Something I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago caused quite a little stir. That in itself isn’t unusual or problematic, but, considering the subject matter, the response surprised me. The post was an essay in the New York Times by Dominique Browning, former editor-in-chief of the magazine House and Garden, in which Browning wrote about the trauma she experienced when the magazine was shuttered and she had to sell her house and reconsider her career in midlife. The piece was beautifully written, as all of Browning’s works are, and, as a woman experiencing similar existential circumstances myself (and who isn’t experiencing similar existential circumstances these days?), I thought it was worth sharing.
I did not expect the post to elicit such resentment and anger, almost venom. One friend referred to Browning as a “spoilt rich kid having a hissy fit,” and the general consensus was that, as a (former) member of the elite Manhattan publishing world, her descent into despair after losing her job was histrionic to say the least. Raising the most ire was the way in which Browning mourned the sale of what she calls her “forever home”–the house she had expected to keep for the rest of her life–and her subsequent move into a midcentury modern house with ocean views on Rhode Island. Now, nobody here is going to say it isn’t almost unreasonably fortunate for a recently unemployed person to have the means to make a move like that. Still, I felt for her when she fretted over what the new owners would do to her garden. I understood what she meant about suddenly being torn from everything familiar and safe–displaced, cast out. No longer needed or relevant. Surely these were universally understood experiences.
Or perhaps not. What was I missing? Has the social discord and economic disparity that surround us nullified empathy? Those with financial security blame the less secure for their own problems. They had no business buying houses in the first place; if they lose them, it’s the system correcting itself. Those struggling to get by–and I include my own family in that category–are quick to fall back on the language of class conflict. Injustices abound. And nobody wants to go to a pity party thrown by the wealthy. Still, losing a job is losing a job. And it’s especially hurtful when your entire industry is in crisis and threatened with extinction. Obsolescence is probably no one’s idea of a good time.
Which made me think about Detroit. Somebody told me recently that I should leave “that shithole.” Which is certainly true enough. Very few people with any sense whatsoever would argue that living just outside the city of Detroit at this moment in history is a must-do life experience. My house has lost more than half of its value in four years. “Underwater” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s more like being pinned face-down in a pool of muck by a psychotic gun-wielding thug in the middle of a road with elephant-led caravans repeatedly stomping over. It can feel a little hopeless at times. As in many other parts of the country, an eroding tax base, due to a combination of lower property values, vacancies, and foreclosures, has caused a deficit that can only be addressed by cutting services. Libraries, schools, recreation, and maintenance are all up for cuts; public safety will likely be next. I couldn’t sell my house right now even if I had to. This might be my forever home by default. Unless, of course, we foreclose.
In the city itself, the situation is vastly worse. Most people who have only seen pictures describe it as looking like a war zone. In 2007 the FBI listed Detroit’s population as 860,971, with a total of 19,708 violent crimes committed that year. That’s a high rate when you consider that New York City, with a population of 8,220,196, had a total of 50,453 violent crimes in 2007. Still, the downtown area of Detroit actually has a violent crime rate significantly below the national average. Did you know that? If you come to Detroit, you will likely have a fine time downtown, and nothing bad will happen to you. You will probably leave thinking that it’s a great place to visit, and you will tell all your friends about the breathtaking Detroit Institute of Arts (the Diego Rivera murals alone are worth the trip), the outstanding brisket you ate at Slow’s Barbeque, and the shots you did with a total stranger who became your bosom friend at some nondescript bar. Perhaps you will even have ventured across 8 Mile (you’re familiar with that road from the movie) to listen to jazz at the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. But you wouldn’t want to live there. No, really. You wouldn’t.
It is possible to drive blocks and blocks through the neighborhoods of the city and see only a few legally inhabited houses, punctuated by unbelievable mounds of trash. The others have been long abandoned, burned by arsonists, or taken over by crackheads. And there is lots and lots of open space, left by the houses that have, mercifully, been torn down. There are fully inhabited, well-kept neighborhoods. But they typically represent little pockets of relative success rather than the norm. Historic districts like Indian Village and Boston Edison contain outstanding examples of the kinds of mansions the wealthy built themselves a century ago, still lived in, loved, and often toured by architecture fans. Everyone in the United States has heard by now that you can buy a house in Detroit for a dollar, but did you know that the infrastructure is so decrepit that there are streets that become utterly impassable in winter due to water main breaks that freeze? Residents are frozen into their homes for weeks on end. And then there’s the poverty, which is chronic and crushing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites an official unemployment rate of 30 percent. An additional 20 percent are considered underemployed. Let’s not even talk about the corruption; you already know about the former mayor and his felony convictions.
Why, then, would anyone willingly stay? Detroit is about 143 square miles; Manhattan, by contrast, is 23 square miles. There is talk of launching a radical plan to relocate those few stalwarts who remain in severely underpopulated areas to newer, more livable, neighborhoods, presumably using laws of eminent domain, and then razing the houses and redeveloping the vacant land, possibly into urban farmland and other green spaces. And if you, gentle reader, are thinking right now that these people–many of whom are elderly and infirm and have been stuck in their lifeless neighborhoods for decades–must be dropping to their knees in gratitude over the idea of this plan, well, you would be wrong. In fact, most are vehemently opposed to leaving their houses and neighborhoods. They are proud of what they have and consider themselves the glue holding the city together. They are like postapocalyptic lighthouse keepers, ensuring some level of order against the ever-encroaching chaos. We can speculate endlessly about the sociological and psychological factors of their truculence, but in simple terms they don’t want to leave their forever homes anymore than Dominique Browning wanted to leave hers. Or than you or I want to leave ours, even if we are only living in those homes in our dreams. You might love the view, or the wood floors, or the garden you’ve nurtured for years. You might have no real attachment to the structure at all, except that it contains all of your memories and fears and triumphs and every bit of evidence that you ever existed. If it was sold or torn down, would you still exist as you have up to this point?
Psychologists tell us that the death of a spouse, divorce, and moving are three of the most stressful events a person can experience. Losing a job is up there as well. We are not adept at coping with impermanence. As a species, we think too much. Why am I still worried about the lilies I planted in the yard at the house I sold four years ago? And what about the light fixture I still regret not bringing with me? Is it still there? Did they change the color of my daughter’s room? Because in my head it will always be her room–the room we made for her when she entered the world. When you move to a new house, you have no immediate access to the proof of your life. Everything is in boxes and if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you will probably hurt yourself trying to navigate in the dark. You are temporarily snuffed out and have to get to the work of recreating yourself. Which is painful and riddled with anxiety. There are things I still can’t find from the last move. Well. Anyway. You know the clichés. It might be a shithole, but home is home.