We're headed east on West Grand Boulevard, passing by Hitsville, USA, a living relic of better days. Looking farther down the boulevard, there's the deserted Lee Plaza apartment building. Not a single pane of glass remains. It looks like a nightly news scene from Kosovo in the '90s. Together, these two buildings give a crude summary of the city's history. Poet Ken Meisel hangs a right on Rosa Parks Boulevard. We're just blocks from our destination: the corner of 12th Street (now Rosa Parks) and Clairmount. It's the spot where, on July 23, 1967, Detroit police raided a blind pig, subsequently sparking the city's fourth and most devastating riot.
Meisel, 51, takes his time behind the wheel, mulling over the realities of "white flight" before and after the riot. In the early '70s, Detroit was one of many cities that implemented radical busing systems, taking black kids from inner-city schools and busing them into predominantly blue-collar, white ones, such as Redford High School, where Meisel went to school with kids bused in from around Mackenzie, Cooley and Cody high schools. "You could feel the change and the panic inside the neighborhood. It was weird — predatory almost," Meisel says. Excluding his parents, he says that "black is bad" became a mantra in his neighborhood.
In '79, Meisel moved to Detroit; first to Hamtramck, then to the Cass Corridor. His father had been an accomplished multi-instrumental jazz musician in the 1930s and played in Paradise Valley with the likes of Les Brown. His father's nighttime stories of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom enchanted Meisel so much that, throughout college, Meisel jogged around the cracked-out Cass Corridor, Brush Park and Brewster Projects neighborhoods, where he made frequent visits to the oldest buildings he could find, investigating the memories of their oldest tenants and patrons, gleaning stories from generations-old barber shops and dive-bar boozers.
Meisel spent the better part of the '80s collecting old Detroit stories from aging characters. Through collective memory mapping, he wanted to discover what Detroit was in order to make sense of what it had become. It took time. He ended up working those meditations into a collection of poems published late last year as Beautiful Rust.
Last weekend Meisel showed off his Detroit, and told us about it.
11:15 a.m. — The Rinaldo Arms Manor at 27 E. Willis St., east of Woodward Avenue. Meisel lived here 1980-'87: "My neighbors were doctoral trainees working at Detroit Receiving Hospital and old-time denizens; they were fifty- and sixtysomething plumbers, old alcoholic women, substance-abusing derelicts and Asian immigrants. The building was a sadder place — the roach problem was stunning. My window looked southbound. The last two buildings on the left were halfway houses for just-released schizophrenics. This was in the era of Governor Engler, who was releasing tons of mentally ill people from long-term institutional care into the streets. You'd see them sitting on that upper-level porch. Invariably, they'd make their way down to street level, invariably they'd start drinking and, invariably, there'd be a fight. They were functionally harmless; they were just drunk and off their meds."
Meisel describes a scene from January 1981. In horrific irony, a junkie froze to death against the fence of the Willis Heating Plant: "It was not called Midtown, it was called the Cass Corridor — art plus junkie plus post-apocalyptic ruin. There was no coffee shop, no lofts, no charming little places like there are now."
Noon — Driving toward Brush Park, he talks of where he started writing: "I started writing in college in the late '70s and kind of freaked out, quit and got a degree in psych. I was living in Hamtramck above a Yugoslavian couple who didn't speak any English. Hamtramck was fundamentally different than it is now. Shit, it was a volatile, weird place. I was living there and I was writing this short story and it was shit — full of melodrama and crap. So I kinda sat there looking at myself. I was drinking bad whiskey and writing bullshit short stories. I said, 'I'm done.' And I was — I deep-sixed on creative writing till '93 or '94, when, while reading Pablo Neruda and some other Spanish poets, the writer in me was agitated."
12:15 p.m. — On the corner of Erskine and Brush, where Keith Emmerich shot the photo for the back cover of Meisel's book, Beautiful Rust. "I love this place — the ruin is beautiful. My wife has less tolerance, but I find all of it to be stunning. Here's where we took the photo. What I love about this building, the Aurora Apartments, is that you don't know if it's occupied. It's symbolistic of the city that way, yet it's still a beautiful example of the remnants of old, Victorian Detroit."
12:30 — Continuing south on Brush, staring at the Comerica Park and Ford Field arenas: "Those were not there. What was there was fucking beautiful, those old dilapidated homes. On St. Antoine stood the old 606 Horseshoe Lounge, which in its day was one of the great old jazz and blues clubs of the city — Billie Holiday played there. There were still some whorehouses down here and my brother and I would drive down in his Volkswagen with a plan to go in and explore the beat-up, boarded up 606, but we'd end up chickening out and just talk to the hookers. It was still a riot, they didn't give a fuck whether they got paid — they just wanted to shoot the shit. Old-time Detroit still existed in the late '70s and early '80s. You could still get a little taste — through these old restaurants and jazz clubs, most of which were boarded up but a couple of which still functioned on some level — of Paradise Valley."
12:40 — Cruising behind the Brewster Projects between I-75 and Brush Park: "I used to jog back here. There was always an uneasy feeling because you couldn't gauge the danger. There was huge drug activity back here in the '80s, and crack really started to take effect. During the day, though, you could still feel the flirt of danger, and though the streets felt unpredictable, it was an interesting place to come and witness a failing city firsthand."
12:50 — We're east on the desolate Sproat Street just off of Park Avenue, sandwiched between two vacant monoliths. Smoke wafts from a shadowy window on the first floor: "What you got there is a little winter morning fire going on, trying to stay warm. I find this whole neighborhood fascinating. As a writer, I'm filled with excitement to be in a neighborhood whose buildings have such implicit secrecy as to what's going on within. I write about this hotel, placing myself in it as an addict — there are so many addicts in there. I'm not an addict and I've never been an addict, but I'm curious as to what their lives are like here. These people are part of the cell structure of Detroit and they have stories and most of these people are willing to talk to you if you approach them. Really, they're forgettable people. I mean, who really gives a shit about them? Take this guy right here — wait, it's a woman. Shit, look at her, she's ruined. But she's important in that she's part of the city. "
1:00 p.m. — The bustling corner of Cass Avenue and Willis Street: "I don't think anyone can rightfully predict what will eventually happen to Detroit. I think Detroit is just passing through an inevitable self-created cycle of death and change. Who knows what's next? As a poet, I'm unwilling to weigh in on either a personal loyalty or a disloyalty to this place. My job, as someone bearing witness to the beauty and rust here, is to make a description of the conflict at play here in the city, whether or not we're in a true apotheosis and a creative rebirth here — like we all hope we are — or whether we're just nosing into yet another false cycle of hope and promise that will come to naught. It's hard to say. And it's an easy topic to be fooled by and to be foolish about. It's the fable of Detroit. I'm just another symptom and example of the self-perpetuating narrative, I'm just another example of the fable of Detroit. I'm not immune."