When I tell someone my family is from Detroit, the person will respond by saying, “Oh, Detroit!” in one of two ways: the first is suspicious, as if I had said that I was just released from prison the day before; the second, now that Detroit has become a national buzzword for either hopelessness or high expectations, is the inauthentic enthusiasm reserved for the perennial stories in the national media about the city’s so-called “renaissance,” many of which focus on the small pocket of Corktown, a white enclave that is the site of the popular Slows Barbecue restaurant. “[T]he area is now a vibrant community of passionate restaurateurs, stylish shopkeepers, meticulous coffee connoisseurs and craft cocktailers,” went one article in The New York Times, from June, which argues implicitly that the area is good because it doesn’t resemble Detroit at all.
Such optimism tends to ignore details like a city of 700,000 being run during bankruptcy proceedings by an emergency manager, a non-elected lawyer from Ft. Lauderdale named Kevyn Orr, and city officials turning off water for thousands of residents with delinquent accounts, which has drawn the attention of the United Nations. All of these realities in turn give way to apocrypha mongering such as: droves of helpless souls dying of thirst in their houses while the city callously hoards precious fluids, or residents frantically swimming across the Detroit River to escape to the safe haven of Canada. Detroit, like anything else, is never as bad or good as people make it out to be.
I’m too cynical about the art world and my upbringing to give “Another Look at Detroit,” a massive exhibition in Chelsea on view at two wealthy art galleries, Marlborough and Marianne Boesky, a fair assessment either way. The show errs on the side of positivity, censoring any images of urban blight, industrial waste or poverty, which is admirable if not entirely accurate. Todd Levin, a Detroiter and veteran of the New York art world, organized it. Ms. Boesky’s father is the banker Ivan Boesky, who was born in Detroit to a restaurateur and, after he was convicted in New York of insider trading in 1986, became the partial basis for Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Instead of taking it on myself, I brought my mother with me to see what she thought of all this.
My mother was born in Detroit in 1952 and moved with my father to New York, where my sister and I were already living, in the spring of 2009. Her grandparents, the Hapij family—Harry and Mary, both born in East Galicia—arrived from Ukraine on Ellis Island sometime between 1908 and 1910. They migrated from New York more or less immediately to Winnipeg, where they gave birth to seven children at the rate of about one a year, the youngest of which, Michael (Mijkhaylo), my grandfather, was born in 1916. Michael came to Detroit with two of his brothers around the time he was 20 to look for work, while everyone else stayed in Canada. It’s unclear now whether it happened at Ellis Island or in Winnipeg, but somewhere down the line an immigration officer changed their surname to Happy. A lifetime’s worth of strangers working for the service industry would go on to ask them, shamelessly and without fail, “Is that your real name? How happy are you?”
Estell Virginia Gurzenda, my grandmother, was born in 1918 to Polish immigrants, and worked for a time as a shop girl in a department store downtown before marrying the youngest Happy sibling. They settled in a rental on the second floor of 3336 Dane Street, in what used to be known as Poletown. That neighborhood was leveled in 1981 to make way for a massive General Motors car plant, which unlike a lot of the other plants in Detroit, remains operational today. On Dane Street, they raised three children—Mike, Bob and my mother, Mary Jane.
Michael lost his job at the Packard plant when it closed in 1957. He started working for his brother-in-law as a mechanic at Giant Automotive and the family moved to 8236 Dobel, a short street that is sandwiched between two cemeteries and dead ends at the edge of the old Detroit City Airport, since renamed the Coleman A. Young International Airport and no longer supporting passenger airline service. For a few days in July, 1967, the airport served as a headquarters for the National Guard during the city’s second major race riot. The first, in 1943, the year Detroit’s population skyrocketed due to the factory work that sprung up because of the war, can at least in part be explained by the city’s new racial landscape, when scores of black workers and poor whites migrated to the city from the south.
The cause of the riot of 1967 is more difficult to pin down, but it started with a beer bottle being thrown at a police officer at an after-hours club on 12th Street, the heart of the city’s black business district, and ended with over 40 reported deaths and a few thousand destroyed buildings. The tanks rolled down Dobel Street, and the Happy family all spent their nights that week in the living room, holding close the shotgun my Uncle Bob used for pheasant hunting, hoping no one would break down the front door. During the day, my mother—by this time a hormonal teenager—baked cookies and flirted with the troops. Not long after this, she would leave Detroit for the comparably bohemian setting of Ann Arbor—about a half an hour by car, west on I-94—but my grandparents would stay until 1987, the year of my birth, moving to a house on Fairmont and leaving only when a crazed drug addict—one of the new additions to the neighborhood that accompanied the arrival of crack cocaine—broke into the house late one night, and violently beat my grandfather while my grandmother watched. He got away with $30.
“Well, I don’t know what his intentions were,” my mother said to me, walking down West 24th Street, referring to Mr. Levin, the curator, “but I’d say he left a lot out.”
We started at Marianne Boesky Gallery last week. There was an oil painting of William Boesky, grandfather of Marianne and the owner of Boesky’s Deli. Arranged in a glass vitrine were several marketing pamphlets for various Ford products, including the 1904 sales catalog, featuring the “Blue Ribbon Car,” Ford’s early attempt at a mass produced vehicle that predated the Model T by four years. Hung above them was a haunting portrait of Edsel B. Ford, son of Henry, by Diego Rivera. Mike Kelley’s Center and Peripheries #2, a blank canvas with several paintings—two mughshot-style portraits, a cartoon and a full garbage bag—encircling it like satellites, seemed to loom large over the entire gallery. Ray Johnson, born in Detroit in 1927, had several works on view, but mostly ones that referenced the New York art world of his time, including a sardonic—if somewhat off-topic—collage about Art News magazine.
Mr. Levin says his show was not meant to be comprehensive, but providing even a snapshot of Detroit is impossible. There are so many incongruities to a city that was once the pinnacle of modernity in America filing, last year, the country’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy case, but the greatest of all is how personal the loss is for each person who experienced firsthand the city that perfected mass production. I asked my mother what she thought the ideal exhibition about Detroit should look like and she paused only briefly before saying, gravely, “Industry.” If Detroit for her was about labor and how to maintain it, then it was also about her family’s personal route to survival, and the defining story of the Happy family comes around 1979, when my grandfather’s brother-in-law sold his body shop, forcing my grandfather into early retirement at the age of 62. He never worked again after that. My mother has always claimed that the absence of work quite literally broke his heart, which, soon after his unemployment, required a valve replacement in order to keep functioning.
Like most whites that grew up in Detroit in the years following World War II, my parents moved to the suburbs to raise their family. Detroit was always a 20 minute drive down the Lodge Freeway, the through-line connecting downtown with the network of neighborhoods comprising the adjacent Oakland County, but the city was something of a distant memory by then, existing mostly in the mind of my mother and externally only as a cautionary tale. I’d discover much of the city myself after I left it, but it remains in my mind the way my parents presented it to me. My mother would take us downtown with some regularity, both as proof that the city was still there and as a reminder of how much was gone. We were limited to a few pockets of prosperity. The sports stadiums, the opera house, the Fox Theater, Hart Plaza, Polonia in Hamtramk, Mexican Village on Bagley and Belle Isle, a charmingly dilapidated state park in the middle of the Detroit River, which we’d drive around slowly but I don’t remember ever getting out of the car. We’d go to Pegasus, the heavy-handed Greek restaurant on Monroe and eat what felt like a prelapsarian feast of kasseri cheese doused in oil and lit on fire, the flames quelled with the juice of a freshly chopped lemon.
We’d drive past The Thinker perched in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts, where my father took me for the first time at the age of eight. My father, for whom Detroit was also exotic and otherworldly, even though (or, really, because) he spent his whole life before moving to New York within an hour of the city limits, coaxed me into listing some of the evil that would imminently be released from Chauncey Bradley Ives’ sculpture of Pandora, perpetually frozen in the moment prior to opening her pithos. Afterwards, we had the misfortune of seeing the gruesome site where one museum visitor mercilessly unloaded his bowels and smeared the mess all over the walls and floor of the men’s bathroom. The current trials of the DIA are by now well-documented, and from a distance I’ve watched with rising frustration while the museum fights to save the city-owned portion of its collection from the bankrupt city’s creditors, but I can only ever return to that day, asking my father, “What’s happening there?” as he solemnly shuffled me out of the restroom. It was my first time in a museum.
Occasionally we’d drive past my mother’s childhood home on Dobel, and note with calculated detachment the deterioration of the block and how many more houses had fallen to the ground from arson or abandonment or both. The last time we did this, in April 2009, there was a young girl kneeling on the porch of the house, praying. The block was nearly half-deserted. I remember in this moment feeling briefly, pathetically frustrated that the city didn’t do more to resist all the metaphorical weight that the rest of the country tries to unload on it, before realizing that I was guilty of the same thing, treating the city less like a place where people live and more like an old friend who turned out to be a great disappointment. These were details we were able to bury somewhere beneath our ranch-style home in a tree-lined suburb, 20 minutes and an impossible distance away, until that life was also, so to speak, burned to the ground when my father lost his job selling catalytic converters to the Ford Motor Company. The family could no longer make their mortgage payments and my parents drove to New York—where I was about to graduate from college and my sister was right in the middle of medical school—and hoped for the best. It was better anyway than the other option—living in their car, which was notably not a Ford. Twenty years with that company and my parents were Honda loyalists.
“Oh my God,” my mother said at Marlborough Chelsea, the second stop of “Another Look at Detroit.” She had gravitated toward a photograph near the entrance of the intersection at Grand River and Woodward in the late 1960s by Bill Rauhauser. She moved her face closer to the image of Marianne’s Department Store. “I remember Marianne’s! Wow.” The street was packed with black and white faces and my mother’s countenance drooped with the weight of sad nostalgia.
She had less to say about the video by Destroy All Monsters, the punk collective where Mike Kelley got his start, though she chuckled happily when she realized the MC5 was blasting through a speaker in the room. There was a bike hanging from the ceiling manufactured by Shinola, one of those companies responsible for Detroit’s “renaissance.”
“I just read about them,” my mother said and shook her head. “It’s either shit or Shinola. I wonder how long that bike would last in Detroit.” Here she paused. “Well, I bet as long as it would last in New York.”
It’s odd even to compare Detroit to another city, let alone a city as antithetical as New York, but for people like my mother who witnessed its peak, that’s the way it is: Detroit is not some floating, isolated concept. It’s a city with problems—problems so big they seem more like postmodern myths (the most beautiful skyscrapers anyone has ever constructed sitting empty downtown, disappearing streets, a rising population of wild dogs, etc.), but also lots of simple unpleasantness, something it always had, even when it was great, and which it shares with any other American city.
There weren’t a lot of problems on view in “Another Look at Detroit,” which explains that titular otherness. It was predictable, though, that the piece my mother and I spent the most time with was a photograph from The Detroit News archives called Johnnie Redding Frozen in Elevator Shaft. This was one of those true stories that would be easier to deal with if it were a fiction, and so is often discussed with a kind of picaresque sensationalism. Johnnie, according to The Detroit News, was in an abandoned building “smoking cocaine with somebody and died,” possibly causing his acquaintance to panic and stash the body in a water-logged elevator shaft, which froze over as the season changed, and the cadaver was discovered only after the water thawed out again. What was so interesting about this was not that Johnnie was gruesomely preserved on ice. It was that the death itself, news of which circulated widely after the photo emerged in 2009, was so banal: another overdose that could easily have gone unreported and remained anonymous if it hadn’t gone viral. The photograph showed a pair of legs jutting out of a sludgy pile of melting debris-filled ice.
“That about sums things up for me,” my mother deadpanned.
“Nothing in this exhibition makes me want to go to Detroit,” she continued. “If you took a photograph of Grand River 50 years ago and put it next to a picture of it now,” she trailed off. “I don’t know. Maybe you had to live there and grow up there at a certain time to experience the whole feast to famine.” Unprompted, she started rattling off her meaningful Detroit signifiers: the Better Made potato chip factory, Vernors pop, Belle Isle, the “Seven Sisters” smokestacks (demolished in 1996) at the Connors Creek Power Plant, which defined part of the city’s skyline. “And now this city that doesn’t function,” she said. We had by now walked out to 10th Avenue, where the cars were honking and the clamor of construction from Hudson Yards echoed above everything. My mother frowned before hailing a cab. “It’s a broken city and nobody fixed it in time,” she said.
Now among metastasizing luxury condos, my family registers the progress back in Michigan wherever we can. Until last week, I had been under the impression that the Happy family home on Dobel had been burned to the ground like many of its neighbors. A cousin drove by it the other day, my mother told me. With no small amount of relief she said the house was still standing and that someone had installed new windows.