Last week I went to southwest Detroit for a class project. Besides going to the city for football games, baseball games and concerts, I had only been in southwest Detroit once before- last spring during the cinco de mayo celebration in Clark Park. The two experiences were quite different: the cinco de mayo celebration was a party, there was music, hundreds of people, and lots of delicious food. Last Friday was every day life in Southwest Detroit, and nothing like a party.
The class project requires us to develop a program in an organization- ours is Detroit REACH, which focuses on diabetes and obesity in southwest and the eastside of Detroit. One of the staff members (though they only have three of them, on top of being completely underfunded) was kind enough to give us a driving tour of the neighborhood.
Now, I, like most other Public Health students, have read oodles of journal articles about the state Detroit is in. The once great city is in shambles. Somehow I did not truly understand or even visualize the extend to which Detroit has collapsed. The parks were full of trash, houses (once beautiful and regal) were now empty, falling apart, or burned out, the streets were full of massive potholes caused by the stinking diesel trucks that cross the bridge from Canada, day in and day out.
The whole experience in Detroit after having been a student at SPH, after hours of homework and reading, after lectures about the deteriorating health in American cities, after the statistics and numbers, I think back on a poem I wrote when I was 16. I was a creative writing major in college and thought that my writing would somehow make a difference in the world. I wrote the poem after I went to Detroit to see the Tigers for the first time:
I never knew her
Knew only her love handle suburbs
But I hear murmurs about the city
And now I finally know
The city is breathing
Hybernating cave bear
She is sleeping
I know by the nostrils fogging white
Like my own
I know by the off beat rhythm dancing in her streets
I know by the crowds of wild animals
Lions and tigers and men
She has grass growing in between her fingers
Toes lips sprouting spreading
Unstoppable words of one day
I will wake up
She is exhausted
Years of car make car break
Years of smoky bars were piano men
And paradise birds used to sing
She is sleeping off the blood and water
Sleeping off the hunger
And gang, rape, drive by.
Any day now she will get up
Curl out of fetus spread her limbs
She will get up and dance
The way she used to
The earth will tremble and the sky will fall
And through it all
Everyone will smile.
What I realize now, that I didn’t know then is that it takes people like my group to revive the city. It takes people seeing and experiencing these communities were sickness and chronic diseases are rampant, were stress is through the roof, and care is often unattainable. I now know that change isn’t automatic, inevitable, or someone else’s job. It is your job, and my job, and our job as a community.
And now, instead of just writing about it, I can actually try to DO something about it.
For more photographs about the decline of Detroit, click here!