Forget All Your Worries, Forget all Your Cares and Go …. Downtown?
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.”