the elephant in the living room

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 04, 2005 | , , ,

Today Wood and I are trying to figure out where in Detroit we're eventually going to live.

I know that's so boring, and if Wood thought my difficulties picking out a dollhouse were annoying, wait until she experiences how I'm going to be about our REAL house. Wood and I have never owned a home, and now, polluted by the astronomically conflated San Francisco housing market, we're fully set to go crazy in the city of Detroit.

Wood once confided in me that someday she would like her kids to grow up in a house "with a name." By that she means some sprawling estate with a long arcing driveway framed by topiary and little cupid sculptures. She fantasizes about the kids away at college saying things like, "Well, we are returning to Mandalay for the weekend," or "It feels so pleasant to be back at Stoneslodge once again." I have never seen this woman read an E.M. Forster novel or watch a Merchant Ivory film. Go figure.

But half century or more ago, all of the auto barons and their ilk abandoned their gigantic mansions in downtown Detroit and fled to the suburbs. Wood will sit looking at the real estate listings and say, "Seven bedroom Indian Hills estate, library, parlor, banquet hall, study, two kitchens, four baths, maid's quarters, two-bedroom fully-furnished carriage house, everything newly-renovated, $348,000." Then she pauses, bats her eyes, looks up at me and says in a sweet timid little voice: "carriage house?" We don't even need to say out loud that the mansion-with-the-carriage-house's price tag is exactly half of our bid that was accepted on a 820-square foot two bedroom apartment in the Lower Haight two years ago that we backed out of after I had something resembling a nervous breakdown. And it's not like that neighborhood was safe: on the night we put in our bid, a high school kid was shot to death a few feet away from the apartment's entrance. What I say is this:

"How many freakin' kids are YOU planning to have?"

Wood and I hope to live in downtown Detroit. We just don't know if we can cut it in the suburbs. If it was just Wood and I, there would be no question that we would live in a nice loft or buy one of those grand brick Victorians (with turrets) that were crackhouses in the eighties that are being so lovingly restored in the Woodbridge area or in other parts of the city. The thing about downtown Detroit is not that it seems dangerous. It just seems empty. Dozens of gigantic, gorgeous art-deco buildings stand empty, covered in graffiti and long boarded-up. We hadn't driven around Detroit in three years, and I was reminded of how tragically beautiful it all is, the wind whistling through the hopes and dreams of the postmodern industrial revolution. The city is great fodder for suburban high school photographer artistes to take gritty, black and white pictures of the urban decay (see my attempt, of the famous abandoned train station, at left). I love all of this. I think it is beautiful. Once Detroit was the greatest city in America, in the twenties, when Jewish gangs brought liquor over from Canada in rowboats and everybody had a job. We drove past Henry Ford's Highland Park factory where the Model T was first produced and it was rotting, surrounded by fried chicken shacks with bulletproof glass at the counters and dozens of empty wig shops. The neighborhoods where we would want to live are beautiful and (by all accounts) safe, but they just seem desolate. A good friend of mine who is a diehard downtown Detroit guy talks about how nature is taking over the abandoned urban spaces. He rides his bike everywhere he goes. He showed me the little Buddhist bakery near Wayne State where he buys his baguettes, he showed me the Eastern Market area where he buys his produce and dry goods.

All of this would fill me with such excitement if it weren't for one thing: the kid.

Most of the "urban pioneers" gentrifying these areas are either gays or hipsters, two species which are loathe to relinquish their youth to the joys of parenthood. We need to figure out if there will be any support in these communities for parents. Are there daycares? Playgrounds? Preschools? While we know we would be comfortable with the relative level of danger and the crime rate for ourselves, can we really raise Juniper some place like that, where half the street lights don't work and the city lets water spurt from the fire hydrants for months because it's cheaper to let the water run than it is to fix them? Underlying all of this, of course, is my own inherent racism. Sure there are daycares and preschools and sure there are people raising their babies and kids in these neighborhoods, but they are all black. What I'm really asking is: "Are there good [read: white] daycares? Playgrounds? Preschools?" Detroit is a black city, somewhere around 95 percent, I've been told. The suburbs are where the white people live and where the services for the white people are. I honestly want to know whether Juniper will be the only white kid in her daycare, in her school. I could pretend not to think about these things were it just Wood and I, but I am confronted with my own racism when I start thinking about actually raising my daughter there. I am haunted by the public elementary school where I was bussed into the ghetto, where we found crack pipes on the playground and Willie O'Day and his minions used to beat the shit out of me if I couldn't elude them before school and where Bryce True pulled a knife on me in the bathroom and made me give him my fucking lunch money. I can vividly remember sitting in class and hearing gunshots and rushing to the window with the other kids to look out and see who got shot. As a fifth grader, I went through a period where I had nightmares every night and a period where I couldn't even fall asleep I was so terrified of going to school the next day. Granted, I was a sensitive little pussy, but it affected me deeply in a way I hope Juniper doesn't have to be affected.

While all of that is true, all of that is also part of the reason that I am glad we are moving to Detroit. I am so fucking sick of this walking-on-eggshells bullshit San Francisco basking-in-fake-multiculturalism hypocrisy. It is so easy to be liberal when you're looking down at the plebes stewing in the valleys from your apartment high in Pacific Heights. I guess I've been talking the talk for awhile now, and it's come time to see if I can walk the walk. Either I'm going to be an asshole gentrifier pushing up rents for the privilege of confronting my own racism or I'm going to be a pussy who chooses to live in the suburbs out of racist concern for my daughter. I don't like this choice and the way it's churning up my insides.

Wood's having fun looking at impractical houses and telling everyone we'll be living downtown. I'm not so sure. I know I'm neurotic, unnecessarily worrying about things before their time. It's just I hear so many liberals using code to express their racism, even in San Francisco: "well you simply can't send your kids to the public schools here." Even our parents are telling us now that we need to choose a place in Detroit to live based on the schools. Our friends say the same thing, adding something about real estate and appreciation value. To be fair, I've encountered plenty of suburban black kids whose families fled inner-city Detroit based on the same concerns I have for my Juniper. It's that complicated nexus of race and class. It's a NIMBY-like effort to cloak racism and classism in concern for one's child. I am just sick at realizing that I'm just another liberal hypocrite. And that when confronted with the big decision that truly tests my character, I just might make the wrong choice.