As a native Detroiter, being back in the city for the summer is like encountering an old elementary school friend. You remember their name and why you got along for all those years, but they have been altered in nearly imperceptible ways. The person you used to greet with a hug now requires a polite handshake and a relationship that was once second nature has become foreign.
My maternal grandmother came to Detroit from Choctaw County, Alabama in 1962 in search of employment in the thriving automotive industry since General Motors had just hired her two brothers. Around this time, Hudson's was still on Woodward and the Bob-Lo boat could still be seen floating on the Detroit River on a leisurely summer day. My paternal grandmother has lived and worked in Detroit for her entire life. Our clan has been inextricably linked to the city, but these bonds have recently been uprooted with the decline of the housing market, troubled public school system and limited employment opportunities.
The city that once nourished our well-being and daily lives seems to have retracted its welcoming arms, forcing us to move elsewhere. My mother worked in the city for many years as an educator and transferred to a southern suburb in 2001 for work, while still living 45 minutes away in Detroit. My paternal grandmother was one of the many casualties of the cutbacks in the Detroit Public School System, resigning from her executive position after 35 years. A few years ago, my aunt lost her UAW job that she had acquired right out of high school. My maternal grandmother ended up working for GM for 30 years, but soon after retiring she realized that her neighborhood was no longer a safe place for a single woman, so she moved. My family moved out of the city last year, automatically making me an onlooker instead of the self-proclaimed city girl that I once was. A series of circumstances and life choices have left us only faintly involved with the city that shaped so much of our lives.
I'm a die hard East Sider, with the tiny bruises from Belle Isle's Giant Slide to prove it, but my beloved city is now a shell of what it used to mean to me. The people that once breathed life into its already vibrant atmosphere are relocating. Many lifelong Detroiters are now simply "born and raised" or "from the D," but not actually current residents.
My boyfriend, a lifelong suburban boy who has developed a fascination with the city, recently moved to downtown Detroit with a friend to be closer to his summer job. He's discovering Hart Plaza, Chene Park, Campus Martius, Belle Isle and many of the city's other jewels that were the ever-present background of my upbringing. I've taken the role of an unofficial tour guide, recommending local restaurants and sharing anecdotes of times passed. As much as I enjoy seeing people discover a newfound appreciation for the city, it becomes palpably clear that the city is undergoing an undeniable change.
On any given day, downtown Detroit looks like a perfectly sculpted movie set, complete with large buildings and a picturesque landscape, but it seems as if all of the actors and crew have taken an extended lunch break. There is a sense of idleness in the air. The same features that initially enticed my grandmother in the 1960s and supported my family's daily life is attracting a whole new demographic to the city. We are entering a peculiar era as a new group of Detroiters are moving in while many of the lifelong city dwellers are seeking lives elsewhere, oftentimes due to uncontrollable situations. This city is definitely on the brink of something, but will the people that have been there all along be incorporated into this new Detroit? All I hope is that it transforms back into the city that I've grown to know and love.