You know what frustrates me?
This. This right here.
And it has a noble-ish purpose.
Next week there will be the world’s auto show here in my city, Detroit.
The one of the burnt-out buildings and the broken governing system and the ineffective public transportation system. I know, I know. You think I don’t know?
I work here. I love it. I love the beauty and the raw honesty.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every place is broken. Every place has wounds and painful secrets and pain and tears and addiction.
Do you live in a perfect city? With well-coiffed homes? Guess what? Those are all happy masks and the people inside still struggle with hardship and brokenness, just like anyone else.
(Sorry, but it was a bubble that needed to be burst. )
That’s what I love about Detroit, though. There aren’t really any masks left. Everyone knows it has serious, serious flaws. I feel like every city is broken in some way, but some have functioning street lamps. Detroit can’t always claim that…and that’s OK. Detroit just is what it is—a beautiful place, off of a river, with rich history and strong people.
Do you want to hear about the people? Because I could tell you about them.
I could tell you about the man who shared once, in an open meeting, that he had been “dry” for a year.
A year. What astounding strength.
Sometimes I give up stupid things for Lent because I try to grow in virtue, I really do. Sometimes I give up peanut butter because, I kid you not, I could eat it every morning. Sometimes I give up music because if we don’t control our passions then they control us. And, every Lent, I still eat and listen and indulge on Sundays. “They’re feast days,” I argue, “we shouldn’t fast…but rather feast.” And I cheat on other days, too, because I’m stupid-weak.
I’m not chemically addicted to peanut butter. I just love it. And, again, I’m stupid-weak.
What if I was addicted, though? And my body pleaded that it needed it every hour of every day? And, instead, I said, “No.”
That’s what I saw that day. This still moves me. Against his culture and temptations and even the workings of his person he turned down his drug. Can you even imagine?
One time one of my coworkers took some high schoolers from the city on retreat. I think we were two weeks into the school year. She came back and I asked how the retreat went. She told me to keep the young people in her prayers—already they had seen three (I think?) school shootings. Already one of the young people saw their cousin fatally wounded on the back of a public bus, trying to defend someone else.
Do you remember high school? Do you remember trying to stay motivated? What if the violence around you daily caused you to fear for your own life? And still, every day, I see them, the high schoolers walking to school, taking the bus to school.
That’s what I see in the faces of the people I meet: strength and determination.
Once or twice a week I walk through the streets with friends from the local church and ask people if they need sandwiches or socks…and some of the people just need a handshake, you know? They just need to hear that my name is Danielle and hello and nice to meet you, friend.
Sometimes I see one or two of my favorites on the street (how strange—but, favorites emerge). There’s one man, called “David,” who is either mute or deaf and mute…I’m not really sure. I just know that he can’t speak, so instead he substitutes expressions and eye movements and pointed fingers for words, but he has enough expression for more words than most have. And he smiles to point out that there is goodness here, there is beauty here.
There’s a woman who wears a long, curly blond wig and sits in the crevices of the parking structures and the abandoned buildings, but she has the brightest smile and my favorite sense of fashion. If there’s a choice between a grey hat and a bright pink hat—the bright pink, please. “Oh, how pretty!” she exclaims until I’m ecstatic, too. Yes. A bright pink hat. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
This is Detroit.
Detroit with the most beautiful, beautiful architecture—so varied and inspiringly soaring. Detroit with the colorful history: settlers and Fr. Gabriel Richard and the bootleggers in the time of the prohibition. Detroit where my grandfather carved his initials with my grandmothers in the tree at the park.
And, also, of course, Detroit with the food desert. Detroit with the prostitutes who stared down my car even when, God help us, it was negative thirty-six outside. Detroit where I see drug deals so frequently I’m not even shocked anymore.
So. There’s a broken-down building next to mine.
Across the street is the fanciest of hotels.
Every year, for this auto show, they get the biggest poster of a slick new car and affix it on top of the broken building so that the fancy people can just look at the car and not the broken building.
I’m not about this, decision-makers.
I get what’s going on. We want people to focus on all the good and creativity that is in Detroit and, I agree, there is goodness and hope here.
But let’s not pretend it isn’t broken, too.
I love the Detroit that has no masks left.
I’m not about to pretend that Detroit isn’t burnt and broken and bleeding and hurting—because it is all of those things.
But I feel like covering cracked pavement with a tarp that pictures Stepford does a disservice to the wildflowers that are trying to spring from the cracks.
Look at our old buildings—weren’t they marvelous? Isn’t this sad?
Look at our homeless—does your heart not ache?
Look at the young people—don’t they deserve to know they are loved and we want them to be successful, happy adults?
Please don’t just slap on a band-aid and walk away like everything is great and dandy and isn’t this city just a peach?
The sign is there now, and it will be there for the few weeks of the auto show. And then it will come down until next year there is a fancier, sleeker car. I’m not against cars. I’m not against nice signs. I’m just hurt that someone’s entire focus in this matter is: the person looking out of a hotel window for five seconds. And, you know, I’m happy that that anyone would take the time to visit the D (welcome! I love it here, too!). But…let them see it for goodness’ sakes! Let them see poverty. Stare it down. It tears at you, doesn’t it?
Sometimes there are no simple solutions. That’s just life. Sometimes you need to take the tiniest of baby steps where you face reality and do something. But I’d rather we didn’t pretend like “problems don’t exist, we can just put a sign on top of them.”
No. They exist. But we can still work and love and do our best.
And maybe a fancy person staying at the hotel would say, “Man, Detroit is such a dump and I’m never coming back.”
You know what? Their loss. They’ll never meet David or smell the hot dogs in the summer or chat with the woman who feeds the pigeons.
But maybe someone else could look at the broken building, decide the frame was still worth something, that the city was still worth something, and invest some time and love and that’s really what we need anyway.
I’m anti-mask, but I’m pro-Detroit.
There’s beauty in this pain and hope will rise again from the ashes.