Detroit City bound

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 30, 2006 | , , ,

We've placed a bid on a house that's perfect for us in downtown Detroit. Wood smartly put the kibosh on my dreams of the Frank Lloyd Wright fixer-upper, and for not much more than the cost of a down payment on a house in San Francisco we hope to soon own our first home in a city that most people don't even like to drive through. I can't say that I blame them. Detroiters are notorious for not heeding traffic signals; you can't assume because your light is green that some guy won't blast through the intersection at 40 mph. When people out here in San Francisco ask me what Detroit is like, I say that while I've never lived there, it feels like it's somewhere between Mad Max and The Road Warrior: chaotic and menacing, but not quite post-apocalyptic.

But I have also been telling people how excited I am to live there, and that I think Detroit is incredibly beautiful.

We have been getting "the face" for awhile now when I say such things; you know, the one where they look like they're smelling a particularly turgid dog fart. It usually accompanies the words: "You're going to raise your daughter there?" The speaker's eyes then dart from side to side, anxious, as though the men in the white lab coats are about to get out of their white vans and rush us with straitjackets to take us to the loony bin. "Have you ever actually been to Detroit?" we've been asked four times.

It's really starting to piss me off, and probably setting me up to reflexively become one hell of an asshole about it. But before I get to that, a slight digression:

Despite my recent accolade as a mommyblogger and my honorary degree from vagina university, I am still a man. That means I am pretty dense about some heavy shit, like all the fucking insecurity and the "judgmentality" among interacting parents (particularly moms). Despite all the shit that went down a few weeks ago and all the veterans of the mommy wars banging their tin cups all over the internet, it didn't really dawn on me until my wife explained it recently: "parenting is a really fucking hard job," she says, "one that certainly makes me insecure. So we all slog through this job wondering if we're doing the right thing and always feeling terrified that we're not, and then when we encounter someone who has done some other thing, made some different decision, we take that insecure energy and turn it into judgmental hate." Now that I fully understand this subtext, I have heard playground interactions and seen blog conflict where all this runs like electric current through every passive (or not-so passive) aggressive comment. It makes sense. For many of us this is the first time in our lives that our every decision affects the future of someone other than ourselves, and that's an enormous, uncomfortable responsibility. I was reading MamaC-Ta's post from a few weeks ago about all the hate she was getting for dressing her kid the way she wants to, and I really started thinking about how all this insecurity and judgment boils down to a relatively simple chiasma:

(1) Parent A makes an intentional values-based decision to do something (i.e. formula feed, co-sleep, cry-it-out, let her baby watch television, leash or spank her kids, or feed them junk food).
(2) Parent B makes an intentional values-based choice not to do the same thing, often creating a false sense of both insecurity and superiority in Parent B, who feels that it takes so much more effort and sacrifice to make the value-based choice she has made for her child.
(3) Parent B resents (and judges) Parent A for making the "easy" choice.
(4) Parent A feels the blatant judgment from Parent B, often creating a sense of guilt or insecurity for making the choice she has made. Parent A now resents (and judges) Parent B.

In any interaction, multiple values-based conflicts may exist at once, creating a tangled web of judgment and insecurity. Nearly every values-based parenting choice exists on a continuum between two dichotomous poles. Any time a parent takes a strong position or makes a particularly "polar" values-based decision (i.e. "No TV! Only wooden toys!" or "TV teaches my babies to read! They learn so much more from their leapfrog toys than they do from wooden blocks!") the judgment just becomes intrinsic to the choice. You really can't win, unless you learn to just accept that judgment and insecurity are a part of this process, and ultimately if you have a strong sense of personal values you just make decisions according to those values and try not to ignite the insecurities in the other side. Easier said than done.

We're learning that one of the most contentious of these values-based choices is the decision about where to raise your children. Despite having known quite a few awesome, successful people who grew up in the city of Detroit, we keep hearing from ordinarily politically-correct liberal people that we simply cannot raise our baby in Detroit. Some list proxy excuses like bad schools, personal safety, and corrupt city government and nonexistent city services to try to convince us that it's the wrong decision. The bottom line is that Detroit is black and for many people that's enough. Does all this judgment add to any insecurity we have about our decision to live in the city? A little, and I've written about it honestly before. Is that insecurity going to stop us? Hell no.

But what it is really threatening to do is make me really resent the people who imply we are making the wrong decision, that we are making the wrong choice and jeopardizing the safety and future of our little girl. I recognize that it's all just part of the chiasma: some judge us as crazy or simply bad parents; others resent us because they assume we think we're better than them. It's the latter that I am most concerned about, probably because our general views are less divergent. I think our decision to live in the city is viewed by those sensitive about living in the suburbs as a rejection of their decision (or sacrifice). In other words, we are choosing to live in a place they perceive as too dangerous to live not because we like danger but because we would never live in a place as lame as the suburbs. And that part is true. Wood and I would never live in the suburbs. But I'm not going to turn this into a "why Dutch doesn't want to live in the suburbs" post. That must be such a tired subject among actual metro Detroiters. I'm just not going to argue about how statistically it's more dangerous to commute for 90 minutes a day on congested highways than it is to live among black people.

When Wood and I were 19 we drove to Canada with Wood's college republican friend and a group of her high school friends who all grew up in Farmington Hills, an affluent exurb of Detroit. In Canada, the drinking age was 19. To get there, though, we had to drive through downtown Detroit. It was late, but some concert must have just ended at Joe Louis Arena and we got stuck in highway gridlock not far from the Detroit/Windsor tunnel. Everyone in all the other cars was black. The tension in our car was palpable. The Farmington girls were terrified. They started talking about the people in the other cars as "they" and "them" and one even went so far as to call them "animals." I couldn't hold it in anymore and I got into a shouting match with her. It was a certain kind of ugliness you don't get to see too much, given how privileged people are taught to be so careful with their words. For the rest of the evening I had a headache and I didn't want to go into any of lame clubs these girls were dancing in, nor did I have any desire to drink. Wood sat with me out in the empty streets of Windsor, her new boyfriend driven to contemplative silence.

It's infinitely tricky to explain why you see beauty in a place where so many others see only ugliness, without also explaining that you see ugliness in the places they find beautiful.

God knows not everyone from the suburbs is like those girls from Farmington Hills. I know plenty of people who grew up in the suburbs who are now living in the city that their parents' generation abandoned. I also know plenty of people who grew up in the suburbs, raise their kids in a streetcar suburb, and are completely awesome. I love how beauty can flourish amid all different kinds of ugliness, how it can overcome its context, whether it be urban blight or suburban sprawl. You are ultimately unique from the circumstances that shape you. You don't have to think the way everyone around you thinks. You are not condemned to be a bad parent just because you had bad parents. You can make values-based decisions and stick by them no matter how many people tell you that you are wrong.

From this bully pulpit I will share some of the beauty I find in a city that so many have told us contains only ugliness. I may share ugliness, too. Like everywhere and everyone, I'm sure it has plenty of both.