I'm in Dearborn, preparing to do a talk to the national meeting of Campus Compact, the higher-ed organization that promotes community engagement. To get here, I flew into the Detroit-Wayne County International Airport, but then was picked up by the conference organizer and whisked away to The Dearborn Inn, a tony resort founded by Henry Ford in the 1930s as a guest center for all of the magnates who came to seek his favor. The buildings and grounds and associated private airport were designed by Albert Kahn, Ford's favorite architect; Kahn was responsible for a huge number of Ford's corporate and industrial buildings for twenty years.
It seems that every time I've been to "Detroit" in the past few years, I've actually been to Mitt Romney's version of Detroit — the surrounding executive suburbs, Dearborn and Bloomfield Hills. Just as with the economy as a whole, wealth persists even in the absence of workers. Detroit may be a hollowed shell of its former glory, but the lawns of the clubs of Dearborn and Bloomfield Hills are still groomed with cuticle scissors.
I first met Nora because of a paper she wrote on what she called "psychic homelands." People, she said, often have a place in their minds that is at the core of their identity. Sometimes it's a real place — a hometown, a childhood home, a place they visited once on vacation and fell in love with. Often, though, it's an imaginary place — heaven, for instance, or the cabin in the woods that you dream of retiring to.
As a child, I only visited Detroit once, when I was ten. My folks brought me to see a Tigers game and the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I returned for one night when I was nineteen, to see my first real concert, Queen playing Cobo Hall. That's it. I have no real first-hand experience of Detroit. So why does it weigh so heavily on my imagination?
The industrial Midwest has undergone a diaspora. Detroit has lost over 60% of its peak population; Youngstown and Saginaw and Gary more than 50%. Michael Moore's first movie, and still his greatest, Roger and Me, is filled with the juxtaposition between the swells playing polo and attending the annual Great Gatsby event (the wealthy have no capacity for irony) and the former GM employees of Flint's working class carrying their Christmas tree from the home they're being evicted from, or told that they're not qualified to work a $4/hour job at Taco Bell.
There's a scene in that movie (at 1:12:22, if you're watching on Vimeo) where Moore shows an issue of Money Magazine that had rated the worst places to live in America. Flint was placed number 300, the very bottom city in America. But I remember seeing that list mainly because the city immediately adjacent, at 299, was my own hometown, Muskegon.
I remember the factories of Muskegon, blocks long and a block wide and four or six stories tall. I remember them closing. I remember the weeds growing up through cracks in the employee parking lots. I remember the windows shot out. I remember my father laid off after 22 years, along with 800 other men, just before Christmas. I remember being corrected, when I mistakenly told someone that my father had been fired. "Was he fired, or was he laid off? There's a difference."
Yes, there's a difference. You're fired when you screw up. You're laid off when someone else screws up. But those folks still get to have their Great Gatsby picnic at the country club.
Why are we talking about community engagement in a place so sequestered from its community? What do we, in higher education, know about people who raise rabbits "for pets or meat," and who hope to go back to school to be a veterinary assistant and dog groomer, " 'cause there's a lots of animals that needs taken care of."
Detroit is a psychic homeland for me, a marker of my own conflict about my class identity. It holds the same place in my imagination as Jerusalem: a symbol of what was, and what could be if only we were better people. A desire not only that the place recover its majesty, but that we enter an age in which work and workers are again respected.
Next year in Detroit.