Detroit in Fiction

Cars, Motown, the long destructive tail of the 1967 riots. The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Redwings. These pretty much sum up my home town of Detroit for many people. Well, maybe not the Lions. But the city is a lot more complex—and interesting—than these. When I was growing up, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city; now it’s the 27th. That massive change—due to white flight, the auto industry’s shift to the nonunionized South, and other difficulties—was accompanied by a lot of pain. The semblance of optimism in the past few years follows an excruciating and stuttering journey. Fiction tells the story of that journey and the families affected by it.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family of thirteen children has to decide what to do with the house they grew up in on Detroit’s east side. The relationships among the siblings are complicated, and the city itself is like a character restricting their choices. Their parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II to escape the Jim Crow South, and while they faced prejudice and changing economic circumstances, their children are now almost all firmly middle class. When they come together to celebrate their widowed mother’s birthday—possibly her last—you see family relationships in action, the accommodations, the cheer, the old wounds, and the shared expectations. A lovely book.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Some intersections carry their own weight of associations—Hollywood and Vine or Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division—and in this book, Messer delves into the months leading up to the 1967 riots/rebellion and their aftermath. The violence lasted five days, and the city has needed almost fifty years to recover, the entire lifetimes of a great many of its poorest, most affected, residents. Messer’s story shows the ways lives intersected—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young. At a time when tensions and the possibility of danger were rising, tough decisions were needed.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Many readers assume that Detroit is the unnamed rust-belt city that occupies the first half of Morrison’s classic, which helped gain Morrison her Nobel Prize in literature. A complex coming-of-age story, rich in cultural and folkloric references.

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Crime Novels

From the age of nine, Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. Called “the Dickens of Detroit”  Leonard set many of his crime novels there, including City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 52 Pickup, and The Switch.

Image: Peter Mol for Pixabay.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Don’t Miss! Detroit ’67

Detroit '67

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Just a few more performances of McCarter Theatre’s stunning production of Detroit ’67, directed by Jade King Carroll and on stage through October 28. The summer of 1967 is unforgettable for native Detroiters such as myself, and I’ve looked forward to seeing what light playwright Dominique Morisseau would shine on that bleak page in history. Morisseau is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and the third most-produced playwright in the country at the moment, so my expectations were high.
They were certainly met, with this powerful story and strong cast. In her story, sister and brother Chelle (played by Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) have inherited the family home in Detroit, and Chelle is using her portion of their parents’ savings to send her son to the Tuskegee Institute. Lank and his best friend Sylvester (Will Cobbs) have other plans. They want to buy a bar. This would be a big step up from the low-budget blind pig (unlicensed drinking establishment) Lank and Chelle operate in their basement, which is the set for the play.
The Detroit Police Department is going through a repressive period, in which tactical squads of four police officers terrorize, intimidate, and assault residents. If the police discover the blind pig, Chelle and Lank are in deep trouble. Contraction in the auto industry and a significant population decline have decreased economic opportunities for the city’s residents, another reason Lank and Sly want to strike out on their own.
The unexpected presence of the white woman in the household gives the characters a chance to talk about the difference in choices available to them. Chelle is deeply, angrily disappointed that her brother has, in her view, “squandered” the family inheritance—an opinion manifesting in events when the city begins to burn.
Although these are heavy subjects, Morisseau lightens the mood with the humorous efforts of Sly to romance Chelle, and the observations of her best friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
It’s also a story about the power of dreams and the importance of having them, and although these insights are not new, the precarious situation of the protagonists makes them all the more pointed. The fact that half a century later the play’s issues regularly resurface in the daily news underscores their continuing importance and well worth seeing.
The theater has put together a rich set of background resources that includes—of course!—a Spotify playlist that leads off with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Find it here!
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Meadow Brook Hall: SE Michigan Gem

Meadow Brook Hall

photo: Mark Goebel, creative commons license

If you’ve visit Southeastern Michigan, you probably know about charming Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. You may have taken in  a Ford factory tour (conducted in the super-automated Ford F-150 plant, not the grimy industrial behemoth nearby. PS—if you are tempted to blame off-shoring for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, one look at the floor of this factory will give you second thoughts. The culprit isn’t just foreigners, it’s automation. Hardly an assembly-line worker in sight.)

You’ve enjoyed the fantastic murals cropping up in downtown Detroit. And the area’s stunning museums, the zoo, Belle Isle, Hitsville, USA. The trendy upscale restaurants. But if you sojourned in the Motor City without wheels of your own, you may have missed another compelling attraction, Meadow Brook Hall and gardens, 40 minutes north of downtown in a bucolic section of the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Personal Tragedies & Great Wealth

The 180-room Tudor revival mansion was the home of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson. Her first husband, John Dodge, died in 1920, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and his younger brother Horace died less than a year later. She became one of the wealthiest women in American when she and her sister-in-law sold the brothers’ automotive business for the equivalent of more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

John left Matilda with three young children, and in 1925, she married wealthy lumber merchant Alfred Wilson. Tragedy continued to stalk her, however. John and Matilda’s young daughter Anna Margaret died the year before her remarriage. In 1938, her only son Daniel died on his honeymoon, when he drowned off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By then, the Wilsons had built Meadow Brook Hall, now a National Historic Landmark, completed in 1929. Everywhere you look, inside the house and on the grounds, there are details to intrigue and delight the eye and loads of great stories. Once Matilda was surprised by a party, when the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra struck up “Happy Birthday” for her, and a young Frank Sinatra sang.

Meadowbrook Hall

Meadow Brook Hall offers a house tour several times a day—our guide was knowledgeable and talked more about the history than the minutia of decoration which so often bog down tour guides. You also hear about Mrs. Wilson’s significant charitable enterprises, including providing land and funding for the establishment of Oakland University, and her brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. The Hall offers a “behind-the-scenes tour,” which includes servant quarters and the attic (I wonder whether you can climb Alfred Wilson’s secret staircase!). Also a walking tour of the estate, woods, and playhouses. The garages hold classic Dodge vehicles from the early 1900s.

Top off your visit with an outdoor concert at the nearby Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

Books to throw in Your Suitcase

  • Once in a Great City – by David Maraniss, highly readable history of the many facets of Detroit—cultural, racial, economic, political—in 1963
  • The Turner House – by Angela Flournoy, a novel about a large black family as the city of Detroit changes around them. My review.

Detroit’s Music Museum: Hitsville: USA

Motown - Ted Eytan

photo: Ted Eytan, creative commons license

If the button for your car radio’s Oldies’ station is shiny from use, there’s a travel stop for you in Detroit.  The Motown Museum’s headquarters and studio, Hitsville, USA, contained in two connected American Foursquares at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Once success arrived, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., had offices and operations departments in seven houses he owned on both sides of the street, later expanding into a ten-story office building, and eventually moving his whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972. But these buildings are the original home of the Gordy family, as well as the enterprise that created the soundtrack of the 1960s and 19970s: Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and so many more.

Gordie’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards recognized the importance of this original spot and founded the museum in 1985. When Gordy lived there, local kids who had a musical idea were welcome day or night, under the theory that “you can’t put a time limit on creativity.”

Gordie recruited a backup band from Detroit jazz clubs, that became legendary as the Funk Brothers (fantastic documentary about them: Standing in the Shadow of Motown). Likewise one of his girl groups, the Andantes, served as backup singers on dozens of iconic records, from “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Gordy wanted music and lyrics that were upbeat. “Part storefront church gospel, part jazz joint on a Saturday night, part street corner symphony,” that was the Motown Sound.

Though many Motown performers became major stars, they started as neighborhood kids. They knew each other from living down the block or around the corner, and many of them weren’t out of high school yet. Gordy set up an “artist personal development” program for them, headed by talent agent Maxine Powell, who taught grooming, poise, and social graces, to give these young people the polish that would support their success.

Museum visits are conducted by tour leaders in small groups and include a brief film plus an opportunity to sing in the legendary Studio A, where so much great music was created. The costume display, sample records, and photographs of those early days are amazing, though your tour group will move ahead before you can begin to read all the captions!

****Made in Detroit


(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

This is a review of two books with the same title and of the same re-readable excellence.

Made in Detroit, the memoir by Paul Clemens, is a tale of growing up in the 1970s in one of the Motor City’s last white neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to see the whole “minority status” issue turned on its head, and he comes out of it with decidedly mixed emotions. It’s a struggle, a worthy one, and following his evolving attitudes and understanding of both whites and blacks around him is a thought-provoking journey for readers, as well.

Clemens’s family is Catholic and he gets a Catholic education as parishes and schools close one by one. Meanwhile, the family’s economic stability is increasingly shaky due to the rapidly declining auto industry. Yet, the Church and his father’s love of cars were two constants in his life. He says his family members weren’t readers. “There was enough serious content, enough transcendence, in cars and Catholicism; it wasn’t necessary for them to concern themselves with ideas buried away in books.”

Made in Detroit, the book of Marge Piercy poetry, covers an enormous swath of emotional and physical territory. She uses the simplest language to express the deepest thoughts and makes it “poetic,” without superfluous lily-gilding. I was first drawn to her work by her poem “In Praise of Joe.” As a dedicated caffeine consumer, we recognized each other across the page. Here are the two lines that snared me forever: “It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.” And here’s a bit from the title poem:

The night I was born the sky burned red
over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.
The elms made tents of solace over grimy
streets and alley cats purred me to sleep.

Clemens’s book takes place some decades after the night Piercy was born, yet the burning skies (steel mills then), sirens, and desolate streets were only more so in his youth. Despite all the city’s frustrations and conundrums that Clemens describes so well, despite a college education that could have taken him anywhere, he returned to the city. “At times, I feel like a failure in several directions simultaneously,” he writes. “That, with my education and reading, I should be more broad-minded than I am; and that, with the education I received from my father and Sal, I should be angrier about what the broad-minded morons have wrought. . . . Detroit, which drives people to extremes, has left me standing in the middle.”

Clemens’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, describing the experience of a closeknit black family in Detroit and Susan Messer’s beautiful Grand River and Joy, about a Jewish businessman’s reluctance to flee to the suburbs around the time of the 1967 riots. Perhaps one family story at a time, it might be possible to assemble a picture sufficient to comprehend this fascinating, catastrophe-ridden American city.

*****The Turner House

Detroit, house

photo: ddatch54, creative commons license

By Angela Flournoy – I deeply admire this book about two generations of an African American family living in Detroit. The parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II and had 13 children whose lives play out against the backdrop of drastically changing economic and social circumstances over six decades.

Newlyweds Viola and Francis Turner spent some of the early months of their marriage separated when he moved to Detroit to find work. Chapters about that era in the family history alternate with stories of the family’s present-day experiences. By and large, their children have many more choices than they did. The parents started out poor, the children are almost all firmly in the middle class.

Principal characters in the narrative are Charles Turner (Cha-Cha to the family), the eldest child, born in 1944, and patriarch of the family since his father’s death and the youngest, Lelah, born in 1967. Lelah has the most difficulties, many of which derive from a bad early marriage and her gambling addiction. She’s near-homelessness and shunned by her daughter Brianna. Cha-Cha is plagued by a haint, which has brought him in contact with a psychotherapist, a much younger African American woman to whom he’s unexpectedly attracted. These are secrets just waiting to burst out. Readers get to know several other family members reasonably well, too, especially brother Troy, the former soldier, now Detroit cop, and Cha-Cha’s wife Tina, who wonders whether her husband is slipping away.

With these two dramas bookending the family’s present-day story, Viola’s large dispersed family is coming together to celebrate her birthday, very probably her last. How they accommodate each other, buck each other up, revisit old wounds—every interaction seems exactly right. They have expectations of each other (“Turner men don’t . . .”) and a strong sense of their shared history. I marveled at Flournoy’s acutely observed assessments of the siblings and their motivations, for example: “The things we do in the name of protecting others are so often attempts to spare some part of ourselves.”

Now that Viola lives with Cha-Cha and Tina, a key issue is whether to sell the house they grew up in, in the largely abandoned heart of the city. Everyone has an opinion, but the long and the short of it is that the house is deep under water. Much more is owed on it than they could ever hope to recover in a sale. Sentimental ties seem hardly to justify the cost of keeping it, yet it will cost thousands to sell it.

You know these people. By remaining so true to its human core, The Turner House is “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel,” said Matthew Thomas in the New York Times, who points out another of its strengths: “artful without being showy.” No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award! In Flournoy’s biography, we read that her father was from Detroit, and many of the tiny touches could only come from someone who knows that city well. It’s a beautiful book deserving of a wide readership.

Read an engaging BuzzFeed interview with Angela Flournoy here.

*****Grand River and Joy

Detroit, abandoned building

Michigan Central Station. When I was a child, my mother and I caught trains here. (photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons license)

By Susan Messer – Bought this book about a notable Detroit intersection (writes Messer: “Joy Road—now there was a misnomer”) after reading an excellent Messer story last summer in Glimmer Train.

This novel covers the months leading up to Detroit’s horrific 1967 summer and its aftermath. The riot/rebellion the city and its residents–and vicariously, the entire country–experienced in July 1967 lasted five days, 43 people died, more than a thousand were injured, and the associated fires destroyed thousands of buildings. The city has never recovered.

Messer’s story details the intersection of lives, as well—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, parents and children. In the unsettled time leading up to the July events, Harry Levine—the Jewish owner of a wholesale shoe store founded by his father—and his family members and neighbors debate whether to leave their Detroit neighborhood and join the flight to the white suburbs. Harry also maintains an increasingly uneasy relationship with the store’s upstairs tenants, Curtis and his teenage son Alvin, who are black. Inescapable are the longstanding tensions between blacks and Jews, which derive from a tangled history of thwarted expectations and differing patterns of upward mobility.

Early in the morning after Halloween, nine months before the uprising, Harry and his sister arrive at the store and find painted on the front window the words “Honky Jew Boy.” Alvin is suspected. Later during the riots, when buildings all around the store are erupting in flames, Harry’s building is one of the few to survive, partly because this time the white paint splashed across the front window spells out “Soul Brother.” Alvin wrote it to save his and Curtis’s home.

Harry is a sympathetic character, but he suffers by a lack of coming to grips. He ignores problems with the building’s boiler, so it eventually threatens to blow up in a cloud of steam. More important, he downplays and ignores the simmering social forces in his community, which do explode in violence. While he could have been more conscientious about the boiler, the social forces were beyond one man’s capacity to redress. But he ignored how those forces might affect his wife, daughters, and sister, even though all around him “should we stay?” and “should we go now?” were a dominant conversation. Curtis, especially, tries to cut through the cotton wool Harry surrounds himself with and give him a dose of reality. It’s easier just to keep on keepin on.

This is a beautifully written story by a thoughtful writer that contains barrels of good humor and fundamental humanity. It helps the reader examine many sides of a complex time that should not be forgotten as long as America’s issues with race remain unresolved.

Assessing Blight

Detroit, my long-ago home town, “is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them,” says Paul Clemins in the New York Times.

Numerous recent books, films, and photo essays have tried to shape and inform those opinions, and I’ve covered a number of them on this website, from the ruin porn phenomenon, to the Heidelberg Project, to the threat to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The plot-thread of of this once-great city was allowed to unravel until the American automotive dream drove right out of town. City lots filled with abandoned homes, the wrecked shells of once-beautiful buildings, suitable for nothing more than desolate parking lots.

A story by Monica Davey in the Times this week describes yet another effort to get a handle on the devastation. A central office is collecting information and photos of every abandoned and dilapidated building in the city, recorded by teams outfitted with computer tablets. The comprehensive database they are compiling will be ready this spring and is expected to help city leaders decide what to try to save and what to demolish.

Former Mayor Dave Bing suggested shrinking the city to a core that could be maintained, instead of continuing to provide city services to blocks with only one or two standing, habitable houses. But even people residing on empty streets that look like farmland—and in some areas actually are being farmed—don’t want to give up their homes. Some officials say demolishing the worst buildings might cost $1 billion, while a public-private effort called the Detroit Blight Authority has begun an aggressive demolition campaign, clearing lots that will become . . . . ? Enough human drama here for scores more books and films.

On the list of LA Times finalists for 2013’s best current issues books is Detroit native and journalist Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It tells the history of a city, but more important, the stories of the people struggling in it. In his review, Clemins says, “Many city supporters [and a nascent creative class is among them] will object to the ‘autopsy’ in the subtitle, though it’s not the suggestion of civic death that rankles. Rather, it’s the suggestion of the surgically precise.” As the teams of surveyors roaming the streets who are in a sense conducting that autopsy can attest, decay is a messy business.