Beauty in Dirt

Beauty is not static. What is considered beautiful changes with each generation. Some people will chalk up a perception of beauty to evolutionary instincts without ever taking into account the fact that beauty is subjective and goes beyond the physical. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty is also in the ears, tongue, skin, mind and heart. Beauty is in the beholder. Beauty is the beholder. Beauty comes from beholding.

I come from a city that defies beauty. Detroit once rivaled the rest in cityscape, economic prosperity, and population, yet today it is hard to find someone who has a fond association with the city, even among those who have lived there all their lives. As the city began to accumulate more and more wealth in the decades leading up to the 1960’s, the large population of blacks and immigrants continued to be exploited. This, along with an increasingly slippery slope of white flight out of the city and into the suburbs, caused much race and class tension. Eventually nobody could take it anymore, and massive, bloody riots between police and black residents broke out on Twelfth Street on July 23rd, 1967. The fight lasted five days and resulted in forty-three dead, five hundred injured, thousands of arrests, and two thousand buildings burned down.

Today when passing through Detroit, it’s both unbelievable and undeniable that over forty years have passed since the riots. There are charred, abandoned buildings on most every block. Where there are no vacant buildings, there are vacant lots where one once stood. Most of Detroit’s stunning skyscrapers designed out of the cutting edge of Art Deco have been demolished. The influence of crime is obvious, but accepted in citizens’ daily lives. The homeless population is abundant – it, too, is seen as an inconsolable reality.

 

Although I spent my childhood and all my teenage years a matter of twenty city blocks from the derelict urban metropolis, the place where I grew up was much different. Grosse Pointe, Michigan, is a twelve square mile patch of rolling green grass and plenty of upscale lakefront property. It’s surrounded on the South and West by Detroit, and on the East by Lake St. Clair and Canada. It’s a place where the E’s in its name are silent but do all the work.

I have always seen my hometown as the enemy. Even as a child, I never admitted to anyone where I came from. For years, I dreamed of escape. However, come my teenage years, I began to see some salvation in Grosse Pointe’s position next to the ominous and forbidden City of Detroit. I had been raised to be fearful of it, believing that since it had failed to contain the wealth of those who had left it, it was a dead city worth forgetting. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Detroit has a distinct and vibrant underground community in music, art, and counter-culture. Detroit has produced some of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. The revival of garage and punk bands in the 90’s, which produced prominent artists such as The White Stripes, has done much to define the sound and style of alternative and independent rock music of our time, and this is the music that came to fuel my essence. By the time I was 16, my life became consumed by the local music scene and its community, which was made up of people like me – the first generation born into the suburbs after the white flight, anxious to deny their upbringing and to revive the city, to animate its corpse for their own, delightful purposes.

My descent from moral honor student to grunge betty jailbait came with the dark turn that most Catholic-raised teenage girls experience at some point or another, and I began to take advantage of the elasticity of the law. At the Detroit/Grosse Pointe border two miles from my high school, there were a series of liquor stores and gas stations that would sell young girls cigarettes and booze without carding. The downside was inflated prices and the risk of being arrested, but most girls could get away with anything if they pouted the right way. If you headed west down the residential streets in this area of Detroit, it was easy to score any drug you could want; there was a large chain of gang-run trap houses, the set-up being a house full of drugs and a boss to watch over it, with inferior workers (usually high school students) working the streets, hailing down cars and running dime bags from the porch to the driver’s window. I used to do it just for the thrill.

There is a certain hedonism and melancholy to the city. If you want to enjoy it to its fullest, it requires that one adapt the drinking and smoking habits of a wannabe Hemmingway. I found the most solitude in exploring the decomposed landscape of the city while under the influence, and made a regular habit of it. My fondest high school memories consist of touring through these neighborhoods after school during an early sunset, smoking a joint with my friends and listening to the music we felt epitomized the experience. But there were many times when I would take to the streets in the middle of the night, alone, when all were sleeping save for the streetwalkers and pimps. I would find myself in the grips of insomnia, unable to sleep in my own bed, upon the stiff mattress, enveloped in the starch sheets. I’d leave and spend hours driving, looping the side streets of the neighborhoods on the lower West side of the city, imagining what it was like inside the motorcycle gangs’ bars on the outer limits of Hamtramck.

I choose to leave Detroit behind because I was poisoned by the attitude that nothing good is left to come out of it. I never quite learned the streets of my home, which were laid out like the spokes of a wheel rather than in a uniform, decoded order. After moving, I left behind the sacred automobile and came to prefer the use of public transportation. But in other cities, I find there is a lack of something. I think it’s really just a lack of emptiness, of gloom, of pain and personality. There is a beauty in Detroit that is rivaled by no city on earth. It tells the tragic romance of urban plight in the most perfect way it can – it captures the capitalism-fostered American dream moreso than anywhere else, showing with unflinching honesty the reality of greed and neglect.

Detroit is human. It breathes and sweats. It bleeds and cries. It stares into the face of death eternally, and in that way it is immortal. I have lived my life in a mutiny, of denying the life that was made for me, instead reviling in a culture of lovely death. In destruction, I see much possibility. We are all destroying ourselves and preserving entropy, the inevitable force that will consume all people and places eventually. We are all dancing madly in Hell, with nothing left to lose – only a subtle rebellion that can never be quenched.

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