June 22, 2017

Teaching A Man to Fish the Urban River

Public relations and politicians love the big shiny buildings pointing a finger at the moon. We’re number one on this property. A cool city, although no one knows what that really means. Urbanist Richard Florida wrote a book in 2001 about being urban and cool- The Rise of the Creative Class. Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli’s new book  Detroit City Is The Place To Be offers an answer to the cool city question. It’s kind of cool not to get murdered on the way to work. Binelli’s book “dilutes the brand, dude.”

The ring of decay surrounding the business districts can make the beautiful architecture resemble the hood ornament on an old Chevrolet in the junk yard. Several men were fishing the river in downtown Grand Rapids, across from the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. A few of the fishermen looked like retirees. A group of younger men were fishing farther down the river. They were gathered in a tight spot. Some of them smoked cigarettes and flicked the cigarette butts in disgust when their lines came back empty. They glanced at me suspiciously. The retirees didn’t even acknowledge my presence, completely at peace with their spot in the river. The younger guys worked the river harder than the retirees. There was a sense of need in every flick of the line. A homeless man with wild long hair surprised me as I went under the bridge to the fishermen.

It’s a very common urban scene. The bustle of a business district and just a few blocks away…the ruin porn. A native of metro Detroit and Michigan grad, Binelli’s best writing is when he’s following the Detroit bloggers. One of the bloggers drives around the city in search of good copy which is abundant as the acres of abandoned property. A Detroiter from Lebanon (where else?) is robbed so often, he surrenders and decorates his yard with everything inside that’s worth stealing. He hangs shirts on the trees. Take the shirts. Take everything.

The street view in Google maps shows a guy on a porch in Detroit aiming a shotgun at the Google car doing the mapping. A dead baby was found in the closet of a Detroit home this past year. It was the same home. But Twitter is opening an office in Detroit!

Although Binelli lives among the people in Detroit for the assignment, there’s a feeling of detachment, an outsider’s perspective. He can leave anytime and will when the job is finished. He isn’t trapped. His writing of a community meeting with mayor Dave Bing has a different undertone than the Detroit blogger who captures the true desperation in the shouting and heckling and demands to know if Bing’s staff lives in the city. Skin in the game is the game changer.

Detroit had a big celebration on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Fort Detroit surrendered to the British two hundred years ago without a shot. I alternated reading Bernilli’s Detroit on the Kindle and an old paperback of Philippe-Paul De Segur’s Defeat. I read and skimmed the Kindle and turned off everything while reading Defeat, a good title for the plight of Detroit as well as Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Two hundred years ago this month, Napoleon’s Grand Army was destroyed after taking Moscow with almost as much ease as the British took Detroit in 1812. Nature and the rivers trapped Napoleon, with help from the marauding Cossacks. The desperation was chronicled with extraordinary passion in the diary of Philippe-Paul de Segur who truly had skin in the game with the hundreds of thousands suffering and dying on the retreat from Moscow.

When one of Napoleon’s generals confronts him with the terrible conditions, Napoleon says, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” The general repeats the message of his certain demise. Napoleon softens his tone, and says again, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” Napoleon knew his Grand Army was destroyed.

The problem with books about the demise of Detroit is that they disturb the peace of mind without offering a way out. Napoleon raged against the generals who simply recited their problems.

Defeat is a classic. You don’t read this kind of story on a Kindle where the story is thrown back into the Amazon river when finished. “Women were seen among the floating ice sheets with children in their arms, holding them higher and higher as they sank. When their bodies were under water their stiffened arms still held the little ones up… Then in the column of desperate men crowded together in the one narrow way of escape, a monstrous struggle took place, in which the weak and the ones nearest the edge were forced into the river by the strong; and the latter without so much as turning their heads, carried away by the instinct of self-preservation, pressed savagely on, deaf to the cries of rage and desperation of their companions or officers whom they were sacrificing to their own ends.”

De Segur blames an excess of inequality and misery for the selfishness. But in the terrible suffering, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice. A baby held above the frigid river in the arms of a dying mother is grabbed by a soldier who tells the baby, “Don’t cry. I didn’t save you from drowning just to leave you on the riverbank. I’ll see that you’re taken care of. I’ll be a father and family to you.”

An excess of inequality and misery on the banks of the urban river is forcing retreat. Its story shouldn’t be thrown back in the Amazon river.

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