Why worried suburban moms hate Detroit 

Call it 'sprawltitlement.'

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY LEE DEVITO.
  • Illustration by Lee DeVito.

Last week, I heard that my old buddy Joe Van Bael, owner, proprietor and janitor over at the Hastings Street Ballroom and Tangent Gallery, had gotten some hate mail. For those who know him, the very idea of a guy like Van Bael inspiring hatred is ridiculous. He’s a solid dude. I’ve known Van Bael for years, and his face seems continually crinkled in a friendly smile. Without his money and hard work, an old printing plant by the railroad tracks of Milwaukee Junction would probably have had a date with the wrecking ball. While many were leaving the city, he bought and invested in the building, turning what used to be a site for illegal raves into a legit art space, theater and workshop, with artists’ spaces above it. I’m proud to say I’ve even helped him on a few jobs tricking out his unusual space, which has hosted such diverse events as The Dirty Show and a wide range of live performances. 

So how does a friendly guy like Van Bael, a person committed to improving Detroit, get hate mail? It came from a self-identified “worried mom” who had visited an art event at Tangent Gallery. It reads:

Hello,

I went to the Art Show at your Tangent Gallery last weekend ONLY because my partner’s son was one of the artists.

My 27-year-old daughter also went because she’s into that kind of thing.

The reason I’m writing? I was APPALLED at the neighborhood!!!!!!!!! My daughter goes to events there and I am really worried. Do you have security? I saw none. It is located in the toilet bowl of Detroit. (Do you watch the news??)

Can’t you find rent in Ferndale or something? 

You can tell I’m upset. I’m just a worried mom — no matter WHAT the age is of my kids. I really hated your place.

But rent must be cheap, right?

True to his character, Van Bael wrote back a friendly email, trying to present his view of the space as his effort to invest in Detroit and add his positive energy to a place many people have given up on — including, one assumes, this very upset woman.

Soon, however, this letter was making the rounds among friends via social networking, where it came into my possession. Sure, I laughed when I read it. But I’m not sharing it in any effort to tease, lambaste or pillory Worried Mom. That’s too easy. And it misses the point. We should be analyzing this. This isn’t a chance to laugh so much as it’s a chance to learn.

As newspaper people know, when anybody sends you an opinion via email, a great number of other people almost certainly feel the same way. It’s fair to assume (and common knowledge to most people in metro Detroit) that there are lots of people like Worried Mom out there. And we don’t often get the opportunity to see how they feel in writing.

Put yourself in her shoes. Outside of a sprint from the car to the sports arena, or a carefully guarded trip to the DIA, we can probably assume that Worried Mom doesn’t visit Detroit often. Confronted with a gritty neighborhood of sleepy former factories, she obviously imagines what she sees on the evening news every night: murderers and rapists around every corner, carjackers casing her vehicle, packs of sullen youths ready to send her to the hospital — if not the cemetery.

That part makes sense to me. Hear me out. If you’re a sheltered suburban mom exposed to it-bleeds-it-leads nightly newscasts and grim crime statistics and you just roll out of your SUV into the North End for the first time, let’s face it: You’re going to be consumed by irrational fear.

What’s harder to understand, though, is the loathing. This “toilet bowl” remark demands close examination. To this woman, Detroit is clearly a repulsive, disgusting place — a shithole. You get the sense she not only fears it, but hates it too, and probably wouldn’t hesitate to flush it all away if she could. 

Think the accusation of hatred goes a bit too far? I disagree. You’d have to really hate the city to be appalled that somebody won’t simply move to a suburban location you find safe. What is it that emboldens this woman to make such an unreasonable demand? Because she’s worried about her fully adult, able-to-legally-drink-for-six-years daughter? No way. There’s something more at work.

I think it’s called entitlement. It’s a peculiar viewpoint that we shouldn’t need our central city or have to be among its people — that we should be free to never have to set foot in Detroit. To use Worried Mom’s scatological phraseology, we needn’t sully ourselves with Toilet Bowl City.

It’s worth noting that this kind of attitude wasn’t built in a day. For decades, subsidies and policies have built up this suburban sense of entitlement, aiding wider freeways, larger homes, bigger malls for the burbs, while giving short shrift to rapid transit and older, denser neighborhoods. Leaders like L. Brooks Patterson call it growth, but it has meant disinvestment from the city and brand-new construction in the suburbs, as write-offs and benefits help developers build in the fringe as the city empties out.

Those well-endowed suburbs are apparently where Worried Mom has lived all her life. It’s a cinch she hasn’t been reading Thomas Sugrue and doesn’t understand the political and economic forces that have benefited most suburbs and constrained big cities. She may not analyze it much. She just feels superior to the city and its folk. It’s a kind of chauvinism, a sense that she reserves the right to cut that shithole loose. Call it sprawltitlement, call it what you will, but it’s a defiant cry: “Though we’re resigned to our central city being a hellhole, for the love of all that’s holy don’t make us go there!”

Think this woman is a crank? I agree with you. But I also think a lot of allegedly sane people in metro Detroit share Worried Mom’s fear and loathing, and her desire to completely disassociate herself from Detroit. And that sort of widespread suburban fear and loathing has real-life consequences.

Far from this being a fringe rant, I think it speaks a great deal of truth about why our region functions the way it does. And, unlike a lot of the highfalutin analyses of Detroit over the years, at least it states its case succinctly.

I mean, for years now, we’ve had every kind of free-enterprise quack, new urbanist snob, “social” entrepreneur and bottom-feeding journo airdrop into Detroit in great waves looking for the answer behind Detroit’s failure. They’ve crowded through its trap houses and left no stone unturned in its ruins. They’ve pored over ancient street grids and quizzed the city’s preening politicians. They’ve all been searching for the answer to what the hell happened to this once-great city, and they haven’t made an inch of progress in their prodigious travels.

They needn’t have made such a fuss. Anybody wondering what happened to Detroit need only read Worried Mom’s letter. Why did Detroit fall? Because the region cultivated a sense of entitlement that dwarfs anything Rush Limbaugh has hallucinated exists in the ghetto.

In fact, we should be thanking Worried Mom for her candor. We clearly have a lot of work cut out for us. It would seem that instead of entitlements like pensions for public workers, it might be the wider entitlements of this region that do Detroit in. And if we don’t take Worried Mom’s letter seriously as a challenge, it may well be the epitaph of Toilet Bowl City. 

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