motor City Means to Me

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This is the 20th anniversary of my move from Detroit to New York City. I traveled on a one-way ticket from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport to New York's LaGuardia airport. I left behind the city that had been my home for my first 30 years. I did not look at what I was leaving behind in Detroit, but I was focused on my future in NYC.

The city of Detroit that I left behind 20 years ago was burned out and bruised, and since then, it has declined even further. Brad Anderson recently filmed a movie, "Vanishing on 7th Street," in Detroit and claimed, "If you are doing an apocalyptic movie, Detroit is the place to go. The streets are devoid of people and the vacant buildings are endless."

In fact, there are no longer traffic reports within the city of Detroit. There are simply not enough cars and people to fill the large geographic expanse that is the City of Detroit. Sadly, I read the negative press as Detroit wrestles with itself to figure out how to reinvent itself through rezoning, bringing in new industries like filmmaking and trying to figure out how to retrain its workforce.

It was with much pride that I watched the Chrysler commercial with Eminem during the Superbowl and saw the familiar images of Detroit as they flashed across the screen. The commercial itself was lauded because of its spirit of renewal. But for me, the images of Detroit reminded me of my Motor City soul. Although it was Eminem who first made "8 Mile" widely known, for me that was simply where my grandmother lived; 8 Mile Road is the imaginary dividing line between the city of Detroit and the surrounding northern suburbs.

There were some images in the commercial that resonated with me, as they represented my Detroit -- for example, frescos from the Detroit Institute of Arts. These famous frescos were created by acclaimed artist Diego Rivera and feature images of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Edsel Ford (who commissioned the work) and William Valentiner (Director of the DIA at the time). These men were contemporaries and influential on the artistic, technological and industrial roots of Detroit. Cars define the Motor City, not because Henry Ford invented the car there but rather because he invented the method of efficient manufacturing: the assembly line. His goal was to mass-manufacture and mass-market his cars so that his workers could each drive a Ford car. Although most people know that Detroit has one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East, the reason is not widely known. It was Henry Ford who brought them to Detroit: because Muslims did not drink alcohol, they were more reliable as assembly line workers.

Growing up in Detroit as the daughter of a Teamster attorney, I was keenly aware of the car/industrial culture as well as the management/labor tension. The Big Three automakers (Chrysler, Ford and GM) were like big battleships, almost unstoppable and unable to easily change course. They were strong and mighty. During the MidEast oil crisis of the '70s, each of the Big Three automotive companies had two parking lots for their vendors: a near parking lot for those driving American cars, and a far parking lot for those driving foreign cars. The first car that I had was a Plymouth Duster with an awesome stereo and eight-track tape player. This is my Detroit!

Another important part of Detroit is the African-American cultural imprint. Detroit was the last stop on the Underground Railroad -- the escape route for slaves during the Civil War -- before Canada. Many African Americans stayed in Detroit without ever crossing over to the border (the only place where the U.S. is north of Canada.) The Fist of Detroit, "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis's fist, was shown during the commercial. Downtown Detroit is also home to the Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings play hockey. Another important image in the Chrysler commercial showed a gospel choir, central to the culture in Detroit, from which Motown music was an outgrowth. Aretha Franklin was the daughter of a preacher. Many Motown artists grew up attending large churches with active choirs and were influenced by the music they heard. The original home of Motown Records, "Hitsville USA," was also located downtown, near Wayne State campus. I would drive by it almost every day in my car with my Motown music blaring. The soundtrack of my Detroit years is a combination of Motown music including Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, and others. But I also listened to the music of homegrown Detroit rock-and-roll artists like Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent and Grand Funk Railroad. This is my Detroit!

There is also the food of Detroit -- the longtime rivalry of the next-door Coney Island restaurants: hot dogs with "skin" slathered in "loose" chili, onions and mustard. American Coney Island and Layfayette Coney Island battle today for the top dog and "loose" hamburger (chili in a hamburger bun). In Detroit's Greektown, you can yell "oompah" to saganaki -- cheese grilled in brandy and lit on fire! If you are thirsty, there is the famous "pop" (soda) of Detroit -- Vernors Ginger Ale (the oldest soft drink brand in America) and Faygo Red Pop. Or even drink a Stroh's beer. Also, pizza is a Detroit staple, with two successful chains beginning there: Little Caesar's and Domino's.

Fondly, I remember going to Sander's, which was an old-fashioned fountain shop, when I was growing up. Typically, they served water in paper cones that fit into the tin bottoms. Sander's was famous for their hot fudge cream puff. It's a pastry filled with cold vanilla ice cream and hot Sanders fudge poured on top (mmm...). And I almost forgot Sander's bumpy cake -- chocolate cake and frosting with "bumps" of buttercream between the frosting and cake!

While I was growing up in Detroit, fall meant going to the cider mills for freshly squeezed apple cider and piping-hot greasy donuts. You could smell the apples a mile away! Hudson's (now Macy's) was my favorite destination for shopping and lunch. Usually on Saturdays, we would go to Northland Mall, the first mall in the country and the location of my first job. We would go to Hudson's for their famous Maurice Salad, with its creamy dressing, slivered pickles and turkey. It was often imitated but never duplicated. And then there was the classic Detroit/Chinese dish: almond boneless chicken. I have never seen it served anywhere else except Detroit. This is my Detroit!

I could go on and on, but here is a random list of things that I think of in my Detroit: Ambassador Bridge to Canada, going Up North, water skiing on the lakes, the Detroit Zoo, Greenfield Village, ice-fishing in a shanty, tobogganing and sledding, Bob-Lo Island, Tiger baseball and the 1968 World Series, the Detroit Pistons, cruising Woodward Avenue in the summer with the windows down and the music blaring, Hudson's Thanksgiving Parade, Freedom Festival fireworks, summer nights at Pine Knob open air music theater, Pontiac Trans-Am, the "mile" roads, short humid summers and long snowy winters. This is my Detroit!

For 20 years now, I have been living, working and raising my own children in metropolitan NYC. I have never much thought of myself as an "ex-pat" or what it meant to leave Detroit -- until now. There was something about seeing that commercial that triggered a flood of great memories and nostalgia for my Detroit. I realize that my Detroit lives on in my memory and that the future city will be a newfangled version of what I remember, perhaps even unrecognizable to a former hometown girl. Although they can change the physical borders and the types of industries that support the state, I think that the soul of Detroit will remain.

Cue the Temptations' "I'll Be Doggone" and bring on the Coneys! Let's sit back and watch Detroit, like its own Tiger baseball team, come roaring back.

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