Column: Let’s help all of Detroit bloom

Jo Kroeker

I was crying and driving. Again. Bizarre Michigan lefts, elusive parking structures and endless construction detours can still trigger frustrated tears and, in these moments, I almost long for Hillsdale and its gloriously simple country roads.

While driving, aka getting lost, started as a source of stress, it has become my chance to learn about Detroit, its dual personalities and suburban cousins known vaguely as “Metro Detroit.”

An assignment early in my internship took me to blighted McClellan and East Warren. My subject, urban beekeeper Nicole Lindsey of Detroit Hives, even walked me to my car. But during the golden hour, even the green fields, the ghosts of homes past, looked beautiful. I noticed fake flowers dotting front yards. I imagined it was residents’ way of saying, “We still live here. This is our home, our neighborhood.”

Some days, I took my VW Bug exploring after work and it amazed me how one street could morph the landscape. Gratiot took me past shuttered businesses and abandoned art deco gems straight to Campus Martius, an early sign of Detroit’s renaissance. I’d follow Mack from Gilbertville through blight to East English Village Tudor homes, broad-leafed trees and droning cicadas.

Ashamedly, I didn’t always make a point to do this. I was a downtowner with suburban instincts. I’d jump out of bed, dash out my Wayne State dorm — intern central — hop on M-10 and be downtown in eight minutes flat, where incoming yuppies rocking tats snap up cheap housing and work jobs in arts and tech.

They don’t even have to leave downtown. I didn’t.

But with my car, tours by longtime News employees and Aaron Foley’s newest book, “The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook,” I started learning how the other Motor City runs.

Joel Fluent Greene instructed me how to enjoy the new Midtown and respect the old Cass Corridor: “Hop on the gentri-train … but respect the bumpy road / underneath the bike lane.”

I thought of when I bought Maccabee’s Traders famed craft cocktails and later chatted with the sweet, elderly men who bummed cigarettes in exchange for a lighter outside Checkers.

In Sara Jane Boyers’ reflection on her Pinehurst Street childhood home, I heard her reverence for all residents: “the block-minded, God-fearing people who populate it… the hardworking elders holding on to their property, young people raising families, new community leaders arising from their neighborhoods.”

I remembered the fake flowers, the septuagenarian excited about seeing butterflies after Detroit Hives removed blight and brought bees and the lawn mowers, barbecues and lemonade stands.

Detroit is the opposite of sterile, gritty, sexy and unorthodox, says muralist Nic Notion in a description I’ve committed to memory. “It’s about survival, it’s about love, it’s about standing for something, it’s about hard working. Some people still carry that, you know?”

He also told me about pollinators, people who bring new ways of doing things to the city, and parasites, money-makers who see just see a “blank slate,” and how we must balance humanity and profit.

I know now there are two Detroits. I’ve learned some live here to “save the city,” but as Erin Marquis writes in her Minock Park essay, “that attitude ignores the agency and devotion of the people who have already spent their lives making Detroit what it is now.” My heart breaks when I see boarded up stores and people taking refuge under churches, but her words check any mental cure-all plans. It’s not my place to change what I still don’t understand.

Still, however, if we acquaint, or reacquaint, ourselves with our neighborhoods, maybe we can all be pollinators for the two Detroits, so real flowers can grow everywhere.

Jo Kroeker is a senior at Hillsdale College and a summer intern at The Detroit News.