I had seen it on the map: “Twelvemile Beach.” It sounded beautiful, and I was looking for a good hike out to the water. I started fresh in the morning, though not unreasonably early. There were a few cars at the trailhead and I figured I’d run into others hikers as I went. It took the better part of an hour, and I crossed many forks in the road along the way. Each time there was a little wooden sign pointing the way to the trail I was on, the trail that led to Lake Superior.
The hike was beautiful, serene. There were tiny streams and ponds. Giant boulders shaped by time. Strange plants that belonged in a movie about a foreign world. After a while I could tell I was getting close. Maybe I could hear the water, or smell the change in the air. I don’t remember what it was exactly, only the inarguable feeling of being near the great open water.
I came to a clearing with three small wooden signs. There were four different trails listed on the signs. None of them were the trail I was on, nor were they pointing to anywhere I was trying to go. The path straight ahead was unlabeled, and I briefly considered how far I would be willing to go down an unlabeled path without confirmation I was heading in the right direction. The water felt so close. It couldn’t be that far. I walked forward on the path, and within 25 feet the dirt turned to sand. I pulled my shoes off to get through a steep bit of loose sand, and walked past the trees just beyond it.
And there it was. Lake Superior. She was beautiful.
I looked as far as I could in each direction and could see no one. There were no people, no boats, no buildings. There were no other trailheads, and no footprints in the sand besides my own. With shoes in hand I strolled down the beach, sand coming up between my toes. Just like at the Shipwreck Coast Museum, the water felt dangerous and inviting. The waves were constant and crashing, but just small enough to make you think a quick swim wouldn’t be so bad. I wondered if she’d ever managed to snag any hikers off this trail.
After walking for a while I reached the passable limit. The sandy shore became a rocky one, and the waves crashed up several feet in the air. I took a few pictures and marveled at the water’s power and reach. I turned to walk back, amazed to still see no one. I followed my own footprints, sometimes finding that they’d already been washed away by the waves.
When I reached the trailhead I stopped to take one last look at the empty beach. It’s not easy to find somewhere so beautiful, so easy to get to, yet so void of human influence. On my way back I came upon another solo female hiker stopped at the same confusing set of signs that had flummoxed me. I was about to let her know that she was only a minute from the beach when she made the right decision and passed me by. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had decided to leave at the exact right moment to have my entire beach experience to myself, and to allow her to have the same. Her moment wasn’t to last however, as I watched a group of three German hikers pass by towards the beach only a minute or two later.
Shortly before I got to Michigan my sister insisted I add another song to my Road Trip Playlist. It was Simon & Garfunkle’s “America,” and I have to agree that it’s a great song for driving across the country. I would play it in my car while driving past big open farm fields, and I would hear Paul Simon declare that “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” When I hear that line, I think of Twelvemile Beach and my footprints in the sand. I think of hiking through the woods and fighting off the chill in Sault Ste. Marie and that night I woke up to the sound of some unknown animal snoring just outside my tent back in Interlochen State Park. It felt like I was in Michigan forever, but certainly not for too long. They told me to see the beaches of Northern Michigan, and I believe this is what they meant. They meant the beaches that seem too unreal to believe. When I close my eyes I can still see the water. Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
You don’t have to look at Lake Superior for very long before you realize what it really is: a siren. It’s beautiful. It’s endless. It’s enchanting. It will lure you in and swallow you whole. I guess that’s why they call its southern shore “The Shipwreck Coast.”
On the very end of Whitefish Point and far away from everything and everyone is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum grounds include the entire Whitefish Point Light Station, which is still under the control of the Coast Guard. Most of the buildings are no longer needed for official use, and they have been renovated to tell the history of the station and the many shipwrecks that happened nearby. One building is filled with rescue equipment. Another has mannequins and old furniture and is set up to look like the old light house manager’s home.
The actual museum building has artifacts of past wrecks. Some are recreations, some are reminders, and some came straight from the bottom of Lake Superior. The museum’s pride and joy is the recovered bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent and largest ship to wreck off this tragic coast.
It was one o’clock in the morning on November 10th, 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, commanded by Captain Ernest McSorley, first encountered a heavy storm on its way from Superior, Wisconsin. The ship had been sailing within range of another large ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, since 5PM the day before. The two ships battled the storm all night and through the next day, until the Fitzgerald lost her radar. The Anderson tried to get closer to provide guidance to the Fitzgerald, which was now sailing blind. The winds had reached 67 miles per hour, and the waves were as high as 25 feet. The light house at Whitefish Point was down, and the mighty Fitzgerald began to list. At 7:10PM, some 18 hours after the storm had started, the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald asking how she was doing. “We are holding our own,” McSorley reported. Less than ten minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. The ship’s bell was recovered many years later, and brought to the museum as a tribute. The rest of the ship remains on the lake floor along with its entire 29 man crew.
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is still in operation, and visitors to the museum can get a private tour up to the top for a small extra fee. I was the only person who had purchased at ticket for the 1PM tour. The guide was a man in his late 40s, and I met him at the base of the lighthouse. An older woman stopped us and asked about joining the tour. He told her the number of stairs involved and asked if it sounded like something she could do. She hesitated.
“If you have to think about it you probably shouldn’t do it,” he told her.
He wasn’t joking. The stairs were steep and small and bound up tight in a spiral. They’d be hard to climb no matter how fit you were. As we got close to the top, he warned me not to hit my head on the ledge, explaining that there was a mesh bag of rubber ducks there to catch my eye. I was thinking about the silliness of the ducks when I hit my head sharply on the ledge.
We made it up to the observation deck and my guide explained that visitors aren’t allowed up alone by order of the Coast Guard. He recited the handful of facts he knew about the place and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to know about the lighthouse, so I started to ask him questions about his own life. He lives only a few miles away from the station, which makes him 70 miles away from civilization.
“If I wanna buy blue jeans,” he explained, “it’s a two hour drive.”
He told me about a time he got all the way down to St. Ignace to go shopping, only to realize he’d forgotten his wallet. “You learn to make lists,” he said. “You can’t afford to forget anything.”
He only lives near the museum during the summer months, though he’s considering moving there full time. He told me the biggest hurdle was that no one comes to plow the roads near him, so he’d have to invest in his own snow removal equipment. It was, as he put it, “a big commitment.”
In the museum I had seen a huge, beautiful, reflective lamp that was once used in the lighthouse. My guide explained that it had been replaced with a modern one, prompting me to ask if I could see the new light. From the observation level there was a small but steep set of stairs leading up to where the lamp was. My guide told me that we weren’t allowed up there. I nodded with disappointed acceptance. He looked around, first at me, then at the absence of everyone else.
“I bet it’d be okay just to poke your head up,” he told me.
My guess is he’d never had a tour of one before, so it was never possible to let just one person take a look. In my travels I’ve found that being alone grants me a certain amount of trust with everyone I meet, and a strange amount of freedom and opportunity.
I stepped up onto the second staircase, going just far enough to see the light. Compared to the beautiful beast in the museum, it was very small – maybe the size of a watermelon. It was dwarfed by the room it was in, which was built to house a much bigger lamp. It was black and dull and mounted on top of an overly industrial-looking black canister. I remarked on its surprising appearance on my way back down the steps. My guide told me that he’d never actually looked at it himself, and started up the steps to take a peek. We were both amused by the underwhelming nature of the lamp.
Considering the presence of modern navigation on even the smallest vessels, we don’t often think about advances in lighthouse technology. We assume every ship knows where it is by the blinking lights on its dash. What use is there for lighthouses in a world like that?
I suppose on a great sea like Lake Superior, there is still a reason for this very old and undeniable sign of the shore. When the water stretches farther than the eye can see, there’s comfort in finding both your literal and figurative bearings.
Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.
From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go
It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”
But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).
From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay
The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.
And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.
I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary.
I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so
And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”
And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
To shed her grace on me
She’s gonna shed her grace on me
NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.
I drove up and down Highway 31 for almost an hour before picking a church. There were a lot to choose from, but none of them were jumping out at me. Eventually I turned down the road to Eden Bible Church because I’d never been to anything that called itself a Bible Church. Besides, something about the nearby Church of Christ building made me nervous.
I was greeted at the door of Eden by an older man, the kind of man whose jokes might be offensive if he wasn’t so damn charming. I took my place in a pew and couldn’t help but notice the family sitting behind me: One woman in her 40s or 50s and seven identically dressed boys. The age range of the boys was about six to thirteen, and all of them were wearing lavender dress shirts with dark purple ties.
“Where are the girls?” I asked their mother.
“Didn’t have any,” she said with a shrug and a smile.
An usher handed me a crisp, 9×6 folder made of quality paper. It was their welcome packet, and it was full of information about the church and its activities. There’s an “Over 55” luncheon for seniors the forth Friday of every month, an evening service at 6PM on Sundays, and every Wednesday is Family Night. The back of the worship bulletin had a prayer request for their missionaries, and listed 13 people in 7 countries. My favorite was the L.A.D.I.E.S. F.E.L.L.O.W.S.H.I.P. of Eden Bible Church, which is easily the longest and most obnoxious backronym I’ve ever seen. It stands for: Learning And Doing Inspiring Embracing Supporting Friends Enjoying Love Laughter Of Women (who) Share Hearts In Prayer & praise. It sounds a bit like something I would have come up with during an improv game.
Then of course, there was the Sunday School Program.
“Children are important at Eden Bible Church and their training begins early.”
Reading that line in the welcome packet sent a shiver down my spine,. I’m a Sunday School teacher myself, and I just can’t bring myself to think of teaching as training. Training is what soldiers and athletes do. Education is what you get from teachers. Even so, reading their program guide made me jealous. Eden Bible Church has five Sunday School classes, plus two more for adult education. Their classes start at 9:15AM, almost two hours before the regular service. Kids are split up into groups with no more than a two year age range, just like you might have in a public school. When I was growing up, my church used the one room school house approach to pedagogy, and I consider it an accomplishment that my current congregation has the resources to separate the kids into two age groups. At our church the 12-year-olds aren’t sitting through the same lesson as the toddlers. At Eden, they aren’t even sitting through the same lesson as the 10-year-olds.
After church I met yet another woman with seven boys, though she informed me that six of hers were adopted. I couldn’t help but look for the fathers in both cases, and never managed to find them. Everyone at the church was very kind, very welcoming. After the service they wished me well on my trip, and I continued my drive up through Michigan.
The people of Eden Bible Church fit so neatly into so many stereotypes I would like so much to believe. I can tell myself that their church must offer a simplified, straight-forward message that keeps people coming back, unlike my own denomination whose primary features are the muddy mystery of the divine and a consistently declining population graph. I can pretend that even though they have a much stronger and more established education program, it’s probably more rigid and didactic than my own. I can imagine that my own inclination to remain childless is a much choice than the decision to have seven boys – adopted or not. I can be proud to live in the heart of a modern city, rather than in the pinky of the Michigan mitten.
And in thinking all those things, all I manage to be is the arrogant, liberal stereotype I assume they want me to be. And of course the assumption that they want me to be an arrogant liberal is just another stereotype I have of them. I suppose my training began early, too.
Such is the vicious cycle of The Other. Were I to stay in town for a few more Sundays, maybe catch an adult Sunday School session or crash the potluck lunch, I would probably change my tune. In traveling, I run the constant risk of learning just enough to make myself feel smart, while not discovering how much more there is to know. It makes me second-guess every conclusion I draw. I am constantly asking myself: Was my experience authentic? Do I know enough to draw a conclusion? Will others find my thoughts arrogant? The fear is always there. “You’re wrong,” they’ll say as they shove contradictory evidence back in my face. And I’ll sheepishly back away, because I know that I leaped before I looked. As one of my favorite novels once taught me, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s a long, hard swim back.
Thinking about it now, I wish I would have known about Eden Bible Church’s extensive Sunday School program ahead of time. I could have asked to sit in on a class. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so envious of the program if I had been there. Or maybe I would have coveted their personalized lessons even more. I sometimes wonder if jealousy isn’t at the heart of all pre-judgments. It’s not just about Eden’s philosophy or their language, it’s the fact that they’re doing so well with it. It’s the same with any group or interest. You want the things you love to be successful, because that means you were right to love them in the first place. Sometimes we have to admit that at least for now, what we love doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that the success of another doesn’t detract from our own interests and pleasures. It takes constant, conscious thought to cure ourselves of jealousy-based prejudice.
Or, I suppose, it just takes training.
Let’s face it: I don’t have anything insightful to say about sand. I considered skipping this post altogether, but my experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes was a lot of fun and it seemed a shame to say nothing. Perhaps this goes not into the category of “important life changing events” and more into the category of “fun things you ought to try one day.”
The winds off of Lake Michigan have, over many years, created massive sand dunes on the shore. These dunes are so big they seem rather unimpressive at first glance. When you first step out of your car, it’s no different than looking out over any other bluff onto the lovely but expected Michigan scenery. It’s only after you really consider the ground beneath you that it becomes impressive. You are not standing on a cliff that is covered in sand. It’s sand all the way down.
I took a detour to the unfortunately named Inspiration Point before hopping on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. One of the final stops on the scenic drive is the Lake Michigan Bluff, which has an unobstructed sand slope from the top of the bluff all the way to the water. Despite the many stern and clearly posted warnings against it, many visitors felt the need to run all the way to the bottom. I opted not to do so, having paid a lot of attention to the people trying to climb back up. As a casual observer, I would estimate that the distance to the water is at least 200 meters, and the incline stays at a steady 45 degree angle the entire time. People weren’t hiking back up, they were crawling on all fours. Plenty were just sitting down, and I couldn’t tell if they’d wised up and stopped their trek to the bottom, or simply run out of steam on the climb back up. Perhaps I should have asked one of them if it was worth it, though I imagine for many such adventurers pride would have gotten in the way of the truth.
Regardless, there was another dune to climb. This one was park-approved and traveler recommended. I drove over to the creatively named Dune Climb and parked my car at the base. It didn’t seem like much. It was steep, but not unreasonable. It was sandy and hard to walk through, but I gathered that was sort of the point. It was also immediately clear that the whole point of climbing up was the amazingly fun run back down.
I dropped my shoes at the bottom (as was the custom), and started up the dune. It only took a few minutes to get to the top. Or rather, it only took a few minutes to get to the edge that I thought was the top, only to see another 20 minute climb ahead of me in order to get to the actual top. The second half of the dune leveled off for a bit, but there was a lot of distance between me and the small pair of benches at the peak. I carried on, watching the teenage boys race each other to the bottom and seeing the little kids chase after the tumbleweed. There was something a bit surreal and foreign about being surrounded by so much clean, soft sand, yet being no where near a beach.
When I finally reached the top, I took a spot on the open bench. My feet dangled off the end. So much sand had eroded away since the bench was installed, I could barely get up onto the thing at all. I took a deep breath, admired the view, and then took off. There is only one way to get down off the Dune Climb, and that is running at full speed like a 3rd grader. I ran the first third of the way, then switched to a wide, hopping, side-to-side stride. Each step sunk deep into the sand and sent me further forward. My limbs were flailing in every direction and I would have felt self-conscious had it not been so ridiculously fun. It helped that I wasn’t even close to having the silliest stride on the dune.
When the sand leveled off in the middle I slowed back to a walk in order to catch my breath. There was one more run to go. It was the short but steep stretch I first saw before I realized how big the Dune Climb really was. I briefly considered flinging myself off the side and rolling all the way down on my belly. If I wasn’t so averse to having sand in my clothes, or if I knew I’d have quick access to a shower and changing room, I probably would have done it. Instead I opted for another full speed run, turning around just in time to see a dozen other people running along side me.
In conclusion, sand is fun. That is my big, insightful take away on this one. I went to a place with a lot of sand and I ran around and it was fun. I got to be a little kid for awhile, and I got to watch a bunch of other tourists do the same. I can see why the Dune Climb comes so highly recommended. It turns you into a child. Few and far between are the places you can arrive at by car and end up going back in time.
“Don’t go to Detroit.”
That’s what people would say to me when they saw my route. Because Detroit is awful. Detroit is bad. It’s scary. It’s full of crime. It’s sad. It’s wasted away. Go to Ann Arbor instead. Don’t bother with Detroit. That’s what the Americans said.
The Canadians, however, seemed to have a different picture of Detroit. When I told the Canadians I met in Toronto that Detroit was my next stop, they expressed both joy and jealousy. “I love Detroit,” they would say to me. When I told them how Americans think of the city, the people in Toronto shrugged it off. “It just has a bad rap,” they said. “It’s a great city.”
After spending two very enjoyable days in Detroit with a couple of new friends, I started to wonder about the city’s reputation. Outside of the special excursions we made to the more deserted parts of town, Detroit felt like any other city I’d visited. There was of course one small difference.
When I first crossed the boarder into the city I pulled over at a McDonalds to use the internet and get a quick bite to eat. I sat there with my Chicken McNuggets and couldn’t help but notice something strange about the commercials playing on the TV in the corner. I recognized the brands and the premises, but they were slightly different than the commercials I’d seen before. The attractive, smiling white people had been switched out for attractive, smiling black people.
The patrons of the restaurant were also black. So were all of the employees. For forty minutes I watched people come and go and I remained the only non-black person in the building.
Integration is a myth.
More specifically, it is a myth that 50 years ago our society became integrated and all racial segregation since then has just been the gradual end of a now extinct way of living. Yes, things were much worse then. Yes, we have come a long way. But the truth is, racial segregation is alive and well.
I know what you’re thinking, “Of course it is. We all know there is still racism in America. We know that there are still plenty of black neighborhoods and so-called Chinatowns.” That’s what I would have said, too. But the unspoken caveat to those words is always “But come on, at least it’s not that way everywhere.”
It is that way everywhere.
The problem with being a stranger in a strange town is that you don’t know where you’re not supposed to be. Sometimes during my travels I would get lost and end up driving a few blocks in the wrong direction. And when I say wrong direction, I do mean the black direction. It sounds awful because we like to think that as a society we’ve moved past that. After all, if we hadn’t, we would all feel pretty horrible for sitting around and letting it happen.
A few months ago a demographic researcher at the University of Virginia took the most recent U.S. census data and used it to create a racial map of the United States. There was a different color for each major racial group (red for Asian, yellow for Hispanics, etc), and a single dot for every citizen. Some images, such as the one for Detroit, caused a lot of discussion online. The map clearly showed how the city is broken up by racial districts, with black, white, and hispanic existing in completely separate spaces.
It’s not just Detroit. I see it in every place I visit. It doesn’t matter how big or small the town is. In Savannah the black/white divide is on Bull Street, at least until you get to the entirely white downtown (which is flanked by black neighborhoods on each side). The racial map of Tulsa spins out like a color wheel, with green dots to the north (black), yellow to the north east (Hispanic), and blue to the southeast (white). In Memphis we went to see Wild Bill’s (north of Jackson Avenue), and my host was so concerned about the neighborhood she told me to stay in the car while she went to ask the convenience store owner a question. In San Francisco I went to Mission Town, which has trash on the streets and bars on the windows, unlike the houses just two blocks north of 16th street. New York City is so divided the map could have been drawn in crayon. In Roswell, NM the Hispanics have a concentrated area in the southeast, but it’s almost entirely white north of – I kid you not – Country Club Road. I could go on. Pick any spot on the map and you will see it.
And everywhere I went I found people that could easily identify the “bad part of town,” while being completely unaware that they were also talking about “the black part of town,” or “the Mexican part of town.”
Detroit has become America’s bad part of town. It is that little section of the country that most of us never need to drive through, that place that you know used to have a really beautiful movie theater and a great music scene. It’s the place you wouldn’t try to walk through at night. The place with the high crime statistics that make you look over your shoulder at the man walking behind you and wonder, “Is he a criminal too?”
My guess for why Detroit doesn’t have the same effect on Canadians is that they’re not from “this town.” They don’t hear what we hear on the news. They’re tourists who don’t realize that there are some parts of this country where you just don’t go at night.
Detroit as a city is almost entirely black. The strict dividing line at 8 Mile Road (the city limits) is true. I drove past it on my way out of Detroit, and the city turns from black to white at that block. While I was in Detroit I mentioned the census map to my host Lizzie, who hadn’t seen it yet. I pulled it up and we took a look at her city.
Immediately we found that we were sitting in the most racial diverse part of town: Wayne State University. We started searching the map for other anomalies, and Lizzie would try to figure out the reasons behind them. One concentrated section of white people was near a well-known country club and golf course. Another collection was in the Sacred Heart Seminary. There was a small population of Asians around the hospital. For each deviation, we could determine a cause. I mentioned to Lizzie that the lines in Seattle were present but not as severe, and we turned the map towards my home city.
I showed her the various neighborhoods and gave my explanations. The strong patch of red indicated just how many Asian students attend the University of Washington. The sparse number of dots near Bill Gates’ house showed just how big the homes are in Medina. After a few minutes in Seattle, I pulled the map down to my real home town of Des Moines, about 40 minutes south of the city. I hadn’t looked at Des Moines yet, but I pointed out the streets I could recognize, showing her my childhood home, my school, the church I grew up in, etc.
“What’s right there?” she asked, pointing to a dense patch of yellow that indicated a Hispanic neighborhood.
“Huh,” I said, “I don’t know.”
The racial map doesn’t name every street, so I pulled up the Google map of the city to compare. Back and forth I went, over and over again, trying to find an explanation for this tiny concentration of Hispanic people.
“They’re apartment buildings,” I said. Looking closer at the Google map, I realized there were businesses back there as well, and a lot more houses than I ever realized. I tried to picture the area in my mind. “I guess I just never had any reason to go in there.”
“Oh,” Lizzie said.
“This is the road we took to get to church,” I told her. “I drove by this neighborhood twice a week for ten years.”
The Hispanic neighborhood has probably always been there. I just never knew. I needed a researcher from Virginia to tell me about the people who lived ten minutes away from me my entire life. This is how we’ve managed to keep up this beautiful lie of segregation ending in the 1960s. We don’t know it’s there because our lives are carefully crafted to avoid travel outside the racial lines. I never went into the Hispanic neighborhood near my house, why would I? Why would I go to those grocery stores and auto shops when there are all those other businesses on my way to school? You know, the businesses where all the other white people go. As far as schools in the greater Seattle area go, I would say that my high school was fairly diverse. There were black people and Koreans and Russians and Mexicans and Colombians. It was easy to pick out these group of course, because everyone clumped together. I had my white friends, the Koreans had their Korean friends. And there was no hostility. I knew plenty of non-white students. They were in all my classes and we worked together and laughed together and got along famously. We were friends. And then at lunch I went and sat with the other white girls because it’s high school and that’s what you do.
But it doesn’t change. I went to college and I had white friends. I met my white boyfriend. I got my first job out of college, working with all those white coworkers. Every step of the way, there I was, following the path that would lead me directly to people whose skin color matched my own.
I had the chance to move into a decent apartment with some friends of mine a few years back, but opted not to. Why? Well, my bedroom would have been a bit small and frankly, it was in a pretty sketchy part of town. Excuse me, I mean it was in the black part of town. I didn’t realize this consciously of course, I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to understand its racial makeup. I just knew I’d heard bad things, and there were a few too many chain link fences for my taste. None of the streets or businesses felt familiar. I didn’t feel comfortable there, so I didn’t move there. Instead I moved into a tiny studio twelve blocks north in a very nice, very white part of town.
I was ignorant, and ignorance is our enemy. Ignorance breeds complacency, and we have all allowed ourselves to willingly engage in racial segregation through complacency. We give white people no reason to venture into non-white neighborhoods, so they don’t even know they’re there. We make sure that there are plenty of Asian-run businesses right next to where all the Asian people live, so they never have to bother with white people when going to the grocery store. And you probably hadn’t thought about it, but in less you live near an institute for higher education, you probably live in a segregated neighborhood.
So this is what I’m saying, very openly, very plainly, and with so much conviction I feel guilty about it: I am an active participant in racial segregation. And so are you.
In high school they explained it to me like this: beer sales always go up at the same time as ice cream sales. So does eating ice cream make people want beer? No. There is another factor. A lurking variable. The beer sales have nothing to do with the ice cream sales. It’s just hot outside.
Correlation, not causation.
I don’t know how to end decades of self-segregation. I don’t know how to separate race from poverty from crime. There are a lot of black people in Detroit. And there is a lot of poverty. And there is a lot of crime. And these relationships show us correlation, not causation. Sometimes I feel like we have lots of data on the ice cream and beer sales, but we never think to check the temperature. We don’t notice it’s hot outside, I suppose, because it’s always been hot outside. There is no non-racist time in America to look back on for comparison. Beer and ice cream sales have never dropped.
The fact is, the only model most of us know for getting rid of racially segregated neighborhoods is gentrification. I heard this word tossed around a lot in my travels, and always with distain. People hate the idea of gentrification. People don’t like the white majority coming in and taking over. Yet they also don’t want to live in a racially segregated society where no one ever tries to live apart from their color-coded tribe. And knowing that racial segregation can lead to economic segregation, people also know it’s unfair and unrealistic to insist that the minorities move into white neighborhoods. Trying to “fix” the problem of segregation is a good way to lose an argument with yourself.
The best thing I can think to do is start looking for those lurking variables. Not just the Who and the What, but the Why and the How. And while I encourage you to read and research, I don’t think we’ll find our lurking variables in studies and statistics. I think we’ll find them when we personally make the effort to cross the lines. I think the answers are south of 16th Street, or on the other side of Madison. I think we could all stand to get a little bit lost in our own home towns. Take a look at the map, and purposely go towards a splash of color you didn’t know was there. You might be surprised by what you find on the other side of 8 Mile. It’s more than just a bunch of green dots.
End Note: If you’re interested in some of the more proactive ways in which housing discrimination has been created and maintained, I recommend an episode of This American Life that aired last November call “House Rules.” The audio and transcript can be found here.
Lizzie was the youngest host on my trip to put out towels for me. It think it might have been her mother’s idea. Lizzie is a friend of a friend I know through the Episcopal Church, and (like me) she’s the type of person who is mad enough to enjoy spending two weeks in a convention center discussing church politics every three years. Lizzie lives with her roommate Maria in a little apartment on the Wayne State University campus. Both are students, which explains why they’ve opted to live in a place that only has one real bedroom, with Lizzie sleeping behind screens in the living room.
My first night in town we went to the casino. It may seem like a strange destination for three young college-educated women to select, but Maria had a plan. The casino has a VIP club that anyone can sign up for. When a person signs up, they get a free spin on the prize wheel. There are no duds on this prize wheel – you’re guaranteed to win something. And if you’re already a member (like Maria), you get a bonus spin for each new member you bring to sign up. Lizzie and I both signed up and we got four spins between the three of us. We collectively won $30 in free game play, and Maria took us straight to the nickel slots. She said the trick was to cash out every time you won anything, since the machine automatically spends your winnings before it spends the rest of your free game play. There was a time when cashing out at a slot machine would have meant a pile of actual nickels. These days it’s a printed slip of paper you can exchange with the cashier. The three of us sat at our machines pushing colorful buttons and printing slips for 10-20 minutes. Lizzie and I had no idea how the machines worked, but it was fun all the same. By the time we had used up our free game play, I didn’t have anything (I had won the smallest amount in the free spin), but Maria and Lizzie each had a stack 15 to 75 cent winning slips.
Armed with just over $12 in slot winnings, we went to Greektown, the area directly below the casino. Maria took us to the Astoria Pastry Shop and used our winnings to secure delicious treats for all three of us. Sitting at a little table in the shop we ate our pastries and discussed our success. Parking at the casino was free, which meant our entire evening cost us nothing. Maria explained how she loves to take people to the casino to spin the wheel. Most of the time she gets free game play, but there are other prizes, such as a nice dinner at the casino restaurant. Personally I was amazed that signing up for the VIP club had no consequences. I never received a single phone call or email from them asking when I’d be back.
The next morning Maria and Lizzie headed off to class while I walked over to The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It had been less than a week since the City of Detroit had declared bankruptcy, and a recent appraisal of the city-owned art was making people nervous. Lizzie explained that appraisals happen all the time, but she was still a little worried that the collection was going to be packed up and sold. She recommended I check it out while I still had the chance.
The DIA is free to locals, and I had to make a point to declare myself a tourist in order to get them to take my money. The fee was low, and the audio guide only $2 more. With my map, audio guide, and walking tour in hand, I went straight to the bottom floor and began my exploration of the art. I had only gotten through half the museum when I realized I was about to be late. Lizzie and Maria had invited me to sit in on their choir class. They were supposed to be performing a Dave Brubek opera for the jazz festival that weekend, and this was one of their last rehearsals.
I speed-walked from the museum to campus, scarfing down a hot dog on the way to keep my stomach from growling during the class. I was the only audience member for this particular rehearsal, though no one questioned my presence. While the music was enjoyable, I was more entertained with the feedback the conductor was giving to his students. One does not often hear the accusation that “you’re moving to quickly on the diphthong.” In order to help everyone better understand the complexities of 5/4 time, he had us all try to conduct along with him. Everyone failed at this, including me. It’s hard to un-train the Western Ear.
That evening Lizzie and I drove over to see the old Michigan Central Station. The massive, abandoned building is close to downtown but years away. It almost doesn’t feel real – like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. You don’t usually see buildings that big in such a state of disrepair. In any other city, the property would be too valuable to go unused, and the structure would get torn down in favor of something more profitable. But in this section of Detroit, it’s just not worth it.
In its day the train station was the primary way to get in and out of the city. Before airplanes and interstates, everyone who was anyone arrived by train. You can still see it in the grand, geometric lawn that stretches out in front of the station. It is meant to impress. It’s the kind of first impression you want to give as a city. It’s the view you want visiting presidents to see.
Lizzie and I walked up and down the station fence taking pictures. She sighed. “I do believe the city is improving,” Lizzie said, looking up at the broken windows, “but this is proof of how great we once were, and how far we’ve fallen. I mean, this used to be the first thing you saw when you came to Detroit.”
About 100 yards away was the other feature we had come to see. Back in the fall of 2012 a group called Urban Put-Put ran a Kickstarter to build a small and unusual mini-golf course in a vacant lot near the train station. Maria had told us about it, and she and Lizzie spent most of the day texting and Facebooking friends to see if we could scrounge up some clubs and balls, as the outdoor course is BYO. We hadn’t managed to acquire the equipment, but thought it would be fun to look at the course anyway.
The formerly vacant lot was overgrown once again. We stomped our way through the high grass and weeds to explore the course. The holes were interesting and different, with old bicycles secured in concrete and car frames filled with pipes. As interesting as it might have been to play the course, it was in no condition to be used. Too much had been destroyed with time and covered by the uncaring force of natural growth. No one had played there in a while. It was unlikely anyone ever would again. Lizzie and I didn’t say much about it, but the punchline was clear: yet another “Detroit Rebirth” project turned sour. It hadn’t even lasted a year.
We drove back towards downtown. The jazz festival was in full swing, and we ended up parking farther away than originally planned. Per Maria’s suggestions we got dinner at Lafayette Coney Island (not to be confused with its rival and next door neighbor, American Coney Island). Lafayette is the kind of place where they look at you funny when you ask for a menu, because there are only about four things a person can order there. We both got the classic Coney Island Hot Dogs (aka chili dogs), and headed over to the festival.
The Detroit Jazz Festival has been going on for over 30 years and still draws a huge crowd. Lizzie had heard that Macy Gray would be playing that weekend, but we didn’t realize she would be there that evening. In fact, as a nearby patron explained, she would be playing at the stage directly in front of us in less than an hour. We secured a few uncomfortable bleacher seats with good views and waited for the show to start.
Macy Gray was playing as a featured singer for the Dave Murray Big Band, and it was a match made in heaven. The band was great and Macy was hilarious. “This is a love song about us,” she told the crowd, “all 3,000 of us.” When Macy left the stage at the end of the first set, most of the crowd cleared out. Lizzie and I weren’t sure if they thought she wasn’t coming back, or if they were just nervous about the rain. Either way they were right, because the downpour started less than five minutes later. From our position pushed up against a nearby building trying to stay dry, we could hear them announce over the loudspeakers that the festival was officially over for the night. When the rain stopped, Lizzie and I considered the pros and cons of trying to get to the car. Was the storm really over or just taking a break? Could we get to the car before the next drenching? We took a chance and we made it. Well, almost.
The next morning Lizzie, Maria, and I went to Eastern Market, one of the largest farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen. Maria and Lizzie weighed the prices of perspective vegetables against how much they wanted good quality cheese, and I ate an entire pint of raspberries by myself, as is my custom. We passed by a pair of buskers playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” on the banjo and upright base, and I couldn’t help but laugh at all the things people had told me about Detroit. I had asked Lizzie the day before if she was ever worried about crime near the college or downtown. She told me that there was really only one crime that happened near her, and that was when thieves would snatch iPhones out of the hands of unsuspecting Freshman.
“Because they text and walk at the same time, and they hold their phones way out here,” she told me, holding her hand far in front of her face. She said they call it Apple Picking.
I’m sure that there’s a lot of Detroit Lizzie isn’t privy to and that I never saw. But the Detroit reputation is powerful, and I can’t help but find it laughable that I spent my time there eating pasties, listening to jazz, wandering through the art museum, and eating fresh fruit at the farmer’s market. Every city has its good side. And Good is the only side of Detroit I saw.
I was told they were currently featuring an exhibit from Ai Weiwei at the Art Gallery of Ontario. You’ve probably heard of Ai Weiwei even if you don’t think you have. He’s the Chinese dissident artist who was put under house arrest back in 2010 for his opposition to the communist government. The exhibit showcased a range of Ai Weiwei’s works, and I found it to be one of the most intereting and enjoyable art experiences I’ve ever had. Weiwei’s style is smart, but not esoteric. His pieces make you think but they don’t aim to confuse. And he has a sort of puppet master appeal, because he often doesn’t make the pieces himself. Rather, he explains his vision and ideas to other artists, who then create it and expand upon it. Some pieces were simple, like the 12 foot long log with an outline of China carved straight through the middle. Or the beautifully crafted wooden walls lined up line dominos, so that when you look through the holes in the center you see the phases of the moon. Or, I suppose, that’s what you’re supposed to see. More often than not you looked through and saw another patron staring back at you, usually holding a camera.
One of my favorite pieces was a pile of plastic crabs. In 2010, the Chinese government ordered that Weiwei’s new studio had to be destroyed because of supposed planning permission infractions. Weiwei organized a party to celebrate the demolition, but was kept from attending the celebration himself. The party happened without him and the guests feasted on River Crabs. The plastic pile at the museum was an homage to the party, and the crabs themselves were a dig at the government. The term “River Crab” has become synonymous with Chinese censorship in many internet communities, because the Chinese word for River Crab sounds very similar to the Chinese word for Harmonious – as in the government’s drive towards a supposedly “Harmonious Socialist Society.”
The piece that really stuck in my mind was the wall of names. In 2008 a powerful earthquake hit the Sichuan province. Do you remember it? I didn’t. I asked my friends and family. Sometimes they said it sounded vaguely familiar, though they were’t sure that they weren’t confusing it with some other disaster. “Was it a big earthquake?” they would ask.
It killed 70,000 people.
When I heard that figure quoted in the gallery documentary I couldn’t believe it. How did 70,000 people die in an earthquake and I can’t remember anything about it? The 2011 Japanese Tsunami only claimed around 18,000 lives, yet it’s burned into many of our minds.
One reason for this is that accurate death toll numbers were not easy to come by. According to Weiwei and other dissidents, the government obscured the numbers and kept many from learning the truth: over 5,000 of those deaths were children killed when their government-built schools collapsed. Weiwei participated in a citizen’s investigation, uncovering the names of 5,385 children. These names were listed alongside their birth dates and other information on the wall of the exhibit. The list consumed the entire gallery wall. Five thousand souls lost and nearly forgotten, all in an attempt to hide the sad and embarrassing truth the children had been living in.
If Ai Weiwei’s goal was to make me understand the power of a government in absolute control, he did it. We like to think that the limits of government control extend to all the taxes we don’t want to pay. We like to think that no great evil can hide forever, and that the truth will out eventually. We like to think that economic equals are societal equals. But it’s not always the case. When a government can lock up its artists, its dissidents, it can do anything. It can declare safe things dangerous. It can declare dangerous things safe. The earth can move, and they can make it disappear.