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Dispatch from SW Detroit:Seven Generations Seeking Good Home, Good Faith, Strong Will, Hard Working A.K.A. Get Your Own Damn Holiday and Stop Dressing Up Like a Fucking Mexican
On the dawn of Cinco de Mayo, I brace for another rowdy celebration, droves of drunk settlers descending on my backyard, leaving urine, vomit, and trash in their wake. Cinco de Mayo, a holiday Mexicans and Mexican Americans rarely celebrate. But a holiday, nevertheless, to which this Latinx is forced to bear witness every year. Every year, I cringe at the sombreros and ponchos, the fake mustaches. I want to write an open letter to those who don them, about why this is akin to blackface, or Native American Halloween costumes. Perhaps we can work through the intellectualism of the violence of colonization, othering, and erasure, enter into dialogue about our bodies, and right to sovereignty. But this year, I reflect on this trauma over five generations in a four-block radius, collectively through time and space, and then through the witnessing of the changing in the land — this phase of colonization called gentrification. My family and this land are two clauses within the footnote of some history book, unseen or unwritten. This is a dispatch from Detroit's small Latinx diaspora, SW Detroit, Mexicantown, the US-Canadian border, frontera norteña, from my back window.
First, I want to talk what's what since the 1994 signing of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The land speculation in SW Detroit started then — for the bridge, for trade — but it was also the subsequent migration. Many people left Mexico because NAFTA hollowed out not only U.S. factories but also Mexican farms, thanks to huge U.S. agricultural subsidies. Farmers had to flee because they couldn't compete with Kraft cheese. I start there.
Dispatch, NAFTA: I'll tell you of the gang war between the Latin Counts and the Sur 13 which included tagging, shootouts, the burning of three houses, the home raid of an elder, and the portrait of two Red Berets standing in front of her house who couldn't prevent its eventual burning. I'll tell you about the eviction of a family because of a slumlord who didn't pay the taxes, and his tenant who had unpaid workdays but no recourse because his employers knew he didn't have papers. The eviction of this family resulted in the collapse of a budding friendship between two six-year old girls. I'll tell you about witnessing a woman watch a house be bulldozed by the forces of a millionaire magnate, the sole owner of the international bridge to Canada. She held a picture frame and cried in the alley as the house was smashed into the ground, leaving a vacant lot. And I'll tell you that was not the only house, and not the only woman.
I want to always remember the names of Maria and her children, I want to see their faces, now after returning to Mexico to be with their deported father, picked up on his way to work by ICE. Their two-year-old helped me plant the garden in the lot where the house was bulldozed. Where is the family now that was fixing their minivan to transport their four kids when the bank foreclosed on their home? I know where the hipsters who currently occupy it are, drinking $5 espresso that takes twenty minutes to slow brew. This is all just on my block. NAFTA made Detroit the busiest northern border crossing, broke apart so many homes, forced migration for labor — and with this came more policing, more security services, more trucks, more pollution.
In SW Detroit, you see many police: mounted police, rail police, Detroit Public Schools police, the Ambassador Bridge Security, the flashing lights of SWSOL, private security guards, border patrol, Homeland Security, Wayne County Police and State Police, and the Detroit Police Department.
Some residents participate in citizens' patrol, and cooperate openly with police. Yet crime and safety are almost like a caste system, separating those protected and those committed to prison. Unregistered landlords fined, garbage cans left on the curb, too. Unpaid taxes? Evicted. No money for water? Shut off. Police are chasing poor black and brown teenagers down the street, a drug bust to account for half-grams of medical marijuana, handing out a nine-count felony for graffiti while rape kits collect dust, while murder remains nightly news. This is the message: if you climb out of poverty, get out or go to jail.
Yes, some are happy with more police, happy that higher property values will get them more for their property. Maybe they can stop fearing home invasion, maybe they can finally move to the suburbs, retire somewhere warm, with dignity. Some can now finally afford their subprime mortgages on the rents of wealthy Brooklynites, a small stopgap in eviction. I wish all the assistance could've arrived sooner — fixed the roof under your tarp before you gave up, given out small grants to replace the melted siding from the fire, served you some help before giving up the business, battling depression, drug abuse, and abandonment, imprisonment. If only we could've defeated Clinton's NAFTA, would it have prevented the loss of your son to gang war, or the selling of the tortilla shop? Maybe then our schools wouldn't have closed, our language wouldn't have been stripped from the classroom.
Twenty-two years later, we see how NAFTA paved the path for gentrification. Those with access to capital are winning spaces and places that others simply cannot afford.
Dispatch, Gentrification: I want to show the world the photos of the family that lived in the neighboring historic home for generations, the furniture they put into a huge dumpster filled three times over. A tax eviction, it was then auctioned once at $30,000 while the living heir cared for his dying uncle. I want you to see the faces of the men who squat the green house, the fake injury one uses to lure more donations from Canadian tourists, and the guitar his comrade carries. He works as a security guard. I want to know what they will do when the new family moves in to the house purchased off the auction block from under a Chinese investor for half the price, $22,000, because they work for the city. And of course now, self-proclaimed "baby Gatsby" put a bar in the place of a community center, bought up two more houses with that good California money. The repeated murmurs of renaming Mexicantown, and the remapping of its boundaries to create a kinship with Corktown, West Corktown, or Millennial Village — this blank slate narrative.
For years, I loved the smell of fresh grass, but I know now that the cutting is the smell of gentrification, as the lawnmowers ride through the boulevards. Not all the city is cut, you see. For this, I find myself loving the night's darkness, because I know that for every LED street lamp turned on here, there is another turned off in another corner of the city, leaving it unofficially/officially "decommissioned." I want you to see the two sides of the mirror. It is as if we are playing Monopoly here with two unequal currencies, two sets of rules.
NAFTA and its subsequent export of jobs, gentrification, the buying up of property by the wealthy, white newcomers to recreate the neighborhood, are phases of colonization going back before 1701. The empty lots where my mother's mother's home stood were bulldozed by I-75 decades before globalization. The overpass freeway easement is the remains of my great-grandparents' home, and occasionally the military recruitment billboard pops up as its flag. They came here in 1915 because they were run off the southern border. We, Latinxs of SW Detroit, are the seventh generation, who began this struggle on the frontera Mexicana when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, who fled from forced relocation onto the reservations, who got kicked out of Mexico, who came north with a dream on the coattails of the Great Migration to the lands stolen from Anishnnabe. Are we now only fated to repeat the destiny once again on the frontera norteña? One hundred years later, we're still seeking a home, a land.
[The soundtrack to this dispatch from SW Detroit is barges and fire trucks, the hum of I-75, rancheros, and dubstep. The music competes on the bars of a single notation, yet only one is in diminuendo as quinceñeras, and bodas, disappear.]
The appropriation that happens every year on Cinco de Mayo, in the age of the gentrification of Mexicantown, is added insult to injury — another phase of colonization, a word that — like capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy — I have learned to discuss the blunt object that forces brown and black people to hate ourselves so much that we believe we don't deserve to exist. To be silent and be humble. To work hard, and suffer to thrive. To pray in faith, but without hope. To endure and witness the dismantling of our identities, like at every Cinco de Mayo. Others have the citizenship or the skin color to dress up in sombreros and ponchos, drink Coronas, sing "Margaritaville," and get "white girl" smashed, and they are applauded, even rewarded. Maybe they are not at risk of losing it all from dislocation, or deportation like those who serve them in the restaurants where they eat. For me, it's a reflection of Trump-style nationalism, awakened in the last election cycle, which thrives in the culture of "New Detroit." It values money over memory, dispossession over democracy. And it's a mockery of the last thing we have the right to own — our own culture and identities.
What Wikipedia Won't Tell You about Delray, Michigan, 48209
Scheherazade Washington Parrish
You can smell Delray from three different cities.
The skies are streaked yellow during the day, and someplace between steel and sewerage the smell of pancakes, fish, and grits wakes a household.
In the miasma of waste and Zug a grandfather calls his granddaughter Shank and teaches her to sow New Year's collards in the front yard.
Someplace, between Yale and West End streets,
Someplace between funk and rot, folks are tired of not being able to breathe in the day tired of not being able to sleep at night.
Some nights, if you listen closely you can hear the neighborhood hum something between stench and haze between song and secret.
Cass Corridor #1
Joel Fluent Greene
If I'm to talk about the corridor I know The narrow, suffocating stroll Where street walkers in neon clothes Or threads Would walk up Cass with tricky goals
The darkness of it all Still
I just want to be accepted!
I won't forget about the GOATS I'll remember the names The characters, the dark rooms The deep base and sticky floors For Sale signs slapped on a ghost Ghosts that can't be revived Only replaced I'm familiar with the haunts All the stories that took place
This corridor I know Spin me round blindfolded On some street off Cass I'll find my way home Or find my way to The Bronx Bar Perhaps that's preferable For the drowning of a sorrow Thoughts of friends I used to know When all of this shiny Was fresh and exciting Oh!
A punk song for crazy Dan For East Palmer and Woodward Regret that we never played chess On your old glass countertop Kind of miss the conversations About our city and these changes The displacement of the seniors The ordaining of the Caesar And the Quickening of fever Pitching ideas over wood oven pizza And the coolest craft malt liquor Us fools!
We should have thought bigger When the land was cheaper The collective attention skewed eastern This was our secret, raw speck of dust On the palm of Michigan And on that speck We was living microscopic Simple dreams and sin
Could call it a progress I'll call it a sure thing Wide open for the right ones With paper of green
This is for the brother Jean jacket, a million buttons The King of Cass Adorned is his crown
And to all young the misfits Promise to enjoy it!
Hop on the gentri-train Pop in the new pop ups But respect the bumpy road Underneath the bike lane Cass Corridor The original name.
Bounded on the south by the Fisher, the north by the Ford, the west by the Lodge, and the east by M-1 (a.k.a. Woodward) lies the neighborhood and state of mind known as the Cass Corridor. Welcome.
One hundred years ago, the Cass Corridor was an exclusive residential area, replete with Victorian mansions and Gothic-inspired churches, within walking distance of the burgeoning downtown. As the city grew rapidly in the 1920s, the Corridor — a transition zone on the northern edge of the central business district — became home to short-term housing and automotive-related businesses that fundamentally changed the character of the area. The affluent moved further north, and the housing stock began to be neglected.
Urban renewal projects after World War II accelerated this change. The building of the Fisher and Lodge Freeways literally eliminated whole portions of the neighborhood, creating new boundaries for the Cass Corridor. City leaders in the 1960s relocated the poorest residents from downtown's Skid Row to the neighborhood. Wayne State University and Medical Center expansions in the 1960s and 1970s leveled other residential areas. These disruptions were a blow to the then-working-class population, creating the perfect storm for the Cass Corridor to become the hub of crime, drug activity, prostitution, blight, and homelessness for an entire generation.
In the midst of these metamorphoses, and the great societal events of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Wayne State University remained the city's largest higher education institution, serving as a magnet for students and citizens across the spectrum of interests and ideologies. Progressives, radicals, nonconformists, artists, musicians, and anarchists of every race, color, creed, and orientation made the Cass Corridor their home. This diversity made and continues to make the Cass Corridor one of Detroit's richest cradles of culture and creativity.
The advent of the twenty-first century brought renewed interest in the area by the University Cultural Center Association (UCCA) to create an alliance among the major commercial, educational, cultural, and medical institutions. This alliance became the driving force for the redevelopment of the area, also expanding the targeted geographical footprint to encompass areas north and east of the Cass Corridor. This zone is the recently rebranded sector now known as Midtown Detroit.
So, what is a neighborhood? For me, it's not just a space. It's a place. A place that derives its meaning from the people who inhabit it. The interplay of people within a place defines our love for it.
Anyone can walk down a street and visit a building anywhere — in Detroit, in Paris, or in Dakar. Yet what makes it a desirable destination is the story of that place: the people, the personalities, and the relationships.
And the Cass Corridor neighborhood is an amazing place! It's full of some of the most interesting people in the city. These people have built, maintained, rebuilt, and enriched their neighborhood, defining and authoring its evolution over the decades. The Cass Corridor has a great history: once the city's wealthiest residential area; home to the world's first auto show in the Willys-Overland building; a national hub for film distribution, pharmaceuticals, and automotive parts suppliers; home to the largest Masonic Temple in the United States; home to one of the oldest family-owned liquor licenses in Detroit, through George at the Temple Bar; home to Dally in the Alley, the studio and stage for Marcus Belgrave, Jack White, Joni Mitchell, and many more.
The people and personalities of the last few decades have defined the Cass Corridor of our time. Who are these people? They are risk-takers, courageous blue-collar hustlers, solidarity-minded good Samaritans, helping hands, and nonconformists. They are off the grid, artistically expressive, intelligent, savvy, cosmopolitan, global, color blind. They are committed to affordability, access, inclusivity, safety, cleanliness, pedestrian and bike-friendly environments, local sourcing, recycling, ecological responsibility, and cultural diversity. These people do not wait for others to deliver; they act. In their environment — often viewed by others as blighted, distressed, and disposable — they create their own beauty and desired reality. A beauty those who remain in gated communities will never experience. We who live, work, and play in the Cass Corridor do so deliberately. This is our home. We are happy here. We have created an enviable community and quality of life only dreamt about by others.
Excerpted from "The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook"
Copyright © 2017 Belt Publishing.
Excerpted by permission of Belt Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Aaron Foley 9
Introduction: Motor Notion Zoe Villegas 11
Dispatch from SW Detroit: Sevan Generations Seeking Home, Good Faith, Strong Will, Hard Working A.K.A. Get Your Own Damn Holiday and Stop Dressing Up Like a Fucking Mexican Michelle Martinez 14
What Wikipedia Won't Tell You about Delray, Michigan, 48209 Scheherazade Washington Parrish 18
Cass Corridor #1 Joel Fluent Greene 19
Cass Corridor Elias Khalil 22
Tiger Stadium Vince Guerrieri 25
Fiction: Steve's Place R.J. Fox 29
Jos. Campau Avenue and Parke-Davis Historic Site Heather Harper 43
Seeking Solitude in Rivertown Jeff Waraniak 45
West Village: A Five-Year Reflection Julién Godman 47
When Ruby Jones Was Here Lakisha Dumas 49
Just off Mock Avenue, on the Detroit Side Monica Hogan 51
Alleys Michael Constantine McConnell 54
War Hero Hakeem Weatherspoon 59
Poletown Drew Philp 61
A One-Year Stand in Hamtramck Aaron Foley 65
Interlude: Be Safe Justin Rogers 71
Highland Park: Stories within Stories in a City within a City Bailey Sisoy Isgro 73
Long Live the City of Trees Marsha Music 84
Six Mile, Dexter, Plymouth, Gratiot, and Grand River Lhea J. Love 93
A Home in Russell Woods Jill Day 95
Minock Park Erin Marquis 97
"No, it's not the East…" Sara Jane Boyers 100
What's Really Good? April S.C. 103
Bused In and Bused Out: How Judicial Rulings Changed Warrendale Lori Tucker-Sullivan 105
Warrendale, a Chance Medley with Lines from "Brother of Leaving" Cal Freeman 110
Our Bungalow on Braile Ian Thibodeau 113
Plymouth Rock Landed on Me Lhea J. Love 117
Bagley Barbara Stewart Thomas 118
Palmer Park: A Glorious Crossroad for Nature, Recreation, Creativity, Community, and More Barbara Barefield 121
Biking University District John G. Rodwan, Jr. 124
Sherwood Forest Gail Rodwan 125
Sing, Shout, "Green Acres is the Place to Be!" Maureen McDonald 127
Closing: Detroit: Exodus Will T. Langford IV 137