Tuesday, February 9, 2010

By appointment only

Snow storm in Michigan today so my evening rehearsal was cancelled. That gives me time to write.

I moved to the Detroit area around Labor Day of 1978 to take my first job. My work address was 1 Woodward, which overlooks the Detroit River and had great views into Canada. I commuted from the northern suburbs, living near my college roommate. Most of my commute was by train from which I could gleefully note the clogged freeway the train passed over.

Once a month this company had a luncheon for the professionals and managers in a nearby hall. Each luncheon featured a speaker. One of them was Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. I don't remember what he talked about, though I do remember the line about, "those cornfields north of 8 Mile" implying the suburbs just outside the city was full of hicks.

I didn't stay at that company very long. By the spring of 1979 I had gotten a job at Henry's company in Dearborn, where I worked for 27 years.

As one who took advantage of the cultural institutions of Detroit -- the orchestra, institute of arts, etc. -- I ventured into the city regularly and was puzzled by Dearborn colleagues who bragged about how many years it had been since they last drove into the city. But I didn't grow up in the city and they did.

Coleman Young was the first black mayor of Detroit. He was elected in 1973, not long after the city became majority black, and served as mayor (some say king) until his retirement in 1993. Author Paul Clemens was born in Detroit the year Young took office and has written a book, Made in Detroit, about growing up as a white kid in predominantly black Detroit. I had put this book on my Christmas wish list and my niece bought it for me. She said it looked intriguing and wanted my review of it. So, here it is.

Clemens is a fine writer and tells a fascinating tale. He doesn't try to analyze race relations (well, not too much). He reports on how his experiences are affected by race conflict. One example is the "By Appointment Only" sign in the neighborhood barbershop. That sign only mattered when a black man walked in -- sorry, the next available appointment isn't until next week. The author does comment on how the mayor antagonizes whites to keep blacks voting for him, yet the city keeps declining. Young was asked why the city is in such poor shape and he blames all the people who left -- which had me wondering why he didn't work to make the city more desirable and conciliatory to make fewer people want to leave. The Clemens family stuck it out until the 1990s before bailing for the 'burbs.

I understand a bit more about my former colleagues who saw no reason to cross Detroit city borders. They lived through the racial tensions of the 1950s and '60s (including the 1967 riots) and I did not. They were incensed by Coleman Young. I could ignore the guy.

Clemens describes the location of many Detroit things in the book. I got out a map of the city to note the neighborhoods where his family lived and the various Catholic churches he and his extended family attended. However, many times the author could be elusive. He never names the university where he got his Bachelor degree (Grand Valley State University?), nor the city where he lives a couple years after he gets his Masters (Grand Rapids?). He is even vague about the college in the Cass Corridor (Wayne State University?) where he worked on the grounds crew one summer and the Catholic college (Marygrove?) where he worked once he moved back to Detroit. Why be so elusive?

Clemens reads several black authors, such as James Baldwin, as part of his studies and describes his internal debates with them. At times I wondered where he was going with these thoughts. I kept waiting for him to come up with grand pronouncements on race relations. Perhaps his point is there aren't such things.

Though there are minor drawbacks the story is worth the effort. It’s a book I recommend.

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