Remember this song? Remember how in the 1960’s Petula Clark sang so optimistically about all the energy and promise that could be found “Downtown” in some unnamed city?
It is a promise I still believe in, even if my nearest downtown is the downtown of Detroit.
I’ve lived in New York City and in the Bay Area near Oakland and San Francisco. In my life I have walked the streets of Los Angeles, Toronto, Seattle, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
I’ve never shied away from exploring a city. You just have to know where to go and where not to go.
…can you guess?
“Have any of you ever been mugged?”
Back in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s, New York City carried a crime-ridden, grafitti and blight stricken reputation. Street crime, such as theft, murder, and yes, muggings, were at their height in the days when New York City had its own brush with near-bankruptcy.
But in those years of my childhood….none in my family was ever mugged, however many times we took the subway. I was taught from an early age the following streetwise tips:
- Always be wary my surroundings.
- On a subway platform, stand closest to the token collector booth and far away from the platform edge.
- On the street, walk like you KNOW where you’re going.
- Keep rings with stones turned in.
- Tuck necklaces in too.
- As far as purses, the most fashionable purse a woman can wear in NYC is the kind that can be worn postal style across one shoulder.
With this training in place, not much else impeded us from enjoying the city. My childhood was filled with urban memories like going to the Circus or the Ice Capades at Madison Square Garden, dining in Chinatown, the Lower East Side’s delis, or learning at the museums.
It was our city and NO we never got mugged.
Now, I live in Detroit.
Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. I guess you can’t say I live in Detroit. I’m a full-fledged suburbanite now. With the neatly cut front lawn and a fancy sign on the main road at the entrance of our “development” to prove it.
But in my heart, I’m an urbanite. I still long for the energy of the city.
One big problem here. I’m finding a hard time looking for some native Detroiters who are willing to show me around. There is too much history of bad times here. Too many suburbanites who have been victims of crime somewhere in their past.
The people here told me that I would love the suburbs. There is so much to do see, so much shopping in the suburbs. But downtown? No, they just don’t go downtown.
“I will not go downtown,” said one friend I’ve known for a while. The daughter of my neighbors back in Rochester, she is a woman who has lived in cities in China, Japan, who has ventured all over New York City. Now, she just takes her kid to the movies and the mall.
“I’m just boring here. And I’m telling you, don’t go downtown.”
I laughed into the phone. Nervously.
“No, I’m not joking. Don’t go looking to explore downtown Detroit. It is just not safe.”
Another source giving me advice about Detroit was my electrician. A life-long Detroiter, he told me the story of how his family all used to live in the city, but his grandparents’ home was broken into. His grandfather was beat up pretty bad. In his own home.
He then told me the story of how, as an older woman, Rosa Parks herself was mugged on the streets of Detroit.
“I mean, the mother of the civil rights movement! Can you imagine what thugs would mug Rosa Parks? I would not go downtown. No, Not even to the riverfront. I wouldn’t take my kids down there. Don’t go.”
Another stern warning came from the welcome wagon lady.
First, she reminisced about how once, Detroit could have been one of the richest, and one of the most beautiful cities in America. She spoke of the beautiful hotels and department stores like Hudson’s. Hudson’s where you could have your hair and nails done and your umbrella fixed while shopping for the finest fashions. And then you can dine at one of its fine restaurants.
We sat on my couch and I tried to envision what Detroit must have been like through her shared memories. As I admired the welcome basket filled with gifts like caramel chocolate popcorn and new dishtowels, she told me how her son last year was carjacked at gunpoint when he stopped to fill up at a downtown gas station.
Still, she encouraged me to at least go check out the Detroit Institute of Art. I certainly will, before the city potentially sells off its art collection to cover what they owe to their pensioners.
Some final advice from the welcome wagon lady:
“If you do go downtown, make sure you have plenty of gas. Don’t ever stop for gas below Eight Mile. And don’t stop for a red light at night. And If a cop does pull you over for running a light, be glad he did.”
To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.
Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.
This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.
A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”
My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul. It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.
Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.
We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?
The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us. The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here. As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.
The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us. An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”
We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.
My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.
The third synagogue I went to alone. It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.
I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.
I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.
And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.
An ancient, outdated story?
As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.
But then, in the last chapter, hope.
In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young. These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.
In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.
One thing I’m learning fast about Michigan is that it is full of lakes. And I’m not talking about the big ones, like Lake Michigan or Lake Huron.
In West Bloomfield alone – that’s my new hometown – 12 percent of the entire township of 31 square miles is water. From my own experiences, while driving around and getting my bearings accompanied by my new best friend – my GARMIN GPS system – most roads ride alongside a body of blue.
Now, most of these lakes in my new home town are private – meaning, any long-lasting view of a lake is obscured by these incredibly huge lakefront mansions. So when the common folk like me want to see a lake, we go to a public park, one of many in Michigan’s vast park system.
(Don’t worry, people, I’m getting to the eyeglasses part).
This weekend, only our second in town, we ventured to Proud Lake, a state park with hiking, canoeing, and swimming.
We came to this lovely swimming hole along the Huron River. Others who kayaked and canoed stopped here to take a break and swim. Teens and tweens frolicked in the gentle current.
We were having a great time until….
A woman in her late forties in a fuchsia printed bathing suit drinking out of a metal Coors canister on a dock, in spite of the “alcoholic beverages prohibited” sign, summoned me.
“Excuse me… can you get…”
And here I am thinking she was pointing to the teen in the leopard bathing suit behind me, thinking it was her daughter.
“Oh sure,” I willingly replied, tapping the girl on the shoulder.
But it wasn’t the teen she wanted. She wanted my husband.
This was getting interesting. i told you it was getting interesting.
“Hey, I may come off as very bold
or very drunk
but I have to tell you, those sunglasses have to go. And I mean this in the kindest way. But there are all sorts of new eyewear technology, I mean, there are transition lenses, and magnetic sunglasses that snap on to your lenses…. but those sunglasses – what are they COCOONS?? They are really ridiculous and geeky, sorry just sayin’ as I work in sales for an eyeglasses store in Ann Arbor.”
Now, I’m standing there; chest deep in the Huron River, just taking this all in. A woman, who we never met before, who knows us from – NOWHERE – is sipping a beer insulting my husband’s choice in sunglasses.
The inner Staten Island girl in me would immediately retort:
“Yo BITCH! Who the FUCK do you think you are disrespecting my MAN and his dorky sunglasses? Step off that dock I’ll drag your ass under!”
But that was never me. But many an Island girl would have spoken like that, really.
I did say to her “Gee, WOW! you do have a lot of nerve, and yes, maybe his glasses are dorky but he is a GOOD man!”
I did, and I can’t believe I did, stand there in the water and make chit-chat with her for about 10 more minutes before I swam away, to learn that she was just this dumb, racist white trash woman who in no way reflected most of the good people I am so far meeting in Michigan.
In the end, I did deep down inside agree that those sunglasses are a bit dorky. But what’s it to her? The man behind those sunglasses is the man I love.
In the end, I later apologized to my husband for not rightly defending his honor and his right to wear dorky sunglasses.
In the end, eyeglass saleswoman on the shore had her canister of Coors taken away from her by an interceding park ranger.
In the end, I came away with a funny blog post to share with you.
As the sun sets on this day, I will add this photo post to my blog, inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge. Taken mid-June around sunset in Pittsford, NY while walking along the Erie Canal. In the foreground, my youngest enjoys an ice cream cone. The Erie Canal was a big part of our life in NY and we will miss it very much.
These days it’s hard for me to figure out which end is up – even from all those moving boxes that actually say on them “this end up.”
I want to focus inward and unpack and make this new house truly my home.
I want to focus outward and see how I can make this suburban, manicured and perfectly landscaped property a little less perfect. A little more me. Outward more still and make some new friends and maybe even land a new job.
Then there is the business of keeping my son entertained and occupied in the weeks he leaves before camp.
It’s a good thing I can count on some great guest bloggers who have transplant stories of their own.
The first in the lineup is Maya Rodgers who blogs at Pets and Pests. Originally from New England and with roots in the Boston area (a place we considered moving before we chose Detroit), Maya is excited to experience more of Raleigh, N.C., and would like to return more often to visit old friends in both Atlanta and Boston. She spends her days helping people exterminate bed bugs, palmetto bugs, and other crawly creatures for Terminix . I for one hope to never need her services, but if I do, I hope she has some connections in Michigan!
Here is Maya’s tale:
Part of the reason exploring new places is so wonderful is because it acts as a distorted mirror. It reflects you in a different light than you’re used to, and it teaches you important and silly things about yourself.
After college, I lived in Boston for a few years. New England had always been home, and Boston still hasn’t quite stopped being home for me. Like anywhere, it has its positive and negative aspects. I loved being able to walk almost anywhere, and if I couldn’t walk, I could take the T, or a combination T-and-bus route. I whined and complained about the public transportation when “switching problems at Park” led to long delays, but I loved it just the same.
Boston T sign courtesy of Paul Downey
I also loved splurging on expensive ice cream once in a blue moon at Toscanini’s in Central Square, and riding shotgun in a friend’s car for a late-night trip to Richie’s Slush (the best Italian ice ever – I highly recommend the lemon).
I haven’t lived in too many other places, but there seems to be something very special about the seasons in New England. Flowering trees in the gorgeous springtime, absolutely frigid temperatures in winter, and too hot in the summer, but fall was always my favorite season. The weather cools off, the mosquitoes start to go away, the air feels fresh and clean, and, of course, the leaves start to change color. One of my favorite places, the Boston Common, is wonderful in any season.
Boston Common courtesy of Timothy Vollmer
The best part of any place, though, is the people. The friends who help you chip winter’s ice off the sidewalk, and the ones who wander around the North End with you, looking for some interesting-looking new restaurant.
I think that’s what’s hardest about moving. Not just gathering up your stuff, but leaving your loved ones behind while you go someplace you know almost nothing about and try to put down new roots.
After Boston, I moved to Atlanta for work. The biggest change I noticed initially was the pace of life. There were certain big-city aspects that went at light speed. For example, despite crazy Boston drivers, I’d never been tailgated quite as aggressively as when driving in Atlanta. The Perimeter (the road that circles most of Atlanta) has a posted speed limit of 55mph, but it’s five or six lanes wide each way, and even if you’re going 70, you’re the slowest person on the road. Out of their cars though, people move more slowly and demonstrate more politeness. People were sociable in stores, starting up friendly conversations at seemingly odd times.
I’ve always been much more of a walker than a driver, and although there are sidewalks on many of the roads, there are rarely pedestrians on them. The most people I ever saw outside was when the power went out in my neighborhood. Suddenly there were couples, families, and individuals like me, wandering around, enjoying what had become (after a quick pass-through storm) a beautiful evening. Perhaps something about the Atlanta heat means that people spend much more time in their cars no matter what the weather, but enjoying a walk after work, or strolling to the bookstore or coffee shop on the weekends, became an almost eerie experience, with everyone else racing by in their cars.
The bugs were another large shock. Palmetto bugs are much bigger than any roach I’d ever seen up north, and while they weren’t in my Atlanta home (that I knew of), they’d come out in Atlanta’s long summer, wandering around now and again on the pavement near my home. Needless to say, I kept my place meticulously clean in an effort to ward them off.
Moving from Boston to Atlanta changed me in a lot of ways. I became a more aggressive driver, for one, which partly meant that I stopped caring when someone tailgated me. I walked less, but took up jogging – even ran the Peachtree Road Race! I found a favorite bookstore (Peerless Book Store in Johns Creek), and browsed its shifting stock whenever I could. I also discovered air conditioning (which I’d never really had when living up north), and learned that I loved painting when I signed up for weekend painting classes. My speech patterns even changed a little bit. At first, I’d say “y’all” somewhat ironically. I’m not sure it sounds natural now, but it is more convenient than most other alternatives.
Perhaps most importantly, I stayed in touch with my friends in the Northeast – even became closer with some of them – and made quite a few Southern friends, both in and out of work. Having a dog makes for an instant socialization opportunity, especially if you visit the dog park at regular times.
I’ve recently transplanted once again to Raleigh (this time with a family in tow). So far, we’re all just figuring out where our favorite restaurants are (to date, the Irregardless Café is far and away my favorite), and discovering new things about ourselves.
Guess what, everyone? I’ve made it to the other side. And I’ve unpacked enough boxes to rationalize that I’ve earned some time to write you my very first blog post as a Michigander!
The long months of goodbyes are over.
And the hellos to new neighbors and friends are beginning.
Most of the uncertainty is also gone. I’m sitting in my new house. The kids are registered for school. And after my first week of being a freshly minted Michigander, it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s great.
Off the bat, Michiganders are living-out-loud, go out-of-your way NICE. And they are proud to be from Michigan.
Take our first morning in town. With no pots and pans, and not even a table to eat upon, we had to dine out for every meal, including breakfast (oh well.).
It was a Sunday and I wanted to buy a copy of the Detroit Free Press from the vending machine outside this local diner. A woman seated in a booth next to us saw me fishing for some change. Without me asking, she offered me some quarters in exchange for some single bills. How nice was that?
The second (and third) instances I caught on to the kindness of the people of Michigan was at the grocery store.
Now, as I have written in some of my “Good Bye to Rochester” posts, and I knew this would come, but leaving Rochester has put me in a bit of a mourning period for Superior Mother of all grocery stores.
So, on one of my first trips to a supermarket here (and that’s all it is, just a supermarket), I must have been mumbling to myself on how much I missed Wegmans or how I couldn’t find anything in this dingy Michigan grocery store when another customer, a woman my age approached me, looked me in the eye, and actually inferred: “Are you alright?”
This brought me to some clear distinctions between Michiganders and New Yorkers: Most New Yorkers try to avoid looking one another in the eye at all costs. Ever look someone in the eye in a crowded subway car? Unless you want to start a fight, I bet you wouldn’t.
And, if you are in New York, and you happen upon someone mumbling to themselves, you walk the other way.
But here this woman was, actually caring about my well-being because of my grocery store aisle mumbling. I simply explained I was new in town, well, in STATE, and I was having a hard time finding my way around. Even in a grocery store.
When I found the stuff I was looking for, I got on a check-out line behind a tall African-American man. After putting all his items on the belt, he realized he had forgotten a few items he wished to purchase. He turned to me and said:
“Ma’am, why don’t you go ahead of me. I might be a while.”
Again, I was astounded by the kindness.
Another unexpected find at the supermarket: fireworks.
Two years ago, Michigan recently passed a bill allowing for the public and legal sale of fireworks. So, along with picking up your milk and eggs at the supermarket, in the days leading up to July 4, you could also stock up on Bone Breakers, Power Surges and Detonators
This new development is receiving mixed reviews from Michigander retailers and consumers. But, if increased availability of fireworks is making you edgy, you can also pick up a nice bottle of Chardonnay or Merlot. Sale of wine and liquor is also legal in Michigan supermarkets. You can even purchase some Mondavi “Private Label” at Target.
With the arrival of the moving van and the hard work of our movers (a shout out to professional movers everywhere: thank you for your back and arm breaking work. Our head mover in Michigan was working with four torn ligaments in his rotator cuff. Didn’t stop him from hauling in box after box and participating in bringing up some heavy dressers up to the bedrooms. I believe he is scheduled for surgery this week and I hope the moving company is picking up his medical bills.), it is starting to feel like home.
We couldn’t find our placemats right away. Instead, we are dining on the plethora of paper used to wrap all our possessions. Add some crayons, and it’s like we are eating out at Macaroni Grill!
Next time, I’ll write about walking and bike riding in the Motor City.