July 26, 2013: There’s one Detroit memory in particular that novelist Kerri Schlottman recalls after all these years. Her childhood recollections of the parade at Hudson’s department store or a visit to the museum aren’t particularly clear. But growing up in Detroit’s suburbs in the late 70s and early 80s, Kerri saw the streetscape change dramatically en route to occasional family outings downtown. Of all things, the car ride into the city sticks with her.
“Most of my memories are of looking out the car window, driving down Woodward Avenue,” Kerri told me this weekend. “You’d go from these nice, well-manicured suburbs to seeing burned-out buildings, windows smashed out, graffiti. This was the mid 80s; the city had been in decline for quite awhile at this point. It was always so intriguing to me. I did not understand what happened and no one talked about it.”
“These memories are stronger than my memories of the events we were actually going to,” she said. “I just remember thinking, ‘What happened here?’”
It is a question those who care about Detroit continue to examine on the heels of the city’s declaration of bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. I’ve found the story of Detroit compelling as I consider the lifecycle of place, but I’ve been curious to hear more personal stories from people who feel a connection to the city. Beyond the financials, what does Detroit mean to the people who love it?
Kerri is the kind of professional the city of Detroit would presumably like to retain. But she’s also part of what she describes as an exodus of young people who moved away, despite the fact that she is quick to say, “I’ll always have a love affair with that city.” Before moving from Detroit to Manhattan’s East Village to pursue a career in the arts, Kerri lived downtown, received her master’s degree at Wayne State, and worked in the Motor City as a director of development at an arts organization. In 2011, she also wrote a book called The Song Remains The Same about two generations of women whose family history is tightly intertwined with the pulse of the city itself.
Yet despite her obvious care for Detroit, Kerri is not certain she’ll ever return to the city she equates with home.
“It’s one of those things that I think about constantly,” she said. “The majority of people I love the most are there. But it’s such a challenging place to earn a living and to raise a family. It’s getting better — there’ve been some improvements to the city itself over the past few years that have surprised me, just in terms of places to go to, grocery options, laundromats — but it’s a constant struggle for me. I just can’t imagine a scenario where I’d be able to return. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I left. Eight years, I’ve been watching. I’m excited to see artists’ communities continuing to thrive there, but I know how hard that is.”
Detroit itself is a main character in The Song Remains The Same. It’s a nostalgic view of the city from the vantage point of a family who moves downtown in the early 50s due to a father’s job in an auto factory. It is a story about race and friendship and family, as revealed on drives through Poletown to Paradise Valley, during the demolition of the neighborhood to make way for the Chrysler Freeway, and throughout Detroit’s riot of 1967. I ask Kerri how much of the novel’s connection to the city comes from a personal place.
“A lot of it,” she said with certainty. “I wanted to engage with the city as a backdrop. The parts about Detroit that are in the novel are very much personal to me, just the way that the characters process the city. The storyline is fictional but the sentiment towards the city is universal. I tried to capture the spirit of the city that was there.”
“I grew up about a half hour outside of Detroit to a family that had been very involved in the Detroit area,” she says. “But like many others, they moved out when they thought it became too dangerous to live there.”
The plot is familiar in many American cities, but like many others, Kerri acknowledges the unique amalgamation of factors specific to Detroit that have led to the city’s current challenges. They include the way in which technology changed manufacturing and led to a shift in the city’s infrastructure and economy, to lingering race relations, the displacement of entire communities, the presence of large companies and the absence of alternative economies poised to take over.
“People have felt let down by the city politicians,” Kerri says. “That’s my personal opinion of Detroit, but I think that’s a larger sentiment that people have when you’re living there and trying to help the city.”
“On the one hand, you have a really vibrant arts community that’s constantly evolving. You hear about it a lot now, but it’s nothing new. It’s been going on for decades. To juxtapose that, you have people living beneath the poverty line. These are complex social issue to try to find a way to navigate. You can feel very helpless.”
Still, Kerri is hopeful that Detroit’s bankruptcy filing will restore basic services and “get things operating like a city again.”
“It’s not like this is the first solution that someone has come up with,” she says. “They’ve watched things fail over and over and it’s time to do something dramatic. There’s gonna be some pain through this.”
“But one of the things I think about when I think about what’s been happening in recent years and historically, and I hoped to try to capture this in my novel, is the resiliency of the people there. They may not know what to do but they don’t give up. There’s always going to be something to deal with, like the title of my book says, but the way that people are able to come together through friendship and family and community, it’s a special thing in Detroit.”
Related Posts on Neighborhood Nomads:
- The Lifecycle of Place (May 30, 2013)
- The Navy Yard Reshena Knew (August 15, 2012)
- Living in Shaw, DC: Race, Gentrification and the Keys to the Corridor (Aug. 8, 2012)
- I Live in a Cupcake Neighborhood (March 13, 2013)
- A Walk Back in Time Through DC’s Chinatown (October 4, 2012)
Photo Credits: Kerri Schlottman