When I tell friends I’m looking forward to my big trip of the year, and I’m going to Detroit, there is often an incredulous pause in the conversation before they screw up their faces and say, “Why?” When I mention my family, they relax but move out of the conversation as quickly as possible. I think they don’t want to know that Detroit holds so much more than the “car capital” and “murder capital” monikers it has earned. Sometimes I force the issue, and mention some of the specifics of Cranbrook gardens, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village or Meadowbrook Hall.
But let’s get honest here. I come to Detroit because, for me, it’s home. Half the time I don’t do any “tourist-y things” when I come. I just make sure I stop in for Olga’s Greek food or a White Castle burger. There is almost always a Koney dog in the works. Just a comfortable set of plain old good food, and nice places to see.
I stay with my sister, Sheila, and as she introduces me to friends and acquaintances, the inevitable “Which sister are you?” slips out. Then there is the comparison of looks, and how easy it is to tell Sheila and I are sisters. Like the home food, these comfy conversations make me feel instantly part of the community.
I think I love visiting “Detroit”– an area of little suburbs that cover three counties with populations that feed the daytime city and leave the big place bereft of healthy night life–because I love visiting with the people. It’s hard to put a finger on precisely what makes a Detroiter different, but there is something special about these down-to-earth, hard-working souls that have heroically struggled with economic disaster since the first oil crises of the early 1970’s. They have a lot to teach the rest of the country about surviving through the hard times that the rest of us have only come to know since 2008.
This last weekend, I had the chance to go on Watkins Lake annual Home Tour. The locals call the place “Sunglasses Lake” because the two large bays and straight western shore create the look of a pair of sunglasses from aerial views and maps. Watkins is a small body of water compared to its neighbors, Cass and Elizabeth lakes, but it is still large enough to hold approximately 300 homes.
Sunday, we went through six of those houses. What I loved about this tour was the uniqueness and value of each place. Some homes were built in the boom of the 1960’s, while one or two were built within the last ten years. Each place has the stamp of its owner in design and decoration. No two houses were alike. This is so different for me, because in the growth towns that I have lived in over the years, builders come in with identical floor plans and swaths of similar building materials.
But for Watkins, that cookie-cutter feel has long ago faded, replaced by the richness of loving, proud owners, who don’t cut and run, but build, restructure and paint on fresh coats of color to make the lasting impression of fierce, and beautiful independence.
I’d love to tell you about Dave, a guy who retired a few years back, but still waterskis just about every morning and stays active in local politics by researching and volunteering for board positions that are more work than they are worth. Or how about Joan, who has chemotherapy twice a week, yet still managed to help organize the Home tour? Then there’s her husband, Bill, who runs her the hour plus drive each way to Ann Arbor twice a week.
Tomorrow we will, and should, remember the cost of freedom, purchased for us by our brave soldiers around the world and in the history of wars. But I think we should also take a moment to remember the heros of the everyday. It is their determination to work through the adversity of economic hardships and transitions of industry that will create our country’s renaissance in leadership and maintain our independent lifestyle. Thank you Detroit and to Detroiters for showing the nation how to be independent, strong and brave. I will always look forward to visiting once more.