Letters from Motown


On Thanksgiving, I took my hometown to task for turning into an American Baghdad or Beiruit.

The idea came from the arrogance of the Big Three heads seeking bailout money from the U.S. Government while being completely tone deaf about taking corporate jets to their hearing.

While the possibility of a bailout remains up in the air, more bad news flowed out of Detroit this week. The town’s two daily newspapers, the Free Press and the News announced they would scale back deliveries to three days a week.

Regardless of the bad news, for the most part Detroiters continue to defend their city against perceived attacks. And, it’s true there’s nothing worse than getting kicked when you are down.

I received several emails taking issue with my portrayal of Motown. The best came from Mark Giannotta, who actually lives in Harrison Township, a small town northeast of Detroit on Lake St. Clair. Here’s what Mark had to say:

My sister-in-law who lives in Pasadena was kind enough to send me your article on Detroit. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your insights about my city. I mean, who would have thought to compare Detroit to Baghdad or Beirut? Or the revelation that we have crack addicts on every corner and drunks staggering down the street? It was marvelous to hear such a fresh and imaginative description of Detroit.

Seriously though, as a lifelong resident, I’m used to having Detroit used as an easy target for columnists who have run out of real topics to write about. I suppose your former experience here may give you some credibility with West Coasters who don’t know any better, but you do a disservice to those who may think that present some total picture of Detroit.

We have a sports writer here–Drew Sharp, you may know him–who has made a living by taking a negative stance on all of our sports teams and athletes. It’s entertaining at times, but tiring in the long run. People get angry with him, but I see it for what it is–he’s just lazy. He hit on formula and he’s milking it for all he can.

So it is with your article. It’s basically all the negative things said about Detroit over the past 20 or 30 years cobbled together and presented as a new vision about a decaying Midwestern city. I sure it made your readers feel better about themselves–and it probably took all of 10 minutes to write–so it accomplished your goal and met your deadline. But do your readers a favor and do some real work next time. Talk to Detroiters. Talk the people that live and struggle here–not the people who shoot up here or drink here. Sure, there are plenty of problems. News flash: That’s not a secret. I know it won’t make for such a side-splitting article, but at least it will be a relatively honest assessment about how good, hard-working people in Detroit are doing their best to make the best of a bad situation.

You’re right, boring.

Mark Giannotta

I also received an email from my cousin, David Hebert, who wrote:

Thanks for having the courage to say that, when no one could or would.  One of my most fond memories was to go down to the parade every year.  Our dads would strap 2x 6 foot A frame ladders and 2 x 8 plank on top of the station wagons, pack all of us kids in the cars and take us down to Woodward and Montcalm or Elizabeth streets, near Grand Circus Park, set the ladders apart, put the plank across them as high as it would go and line up all of kids so we could see over everyone else.  They brought a couple of Thermoses with hot chocolate that our moms made after they put the turkeys in the oven.  Naturally we would arrive 2 hours before the parade started, to get a “good seat,” we drank all of the hot chocolate, long before we saw the first “big head”, or the first giant balloon.  Then finally the bands would come, and the Detroit Fire Dept clowns on ridiculously small mini bikes.  Finally, finally Santa would come waving at all of the kids, saying “Ho, Ho, Ho Merry Christmas.”  That was our cue to hop down from the plank.  Our dads would scramble us kids and  the ladders back to the cars, you and I would carry the plank.  We would drive to 53 Chicago Boulevard and Woodward Ave to a ‘ginormous’ white house.  Your grandma had a giant vat of hot chocolate on the stove waiting for us….not too hot, not too sweet, not too chocolate-ey, just perfect. 
Screw those people if they can’t appreciate not being here and being there….and, you did your time (in Dtroit) and you can say whatever you want to!!

I haven’t replied to David yet, but I did reply to Mark. Here’s my thoughts:

Thank you for the long and thoughtful note.
I’m sorry you think I’m lazy.
I dont’ believe I’m repeating tired and well worn cliches about my hometown.
For the record, I come from a large extended family of Detroiters (and Michiganders) and happen to have a great affection for my heritage. Most of my family still llives in the Detroit area and certainly in Mighigan.
I root for the Lions. I root for the Tigers.
I’m rooting for Detroit to pull something out of the hat. I dont’ believe it will ever happen. Wayne County is too racially fractured. The city was too dependant on one industry for revenues. And anyone who could have done anything about it left for the suburbs or warmer climates.
The city government is too corrupt and the police department is powerless to do anything about it.
How do you think someone like me feels when they find they can’t revisit a childhood memory because the neighborhood is too dangerous?
How do you think someone like me feels when they know their once proud city is a shell of anything it was (or could have been)?
How do you think someone like me feels visiting the revitalized cores of Indianapolis or Cleveland?

Finally, here’s what my mom thought about the whole thing:

It perfectly describes the awful downfall of a once beautiful city. It is very sad for me, I have so many wonderful memories of a happy childhood in that same city. I remember riding the streetcar to my dance class every Saturday morning. The dance studio was on Woodward near the Fox Theater. I can’t imagine such freedom in the city today especially in that neighborhood.


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