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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More Michigan. For Real.



Home is a state of mind. We all know that. Home is what we grow up with. Or leave in order to set out on our own. Home is memory, the stories and myths we share. Home is an easy chair, comfort food, a place at the table, (pass the turkey, please.)


The notion of home as a comfort zone all depends, of course, on our means: to meet the rent, pay the mortgage, fix the roof, buy groceries, make plans, raise a family, to grow, to dream, to change, to adapt, to pull up stakes when we desire, and move forward when we so choose.


Our state of flux


Not to dwell on the negative, but we live in a state of disrepair. So many things here in Michigan need fixing. Yes, there are signs that the Big Three have started the process: downsizing for dear life and getting back on the road. Even still, economic recovery will be a long time in coming for the workforce in Michigan.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan leads the nation in unemployment, at a statewide rate of 13.1% Count the underemployed, and those who have dropped out of the job market altogether, our numbers skyrocket to 20.9% statewide. Officially the jobless rate in Detroit is just under 30%. But using the broadest definition of unemployment, the number of city residents out of work is closer to one in every two. Numbing numbers. And not surprising: homelessness, especially among those becoming homeless for the first time is expected to jump at least 10% this year. Source: Detroit's Unemployment Rate Is Nearly 50%, According to the Detroit News


Katrina. Without the water.


Detroit, once the epicenter of the nation’s industrial wealth is a city deserted, with more abandoned property than any American city except post-Katrina New Orleans. The good news is we’re open to opportunity. Wide open.


And like New Orleans, there’s an indomitable creative spirit here in Michigan. We’re builders. Inventors. Dreamers. Do-ers. We’re optimists. Even under water. I see it every day working in the Exhibit Design Shop of the Detroit Science Center. Times are tough. Funding is hard to secure. Yet in the last two years, we’ve added a middle school, reopened and revitalized the Detroit Children’s Museum, added a theater, completed a Kidstown and a Space Gallery, and launched two national traveling exhibits. In the cue, we have a dozen projects, including multi-million dollar contracts to build exhibits in partnership with Marathon Oil and MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation. By one miracle or another, we’ll get these projects done.


Just out of curiosity the other day, I took an informal survey at the shop and asked a few colleagues - graphic designers, electromechanical engineers and fabricators--


“What makes Michigan work?”


Beyond the tourism hype,” I ask, “what does pure Michigan mean to you?"


“The Lakes,” pipes up the youngest of the group. There’s no place in the world that has the Great Lakes as we do. Think about it. Michigan, Superior and Erie. Each one has a different kind of shoreline. Rocky, sand dunes, all different.


“And freighters on the lake, I love to watch the ships go by.”


The office comes alive with our chatter.


“How ‘bout our shipwrecks? Did you know Lake Superior has claimed more than 350 ships?”


“Don’t forget the lighthouses.”


“And the white-sand beaches... and Sleeping Bear Dunes.”


“We have seasons. I love that we have four seasons.”


“And the color-changes.”


“And apple picking.”


“And the Peach Festival in Romeo.”


Suddenly, Michigan is sounding like an entirely different state than the one I know. And it is. The Upper Peninsula is still wild. Serene. Beautiful. Never been there, never done that.


"So what about Detroit?," I ask.


The room breaks out in a litany of Detroit claims to fame. . .


“Sports! We have four professional sports teams, not many cities can say that.”


“And our cultural center, our museums.”


The Henry Ford -- and Greenfield Village... we have history here”


"Ford Country."


Vernors, the oldest surviving gingerale in the U.S, a Detroit original.”


“And don’t forget our music. Motown is still a great town for musicians.”


“And artists.”


“And Buddy’s Pizza, another Detroit specialty.”


“How ‘bout our ethnic food?”


“And our diversity. Our neighborhoods, Mexican Town. Greek Town. Cork Town. Hamtramick.”


Detroit is a concept, ventures one of the designers - a young woman in her 30‘s.,


Now the flow of conversation gets serious. “How do you mean, a concept?” I ask.


"I love the architecture, the grandeur and the history, and in it I see a city that is still striving in its heart for a life.


I see great and terrible contrasts between the past and the present, and I envision both these things coming forth to create something new.


But we need to be patient.


We need to keep up the good fight... to believe in ourselves.


We need to know when to close the doors and when to be open to change. We need to be willing to renew, retool, and reinvent ourselves.”


"We are stardust, we are golden."


Living in a state of flux is not new to Michiganers. Since the turn of the century -- that is the 20th century -- Michigan has had its ups and downturns. I no longer have a first-hand family narrative to check the facts on this, but I’ve been told that my grandparents once owned a laundry on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit -- back in the early 20’s. My mother had recollections of Belle Isle Park where her father learned to drive the family car. And when the laundry business dried up, my grandparents packed it in, left the state, moved their young family to Ohio, determined never again to own a business that would “live and die” by the shifting fortunes of the auto industry.


That’s my brief family history in Detroit. Until now. It’s just the two of us here, my husband and I. Our sons are one state over in both directions east and west: in Cleveland and Chicago. Our extended family is spread from coast to coast, from Florida to Seattle. We have no plans to leave the area any time soon. Our home is here, and so is our work


So strange how you get attached to a place. I work in an industrial park off of 8 Mile, a formidable and colorful strip of road, blighted by abandoned buildings, empty car lots, convenience stores and “gentlemen’s clubs. Just around the block from the shop, there stood a fabulous wreck of a place -- which I assumed to be a burnt-out theater. Until I stopped to actually take a closer look at the marquee. The Starlight Lanes, missing its “L.” What a glorious bowling alley it must have been back in the day. I took a spin around the building on a lunch hour a couple of months ago, to snap a few pictures, figuring to capture a final image before it disappeared forever from view. And sure enough, my instincts were correct. Two weeks ago, the Starlight turned to stardust. Torn down. At last, making way for someplace new.


Things change. Some for the better. Even here in Detroit, of all places.


Photo Sources: vhenoch and DetroitFunk.com (All who wander are not lost)


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