Miss Pickens' porch

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | ,

This is Miss Pickens' house. It's the only one on its block. When I stopped one day to tell her how much I enjoyed her yard decorations, she told me they were there to keep people from driving across her gardens. "People just don't care at all anymore." When I told her I've always admired her house, she informed me it was for sale. She showed my kids her Easter decorations. She pointed to where all the "drug houses" once stood on her block, now empty lots. "They're gone now," she said. "But I'm still here." She told us all about how her neighborhood used to be, good and bad.

It was a Wednesday when we stopped but she was wearing Sunday clothes. I peppered her with heartfelt flattery. "I always dress this well," she said, and told me about the church she attends not far from our house. I asked if I could take her portrait. "Oh yes, honey," she said. "But not today. My hair isn't right today. Come back," she said. "We'll talk again." I've been back several times, and her hair has been lovely but never right. All I have to share is a picture of a proud little house alone on its block.

Buildings never care what they look like.

* * * * *

Last week I was invited to speak on a panel in Ann Arbor before some non-profit folks hoping to integrate blogging into their outreach and fundraising efforts. During my presentation, I showed them the photo of the tree growing from the books to explain how social bookmarking sites like digg and reddit can help reach beyond a particular audience or region to attract potential readers from all over the world. During the questions afterward, a member of a group of Detroit community activists stood up and angrily accused me of distorting the image of the city to the world, portraying only its ugliness, and she told me I should be ashamed. She had never read this website; she had only seen a few photos during the presentation.

After the room cleared, I tried to initiate a dialogue with these activists. The argument they posed was that there are many people working very hard to do positive things in Detroit and they have been doing so for many years before I arrived (I was called a carpetbagger, and replied that Detroit needs more carpetbaggers: about a million of them). To those working hard for positive change, any media attention perceived as negative (be it about crime or failing city schools or neighborhoods turning to prairie), is somehow a rebuke of their good deeds. These people attacking me were good people. But they were, in a sense, no different from the right-wing ideologues shouting endlessly during the worst days of the Iraq War that "the media never reports the good news in Iraq." I suppose I sympathize with any journalist unable to see past the dismembered corpses of suicide bombers and their victims to write only positive news.

I told these angry activists that I am not a reporter. I am just one man telling his story. If you don't like the story I'm telling, start your own blog and tell yours. That's how this works.

I happen to believe that this blog tells a positive story. It is the story of a family unsatisfied with a typical yuppie trajectory in San Francisco who intentionally moved to the most maligned city in America. It is the story of a man who finds that city beautiful in ways that may be difficult to understand at first, though if you stay long enough he'll try to explain. It's the story of thousands of people around the world who for some reason return to this website despite having no connection to this failing Rust Belt, one-industry town wounded by racism and poverty but surviving with a compelling grace. This is, I believe, ultimately a story with hope: another family choosing to root itself where so many are warned never to go. A city full of beautiful people surviving among the ruins. Strangers who come here to read with care and concern in their hearts. A seed that germinates in words never before read.

* * * * *

This blog started as a place for me to write about the experience of parenting. I think I'm going to return to doing more of that. Because of the increased attention I had intentionally been writing my kids out of this story, mostly because I had convinced myself that no one really wants to read about someone else's kids, that this blog was the equivalent of a woman shoving pictures of her grandkids under your nose in the checkout line. But whether we're sitting on some lovely old lady's porch, islanded by the ghosts of homes long ago churned into the earth and her stories of a neighborhood that no longer exists, or foraging for apples in some abandoned backyard, or returning from the weekly radio flyer ride to the market, or learning to garden on a plot of land that was trash-strewn and empty a year ago, they are a part of this story. One of the best parts, I hope.

* * * * *

This post has been difficult to write as I'm sure it has been to read. Admittedly, I've been in a rut. I'm still figuring things out. I'm not going to let those critics affect me (trust me: I am even more certain in my convictions now that they have been publicly challenged). But I do struggle with my tendency to allow buildings, blocks, and books to become proxies for people. I'm certainly not going stop taking pictures or writing about the things I find interesting.

But we will keep returning to Miss Pickens' porch. Someday, I'm sure, her hair will be right.