Is Detroit dumb and lazy?
"Tribute to an unknown pattern maker," Irving Berg
Detroit’s emergency manager called Detroit “dumb, happy, lazy and rich.”
What is that guy smoking?
How else can you explain such careless invective from Kevyn Orr, one of the country’s top corporate bankruptcy lawyers, the “expert” who holds the future of city’s 700,000 residents in his hands?
It took Orr a couple of weeks to apologize, ascribing his remarks to a “slip of the tongue.” What emerges when our tongues slip? Exactly what we really think.
I was born and raised in Detroit. So were my parents. I wonder what my father would have thought had he lived to hear Orr’s rhetoric. He and his brothers were teachers and small businessmen who started with nothing and worked hard to build a future for their families in Detroit.
My parents were part of the hardy, thriving creative class that has found inspiration in the tough, blue-collar city. Their lives were rooted in the belief that community trumped the bottom line. For them, the arts and creative process were not a luxury to be enjoyed only by the elite but a necessity that enriches everyone.
My own feelings about Detroit are rooted in my family’s deep connection to the place. My father was an artist and art teacher who rummaged through the industrial trash to find discarded tool and die molds, which he turned into sculptures. He told me that he created them as tributes to the beauty of those molds and to the memory of the men who created them, so that their craftsmanship could live on, seen from a fresh perspective.
For 35 years, my dad headed the art department at Cass Tech, a downtown magnet high school housed in a grand 1922 Collegiate Gothic building. It’s gone now, first abandoned, then neglected and finally torn down. But the soul of the place beats strong across the country in the lives and work of students who discovered their passions and vocations there. One of his students, Marie Tapert, an artist who now lives outside Detroit, recently wrote a letter to the New York Times. She was the daughter of a factory worker, and had never been to a museum until my father sent her to the Detroit of Institute of Arts to study sculpture. “I was changed,” Tapert wrote. “A transformative moment like this cannot be unique to me. As a kid from the East Side of Detroit, I was able to wander the galleries of my art museum. What a gift.”
My mother, a modern dancer and choreographer, started a company for women with families and kids who wanted to keep studying and performing. Later she became obsessed with the French origins of Detroit and the War of 1812, teaching about the history of Detroit through dance to schools and community groups.
She is a tireless Detroit booster with no patience for the endless parade of horrible publicity surrounding the city. Even the bankruptcy can’t dampen her enthusiasm for the city that’s so much a part of her blood.
Like many of Detroit’s residents, my family ended up there for work. My father’s father was a Polish carpenter turned away from the U.S. twice before he got in on his third try through Canada. He landed in Detroit during the boom years of the 19-teens, saving enough money to bring his wife and four kids over in 1920. My father was the first born in this country. He grew up on Humphrey Street, in the working class neighborhood around Dexter Boulevard, which later became a black neighborhood and burned to the ground in the 1967 riots.