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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section 3: The Mountain Was Alive

J.M. Leija

J.M. Leija
A Few Miles From Here
My dear Detroit,
I was running errands in the suburbs today, around the corner from my mom’s house, and when I stopped to get my nails done people were talking about you. That’s the strange thing about living here and the strangest thing about you, I think, that knowledgeable or not, everyone has an opinion about Detroit.
On the television there is a news story about three Grosse Pointe teenagers seriously injured in a shooting. One young woman was killed at the scene, on the corner of Charlevoix and Phillip just a few miles inside the edges of your limits. Though maybe I should talk about the Grosse Pointe city limits. That’s the more important part here: there are limits, even to the kind of money that can stand to see multi-million dollar houses half a mile away from the Detroit ruin porn that network television has been broadcasting for the last decade.
I grew up around here, so the sliding scale of income is vivid in my mind. Your limit is Alter, the brown grass and broken buildings shifting, within a hundred yards, into the perfectly green grass, golden streetlights, and crown molded storefronts of Grosse Pointe Park. The Park isn’t as wealthy as the Farms but it’s full of people with inheritances, as close as Michigan gets to old money. The Farms, the Woods, and the Shores ramp it up a notch, with houses on Lakeshore drive running into the billions of dollars and including such amenities as a private piece of shoreline complete with yacht, boat launch, and gazebo. It’s all topped off by the massive Ford Estate, Fair Lane: 31,000 square feet of 56 rooms of historically protected Van Gogh’s, fireplaces shipped in from English manor houses, and it’s own, man made island. A few miles north you hit the neighborhood I grew up in and where my mother lives still: tiny ranch houses, immigrants, and single parent households. All this on one road that changes it’s name three times in a span of fifteen miles, depending on how wealthy the people are that live there.
The woman next to me at the nail salon, who is a perfectly nice woman I’m sure, jokes that my neck must be getting sore from turning my head to look at the tv. She watches the end of the story with me and turns to me and says, how sad. How sad. And it only happened a few miles from here.
I was taught by my well-behaved mother that getting angry in public the height of bad manners. Alas, I have been spending too much time in the city where there is space and reason to speak what I’m thinking, so I say it: they had no business being in that part of the city at that time of night, unaccompanied and sixteen years old. It’s likely they were there for a drug deal, not because they can’t get drugs in Grosse Pointe — the market is much better in the wealthy suburbs — but because that’s all the children of the Grosse Pointes have ever used the city for: to feel dangerous and flirt with what they think is the wild side.
In point of fact that’s what most of the nation has used you for D: an example, an autopsy, a study of what not to do. Though I suppose it’s to most people’s credit that the first question I’m always asked when I state my origin is, “Is it really as bad as they say it is?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you, when bright young teenagers are being shot in the middle of the night on some lonely side street. You’d think so, when the ten o’ clock news opens with the murder of a promising young woman. And that’s certainly what the woman at the nail salon next to me thought — just another Detroit tragedy, just another typical day of the things that happen only a few miles from here.
I didn’t, and I still don’t, know how to say what I’m feeling without sounding like an asshole. So I didn’t say anything more to the woman at the nail salon. But you are an honest city D, so I’m going to be honest with you.
I teach four miles west of where they went to school. I teach young men and women who could be just like the girl who died. There’s a girl in my fifth block who can write so beautifully and has a smile that makes me feel like I’m doing everything right just teaching her to express herself. She’s the girl I would’ve wanted to be friends with in high school because she is kind to everyone. She won’t get the chance to get the test scores the dead girl would’ve. She has ten siblings and her mom won’t be able to pay the tuition for college that the dead girl’s parents could have. Still, she knows so many things that a child of Grosse Pointe wouldn’t, because she is a child of Detroit.
She knows that to walk home alone on the East side, even during the daylight, is stupid. If she can’t find a buddy to walk with she’ll wait two hours to get picked up. She knows what a gunshot sounds like up close and far away and she knows how to tell when it’s close enough that she has to be afraid of it. She knows the guy who sells old vacuums on the corner. She knows which houses to avoid on her street. If she were so inclined she would know exactly where to get anything from marijuana to heroine.
She also knows what bus will take her directly downtown to Grand Circus Park and that the buses are safe because the drivers are protective of young women riding solo. She knows that the RenCen has a tiny movie theatre where tickets cost three dollars less than in the suburbs. She knows she can buy penny candy from the corner store and sell it for a return of twenty cents apiece. She knows they just put in new swing sets on Belle Isle and it’s free to get on the island if you walk or ride a bike. When prom comes she won’t take her pictures on the lawn;; her mother is will take her to the Riverwalk and she and her friends will run down the wide sidewalk in bedazzled, highlighter colored dresses and impossibly high heels and take pictures with the slow moving freighters sitting low in the water behind them.
For her Detroit is not some dark, Grand Theft Auto adventure — it’s a real place where she’s lived all her life, where she grew up and where she’ll live until she can move away or get a job that will help her go some place else. She may love the city but when she’s been trapped there all her life it would take a particular piece of insanity to make her stay. Why would she when she can move only ten miles north and be in an entirely different world?
If she moves to Grosse Pointe or Clinton Township or Shelby will her children grow up as ignorant as the dead girl did? Will they be kids who steal into the city for some kind of story book danger or will she teach them what she knows: that if you want to survive here, you have to have respect for the massive living being that is you, D.
You are 138.76 squares miles of city. Those 138.76 miles hold my favorite things in the world — the jazz bar in Eastern Market where I sing on Thursday nights, the grass and sweating bodies of a full Comerica Park in July, the cool marble pillars of the Penobscot where my mother has kept her office for the last thirty years. The crooked ice sculpture of the Spirit of Detroit at Winterfest and in the summer, strawberry ice cream from the fancy candy shop in the RenCen. The sea of orange lilies along the Dequindre cut bike trail in the spring.
Watching my students leave school in the afternoon there is the smell of warm, sweet, uncut grass on the torn up cement of old basketball courts without nets, my hands full of glass coke bottle. On Saturday mornings there is helping my father up the step at the tortilla factory and watching the fast moving hands of the women as they work. There are the loud waves of humanity moving through the sheds of the Eastern Market on flower day, past the head of a slaughtered pig in the butcher’s case. And on Sunday the emptiness of everything but the baseball stadium and the churches.
Will they understand the beauty of this place or will they only think they understand? Will they memorize all the ugly statistics but never cross the borders?
There are 40 square miles that lie vacant and wide open for mischief and carrying on and general misanthropy. People who have never been here know that the police force, fire, medics, and all other city services have been decimated with the massive population drop and the recent bankruptcy. There’s rumor that FBI has had much of the east side under investigation for drug trafficking for the last three years. The Canadian border into Windsor is one of the core pieces of the human trafficking trade in the United States. Our public transit is so fucked that some people have to walk twenty miles to work each day. Our school systems close down when it’s below zero because our kids are out waiting for more than an hour for the city bus to come. Blocks of houses are untenanted and falling apart, or worse, tenanted and taken into foreclosure and auctioned off without the owners ever knowing. Some of the houses are just burned out hulks. We are, after all, the city that had such trouble with arson the night before Halloween that we implemented the Angel’s Night campaign, patrolling the streets to discourage said fires. Recently an arsonist has even started to burn down the houses of Tyree Guyton’s celebrated Heidelberg Art project that brought such attention to Detroit’s fall from grace and the incredible determination of the artists and people who would not stop making strange and beautiful things out of the ashes. That is, after all, the phrase printed in on the city flag: “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”
It’s bad here; it’s also good. Like any city, but to extremity. Detroit hustles harder — because we have to. Some people are hungry. Some people are angry. Some people are hopeful. All of us, I think, are willing to do what we have to do to stay alive. The city is not as it was and it will not become what it used to be. I don’t want it to. I’d rather cross all the lines that have been drawn, break through the limits that have always been just a few miles from here.
A few months ago, on my way home from work I was driving through the neighborhood a few blocks from school, through the usual mix of well kept and battered houses and I came across one of those homes the national news is so fond of showing: abandoned, burnt, but still standing. Through the front windows I could see the trunk of a maple tree: branches stuck out the side door, through the walls, leafy arms shooting out of the roof and roots twining through the foundations as if meant to be there. The April sun, still winter weak, slanted through the holes.
I stopped the car; I felt I was looking at something majestic. This house could never be refurbished and likewise, to take down the tree would just as surely take down the walls. Growing things coming through the holes made bizarre sense. it was beautiful, the husk, left to rot for years, playing host to the wide trunk and sweeping leaves, the roots dug through foundations, window frames resting on thick branches. More than anything it belonged to itself and all the frightening realities within — that the walls could buckle at any moment, that the tree could rot and die, that the whole thing would go up at the slightest hint of a match. And that all of these fears paled, inconsequential, before the audacity of trying to preserve such balance in this tenuous place.
J.M. Leija is a Detroiter at heart and proud to claim all the accompanying trials, travails, and joys that accompany such a statement. She writes and teaches in the city and the region. Her work has previously been featured in “A Detroit Anthology,” Motif’s “Seeking It’s Own Level,” Anthology, and Pithead Chapel Magazine. Her most recent publication is featured in the inaugural issue of “The 3288 Review,” and she is a Write a House Finalist for 2015



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