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Rant #308
(published December 14, 2006)
Happy Thanksgiving, Detroit!
by Alan Benard
We're not from around here. I'm from Chicago, a mostly functional city. So, I am a real dick about how things are in Detroit. Mostly because - after living in Ann Arbor for seven years - I'm still in shock at how fucked up my adopted metroplex is. Which is why we never, ever go to the city. Until we did, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2006.

We figured the kids needed some culture and the car needed the carbon blown off its pistons, so we visited the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the "Holidays on Parade" event at the Michigan State Fair Grounds, a fundraiser for The Parade Company, operators of the annual America's Thanksgiving Parade.

Thanks to the massively overbuilt highway system, we can travel from our home to the DIA without stopping the car once. We get downtown at 11 a.m., and see absolutely no other human until we park the car and the attendant takes our money. As the Detroit metro area is the Inadequate Signage Capital of the World, we walk right past the ground-floor handicapped entrance, around the entire building from John R. Street to the Woodward Avenue main entrance, and carry the baby stroller up the front stairs.

On our way we see the second human other than ourselves, who asks us for spare change. We also learn that valet parking exists at the front entrance for one dollar more than the lot we left on the other side of the building. In fact, you can pretty much park your car on the front steps, because God forbid there be a place in south-east lower Michigan one cannot drive one's car directly next to, if not into.

A side note: I first visited the DIA with a friend from college and my daughter four years ago. There was extensive construction underway on the John R. side. It is still underway.

And a comment: What the fuck happened to the rest of John R.'s last name?! Is he a friend of Bill W.? Can we buy the poor bastard a vowel?

There are several truisms about art museums.

After a grand total of 20 minutes of art appreciation, the children were screaming hungry. Okay, so we can bring our lunch in, right? No, of course not. But that's okay, it was a nice day and so we sat outside on some benches that probably hadn't seen backsides since 1967. People walked by and stared, and not many of them. There are two kinds of areas in Detroit - well-swept, deserted areas where the buildings have windows, and the other kind of deserted areas.

Walking the picnic stuff back to the car, I got spare changed. By the same guy. I think he should give out hand stamps.

The high point of any DIA visit is Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry." Don't let the shit I'm talking about the city keep you from seeing it. It is wonderful. Explaining it to a kid makes it even more fun. It's never too early to teach 'em about historical materialism.

After the 10,000th time a docent told us to get our kids' grubby paws off the culture, we beat a retreat for the Holidays on Parade event. Northwesterly we launched down Woodward on a direct course from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Eight miles of unnecessary six-lane highway and urban decay later we found ourselves at what the sign said was the Michigan State Fairgrounds, but which seemed to be one more abandoned factory. State and county fairgrounds are by definition underfunded and unimproved — their use is occasional and their funding is not wonderful. But the grounds at the corner of Woodward and Eight Mile Road abuse the privilege.

I told you I was a dick. Here we go.

If you want to prevent people from rolling their eyes and clucking their tongues, here's what you do. Have someone straighten the bent chain-link fence posts, maybe throw a coat of Rustoleum on those puppies. Sealcoat the parking lot and paint some new lines, the ones from 1967 are a little faded. Get someone to grade and put grass seed on the jagged battlefield of concrete chunks and mud clods fronting two major roads.

And before you accuse me of being a nit-picking Detroit hater, the fucking thing belongs to the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Get it straight: I'm a Michigan hater.

I keep mentioning 1967. Here's why. There was a motherfucking huge race riot in Detroit that July.

The 12th Street Riot in Detroit began in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967. Vice squad officers executed a raid at a blind pig on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount on the city's near west side. The confrontation with the patrons there evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in modern U.S. history, lasting five days and far surpassing the 1943 riot the city endured. Before the end, the state and federal governments sent in National Guard and U.S. Army troops and the result was forty-three dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests and more than 2,000 buildings burned down.... Detroit has never fully recovered from the after-effects of the riot and the negative media coverage that was conveyed internationally.

Detroit is stuck in time, kind of an opposite Billy Pilgrim. Every day in Detroit is July 23, 1967. The lamp posts and the stripes in the parking lot of the Michigan State Fairgrounds are vintage 1967. The storefronts the length of Woodward are 1967. What hasn't been torn down and replaced with a freeway, a vacant lot or a dollar store is stuck in that year, the year the money left.

In fact, that's what we were doing at the fairgrounds — getting spare-changed again, but this time by magnificently adept professionals. Watching America's Thanksgiving Day parade in our jammies the day before, silly Ann Arbor liberal Daddy got all mushy and decided to take Carmen Harlen's advice and visit Holidays on Parade. Why, it's only five bucks a head to get in, it says on the Web site. And you can see the floats up close. Cool! Let us blow the carbon off, let us do our bit to help Detroit tourism, yeah!

My expectation was a park-like setting with the floats on display, maybe some stands with kids' activities, and a place to get hot cider. You're in, you're out, you have fun. And you contribute!

Why contribute? America's Thanksgiving Day Parade used to be the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade. If you are wondering, "What's a Hudsons?" it was an anchor department store in downtown Detroit and therefore destined to die, which it did in 1983. Since the parade is the single, solitary thing Detroit can point to on an annual basis and say, "Hey! This doesn't suck!" and therefore had to continue at all costs. The parade was taken over by a private, not-for-profit corporation, The Parade Company.

You want a parade? You contribute. Make checks payable to Debbie Dingell, wife of octogenarian US Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and the Parade Company's chair. Yeah, that's right, the parade isn't a gift and promotional event from a grateful and generous retail institution. It's a charity run by people who are forced to live in the Detroit region and are trying to put on a brave face.

I was perfectly willing to part with $15. But that wasn't going to be enough.

As soon as you walk in the door, you are in Carnival Hell. Grimy games of "skill" with shitty prizes, broke-down rides from the early 1980s, dried-up hot dogs and popcorn with Crisco. Everything runs on $1 tickets, and the cheapest purchase is two tickets. All rides are three tickets. A bracelet good for 10 rides is 15 tickets.

And there you are with your kids, who have been semi-patient all the way through the art museum because they were going to see the parade floats. There is no escape. You have just been had.

All of this takes place inside of an aluminum building with concrete floors and 20-foot ceilings. It sounded and felt like being trapped in a garbage disposal.

Sure, there were some floats. And some of those giant-head things people wear in the parade. And in a connected building, a block-long line for Santa (free, but save the moment forever with a $13.99 photo). And amateurish entertainments with blaring pre-recorded music. And face painting (three tickets).

Eventually, we escaped. On the way out, we were told by the security guards that we shouldn't touch or climb on the floats. So we let the kids fuck with the floats to their hearts' content.

My realization about the 1967-ish-ness of everything came to me in a fit of pique inspired by having been financially and aesthetically raped by The Parade Company and its celebration of shittiness as we stumbled away from the grasping squalor of Holidays on Parade. I was commenting on this to my wife in my dick fashion, loudly, when a white family walking ahead of us walked faster and piled into its unnecessarily large GM SUV as quickly as possible, shooting me dirty looks. I had the temerity to bring IT up! How dare I describe the elephant in the corner! What the fuck was wrong with me?! Did I want to piss them off? Did I want to somehow call down July 1967 through the sheer power of naming the thing and have it run amok through the rest of the ruins? Did I have no fucking couth?!

Pretty much, yeah.

Again, get it straight: I don't even think the Detroit region has the most virulent racists in the Northern Industrial League. That's a tie between Boston and Chicago:

PBS | The American Experience | Citizen King

CARD: June 12, 1966: Chicago, Illinois.

ROGER WILKINS: In the summer of '66, Chicago had a riot. President called me and said, "I want you to go."...

RENAULT ROBINSON, Chicago Police Officer: Dr. King decided that, um, he was going to march in Cicero. Cicero is a suburb to the west of Chicago. It was not a place that you wanted to go or be.

CROWD (archival): "Which side are you on, boy, which side are you on?"

POLICEMAN (archival): Get out of here!

MAN (archival): I live in here. I live here. Those fuckin' niggers don't live here.

RENAULT ROBINSON: Our job was to watch King. And to keep danger from occurring to him. Now King, of course, had no fear.

PEOPLE YELLING (archival): We want King. We want King.

RENAULT ROBINSON: He didn't want to appear to be surrounded by bodyguards. He didn't want to appear to be afraid.

ADDIE WYATT, Chicago Organizer: As we'd march down the streets... it was disheartening to hear workers saying, "There's John" or "There's Mary that works in my plant or in my office." And they are now swearing at us, throwing bricks, firecrackers.

RENAULT ROBINSON: One guy hit King with a brick in the Cicero march, and gashed him in the head ... And we caught him ... And the police (laughs) had to help rescue him from those who caught him.

REPORTER (archival): Were you hit Dr. King?

MARTIN LUTHER KING (archival): Yes, uh huh.

REPORTER (archival): Are you all right?

MARTIN LUTHER KING (archival): I think so, yes.

MAN ON STREET: Your Mother's a whore....

ADDIE WYATT: We had walked for I don't know how many miles. And when we got back to the park where our cars were, they were on fire. And as Dr. King said, it was one of the worst situations that he had been in.

MARTIN LUTHER KING (archival): I think it is one of the most tragic pictures of man's inhumanity to man that I've ever seen and I've been in Mississippi and Alabama. But I can assure you that the hatred and the hostility here are really deeper than what I've seen in Alabama and Mississippi.

Detroit sucks at everything, even hatred. Not one of you whining, racist, backward-assed-country-fuck crackers who destroyed your city by abandoning it ever had the balls and courage of your convictions to smack Dr. King with a brick.

Now, that's failure.

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