National Geographic : 2015 May
Taking Back Detroit 71 could paint a wall and nobody would care.” Agee transcended the streets. His clients include Ree- bok, Quicken, and Fiat Chrysler, and even white suburbanites: He painted a grand piano with feel- good slogans and his signature giant lips. He knows he’s part of a now popular brand, a Detroit that’s tough, resourceful, proud. He resents that the brand has become a talisman for people who hardly know Detroit but boast its name on their shirts. “This big flourishing,” he says, “it’s great! I love it. But most people, they wanna save Detroit. You can’t save Detroit. You gotta be Detroit.” Once Detroit was the Paris of the Mid- west, with its broad river, grand boulevards, and historically significant architecture. It became the Motor City, assembling most of the world’s automobiles, and the Arse- nal of Democracy, manufacturing World War II armaments. Steady work and union wages meant an autoworker could own a home, plus a boat, maybe even a cottage. Some say America’s middle class was born in Detroit, but Motown most certainly was. New freeways lured some Detroiters to the suburbs in the late 1950s, but devastating race riots in 1967 scared away tens of thousands, mostly white families. Detroit has been predict- ing rebirth ever since, starting a year later, when the Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. I remember, because I cut out articles about the riots and the baseball games, gluing them into scrapbooks. I lived in suburbia, where my parents moved in 1957 when I was three, at the edge of a slow wave that would sweep away more than half the city’s population. But my heart lived in Detroit, where Grandpa Zielinski grew roses and garlic, and Grandma walked with me to Polish bakeries for pumpernickel bread. I sang along with the Supremes. I shared my Christmas wishes with Santa at J. L. Hudson’s, a department store that filled a city block and was then the world’s tallest at 25 stories. Rebirth looked promising again when, in the 1970s, the grandson of Henry Ford erected the majestic towers of the Renaissance Cen- ter, dubbed the RenCen. Built like a fortress, it repelled visitors. A 2.9-mile elevated People Mover, inaugurated in 1987, was going to revi- talize downtown; hardly anyone rode it. Three “The question is: How do we protect the people most vulnerable around us as we change the city and make it better?” Shanika Owens and Jasmine Moore are first-year Wayne State law students. The two joined a hundred classmates in a service project with the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, helping weed, garden, and pick up trash in a Midtown neighborhood. Both Detroiters intend to stay in the city, using their degrees to improve its civic life, perhaps as judges. Owens, quoted above, decided to go to law school so she could “learn the rules of the game” for how the city works.