Thursday, February 10, 2011

South of 8 Mile

I went home to visit my family in Detroit last fall. Though I grew up in the city proper, all my family members live in the suburbs. My childhood home was near 7 mile Road, one mile south of the street that rapper Eminem referred to in his movie “8 Mile.”

In Detroit, “8 Mile” is more than just a street name. It separates Wayne County from its more affluent counties to the north and is the understood divide between the City of Detroit and its white suburbs. In movie terms, “8 Mile” represents an obstacle for the movie’s main character, loosely based on Eminem, to overcome in realizing his dream of becoming a white rapper.

Though I had issue with the misogyny in Eminem’s lyrics, I was an early fan. The release of his movie in 2002 was so important to me, I let my then twelve year-old daughter stay home from school so we could go together to its opening here in Toronto. I knew that the film would give an insider’s look into the grit of Detroit’s present-day urban life, as well as the still strong music scene coming from it, things she would never experience during our visits to the relatives.

On my last visit, my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to drive into the city, not far from the downtown core, to visit our childhood homes, and those of our deceased grandparents. We had been reading a book about life in these neighbourhoods during our growing-up years, and wanted to see how much, if any of our history, was intact.

As we drove along the city’s main streets to the first neighbourhood, stores were boarded up or empty, front doors blowing in the wind. No one was on the streets. There were no grocery stores, gas stations, green grocers, barber shops or hardware stores. Nothing was open. No commerce whatsoever. In previous visits, I remembered at least seeing home-grown storefront Baptist churches. Even they were gone.

We turned onto the residential street and found the apartment building my grandparents lived in after they were married. The shell of the once-grand art deco brick building was there, but abandoned. All the windows were smashed in, weeds were a mile high around it, bricks were crumbling onto the sidewalk. Garbage was everywhere.

Houses along the street were in no better shape, though some were inhabited. Fire had nearly destroyed the first house on the block, now empty, left to rot, windows smashed.

The house next door was boarded up, but it appeared like someone may have been living in it. The house next to that, clearly inhabited, had metal security bars on the front door and windows, but was dilapidated and crumbling.

Then, right next door, was an extremely modest but well tended home with a little front garden with bright orange marigolds. Curtains hung in the front windows. It had all the signs that the homeowners – come hell or high water and no matter how bad the decay and desolation was around them – were going to make a nice home for their family.

Seeing this house and a few others like it in the midst of other residential horrors was incredibly moving, and a testimony to the strength and optimism of people trying desperately to rise above the poverty and despair around them.

The other neighbourhoods we traveled to were the same. No stores, few people, houses in ruin, stores boarded up, abandoned, burned or crumbling. Huge tracks of land in the heart of the city where houses once stood had been bulldozed and lay empty. Some of he derelict homes were undoubtedly crack houses. Yet amidst all this, there were signs of hope. There is always hope for Detroit.

I wanted to take pictures of the streets we saw to show people back home. I truly believed no one could really understand how bad everything was. But I didn’t pull out my camera. Every once in a while a few kids would pop up on the street. I didn’t want them to see us white people, in our nice car and with our little point and shoot cameras snapping pictures of them and their homes as if they were objects of art and social commentary– something to show to the folks back home. It didn’t feel right.

In the 1920s, Detroit was known as the Paris of the Midwest. Now, the literacy rate in the city is 56%. The schools are in such dire shape and in need of money, my sister can't understand why Oprah W had to go to Africa to open a school when Detroit, a neighbour of her own Chicago, goes begging. 

There are no grocery stores or big box stores in Detroit's city limits. People have to travel miles to buy their food and clothes. Anyone with a spare dime is leaving or has left the city for the suburbs.

There is, of course, history to all of this. The automobile companies faltered in this one-industry town and unemployment soared. Expressways criss-crossed the city, dividing neighborhoods and communities. 

In 1967, racial tensions exploded into one of the most violent urban riots in American history. The population exodus from the city accelerated and whole neighbourhoods began to vanish. Outdated downtown buildings emptied. Within fifty years Detroit lost more than half of its population.

I am forever hearing plans to revitalize Detroit. I hope one day one of them works. I often hear good things about the rebirth of neighbourhoods and plans to bring back jobs. My fingers are crossed.

I am sure there are many, many people in Detroit living fruitful, positive, vibrant lives, whether in good physical surroundings or not. Though I was born and raised in the city, I am an outsider, and outsiders cannot begin to know the real truth of other people’s lives, communities or culture. But I can see what has changed, and what has changed for the worse. That is all I can comment on.

Though I didn’t take pictures in Detroit, many others have. For a glimpse of the Detroit I have tried to describe, please go to:

Everything you’ll see is south of 8 Mile.  What you’ll see north of 8 Mile could be Anywhere, U.S.A.


  1. Powerful piece, very powerful! But the ache in the pit of my stomach came from viewing the photos. I've now reread your piece which, as powerful as it was, is all the more powerful now.
    Thank you - for the article, for the link, and for your sensitivity. I myself have a close friend who grew up in Detroit. She, too, visited recently and tried to describe what she saw. Only after having read your blog entry do I begin to comprehend the heart-breaking situation.

  2. Linda, I had no idea that it was this bad. Last time I visited the old neighborhoods, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, there were at least liquor stores, nail and hair salons, pharmacies, etc. What total devastation!

    Having just returned from a visit to Detroit, I have been thinking a lot about how the destruction of the city effects Detroiters; and it does effect all of us deeply, I think. Really, only people from Beirut or Kabul can understand how we feel.

    It's more than urban decay for those who grew up there. Detroit was the city where my parents and grandparents immigrated to. Both my parents, my great-grandparents, grandparents, and extended family spent their a large part of their lives raising their families and working there. I was born and grew up in a place that doesn't exist anymore.

    To add to the personal, Detroit was a lovely place back in the day. So many sturdy, well-built houses and tree-lined, wide residential streets. Beautiful Art Deco "skyscrapers" and public buildings, lots of them. Many lively, viable neighborhoods with many shops to walk to. Belle Isle with it's Greek Revival and Deco pavilions and waterfront. All gone.

    So for us who grew up there, it is a loss of personal history as well as the loss of beautiful public places. This is what is so painful.