“Why does it have to be in downtown Detroit?” I thought, as my husband and I drove down the Lodge Expressway in a small U-Haul carrying a bed, a futon, and three hand-me-down bar stools. Our 20-year-old daughter was somewhere on the road ahead of us in her second-hand station wagon, loaded with clothes and books to last her six months. It was a cold, gray day in February, and we were moving her into an apartment in downtown Detroit for an internship.
My husband had grown up in a suburb of Detroit in the 1970s. One of his favorite childhood stories involves his brother watching out an upstairs window as his Dodge Dart was getting stolen out of their driveway. (“A Dodge Dart,” he always says, incredulous.) Detroit was a little scary. Over the next few decades, it got a lot worse.
In 2012, Forbes named it America’s Most Dangerous City—for the fourth year in a row. Its crime rate, which was more than five times the national average, had a ripple effect. People and businesses moved out, eventually leaving 78,000 abandoned buildings.
In 2013, it became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. For a while, it looked like the city would sell off some of the art in the Detroit Institute of Art to help pay its debts. In the 2013 book Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff wrote, “It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. . . There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.”
I knew that Detroit had been slowly improving since then. I had heard about Quicken Loans founder and Detroit native Dan Gilbert and Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illitch pouring millions into redevelopment. Still, as we pulled off Exit 2B, it was my old notions of the city that I held onto. People had tried to revitalize Detroit before—most notably in 1976, with the Renaissance Center—and had failed. Out my side of the U-haul, I saw new shops and restaurants, renovated buildings, and an outdoor rink filled with young skaters, but I was unconvinced.
As I helped unpack the flotsam and jetsam that makes up my daughter’s world—a half-knitted scarf, succulents she named Maeve, Calvin, Mini Stanley and Mega Stanley, and a poster “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”—in her new apartment, I still had no idea how I could bring myself to drive away, leaving her without what I consider to be the basics—friends, life skills, and an alarm she doesn’t sleep through.
I watched her hang up a photo of herself the first time she’d been on a horse. She still looks the same, mostly. When she was a baby, she had a heart defect. I rocked her to sleep every night, willing the small hole in her heart to close. She had a fighting spirit even then. Her hole went away; the fight stayed. She punched me in the nose when she was three, ran away regularly when she was six, and started jumping horses—and falling off them, and getting back on them—when she was nine.
In high school, her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks began. I recently asked her what the hardest thing she ever did was. She thought for a moment, then said, “The hardest thing I ever did happens every time I have a panic attack.” In spite of that, she hasn’t let anxiety get between her and living.
When an entire class of students who had been her friends shunned her during every class for a semester, refusing to sit at her table even when all the seats at the other tables in the room were taken, she could have dropped the class. She didn’t. She went to every class, sat alone, participated in the discussions, completed group projects by herself, and aced the class.
There’s a famous Chrysler car commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in 2011, called “Imported from Detroit.” Maybe you remember it. It starred Eminem and shows scenes from around Detroit, not all of them pretty. In one part, the voice-over says, “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know? More than most. It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”
As my daughter lifted her arms to hug me goodbye at the door of her new apartment, on the doorstep of her new life, I caught a glimpse of the nautilus tattoo on her left bicep. She got it last spring, at the end of a particularly difficult year. I cried when she got it—cried at the permanence of the ink on her tender, alabaster skin. But now the tattoo strikes me as the mark life has literally left on her. She has taken all comers, living and learning faster than her peers, and she’s still standing.
And that’s why she has to be in Detroit. Because every day she will see its grit, its perseverance, its fire in the belly. She will see herself, and she will remember that she already has everything she needs.–Christine MacLean