Saturday, May 05, 2007

Marie Laveau is Dead and Living in Detroit

I love Detroit. A recent written attack on the city by a white ex-Detroiter left me wondering what all the fuss was about. It's an urban landscape, the immediate population is much smaller than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, the socio-economic breakdown has shifted radically over time, and now the city is mostly African American. I knew all this when I moved here in 1997.

It is much the same as converting to Catholicism as an adult. There, too, I knew essentially what I was converting into. External critics of both Detroit and Catholicism seem to come in two varieties -- those born into this, now embittered and exiled, and those who never lived anywhere near Detroit who know nothing about it, much like those who despise Catholicism when they know nothing of it from the inside. Sure, Detroit and Catholicism have a convuluted and complex history with lots of conflict and craziness, but what in time hasn't? Much as I love many aspects of Catholicism and disagree with other parts, so it is with my feelings about Detroit.

I enjoy interacting with Detroiters and Catholics and especially with Catholic Detroiters. Both tend to be edgy and interesting. The other day, for instance, a wild-eyed woman sat next to me at a breakfast joint and struck up a pithy conversation, dubbing me "a thinker." She introduced herself as Mary and began talking about saints and sinners, Voodoo and the Iraq War, prisoners, parolees, drug addicts and a certain "Mr. Buzzard." After a while, it felt like this mysterious Detroiter woman was an ecstatic messenger from the big Mary herself. I love moments like that -- Detroit is filled with them. All you have to do is keep an open heart and your wits about you.

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Detroit, particularly in Mexicantown, close by the Ambassador Bridge. A new welcome center is opening on the US side, though it was not yet open as of last weekend from what I could tell. A very affordable economy operates in and around Mexicantown. You can have a full spread meal at some of the taquerias for $6 -- including 20% tip. You can bring home a sack of freshly made tamales from La Gloria Bakery and an assortment of baked goods for under $10. Saints candles are less than $2 apiece -- much more reasonably priced than at a suburban New Age shop, and right at the source.

If I was an entrepreneur with tons of capital, I'd want to recreate a French Quarter close by the Detroit River to evoke something New Orleans-like and to provide a new magnet for people gathering along the lines of Mexicantown and Greektown. Detroit was founded by the French in 1701, seventeen years before New Orleans (La Nouvelle-Orléans, 1718) so this is not as outlandish as it might seem. The more downtown apartments, flats, condos, cultural attractions and eateries, the better -- more jazz, more blues, more Creole culture with a Detroit flair, and more emphasis on Detroit's status as a trading center astride the Canadian border. And, for God's sake, more border crossings. I like imagining a new Rivière du Détroit, open to all.

Today's Rune: Flow.

Birthdays: Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Empress Eugénie (b.Doña Maria Eugenia Ignatia Augustina Palafox-Kirkpatrick, Countess of Teba), Tyrone Power, Leo Ryan, Tammy Wynette, Michael Palin, Ian McCulloch.

A salute to Detroit!


the walking man said...

Finally someone who understands the beauty of the grit. My ancestors on my fathers side were French protestant (Huguenots?) who left France and and some of them wound up here and have been here ever since. although i am the only one of my siblings that still live in the city I can only imagine myself living in one other place.

I think the most important part of the post is the four words "keep an open mind"

But what I think is missing is that people need to know and understand not the 18th century history of Detroit but rather the history from 1914 forward and the impact Henry Ford had when he went to three shifts a day and started paying them that met his standards of approval $5 a day.

The population decrease by the way went from a peak in 1949 od 1.9 million people to todays somewhere between 800k and 900k.

but a wonderful post and good to know that someone besides me loves this town trying to birth itself to a new creature.

Erik Donald France said...

TWM, thanks much for your comments and insights. Clearly I've left much of the biggest industrial period out -- more on that at some point. There's a chapter about Detroit in between world wars in Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night that's interesting. He worked in a Ford factory, I think at River Rouge.

JR's Thumbprints said...

My sentiments exactly--Detroit and Catholicism do have a convuluted and complex history. After teaching for the Archdiocese of Detroit, I had a better understanding of this.

the walking man said...

The Rouge Plant is actually in the far south of Dearborn and straddles the river of that name. It was Henry Fords dream to build this monster that took in all of the necessary raw components and turn out a complete car at the end, including smelting, glass works, parts manufacturing, small and large and, bring them all together into an integrated assembly line.

It is complete with its own power plant 50kv if I remember right, that and the need to have a river big enough to accommodate his own fleet of ore carrying ships was what determined the positioning of this still running but somewhat decommissioned plant.

by comparison of money at the time to today Henry Ford was the richest man in the world, the Bill gates of his moment. also anti-Semitic enough to start his own newspaper which has today evolved into The Dearborn Press.

Another turning point in Detroit history that HF had nothing to do with was that the Honorable Coleman A. Young was born and raised a Catholic, but when he was of age the Detroit Catholic school system turned him away because of the color of his skin which in turn led to his "no authority but my authority" position/polarization stance.

Interesting story in CAY's moment of time; read up on his appearances before HUAC senate committee during the 50's "I ain't no snitch" when most were so afraid of the power that they named names and literally ruined many a career.