Category Archives: Michigan

Racism and the White Woman, 2

I’m from Detroit. A writer of a recent Detroit newspaper article would argue with me on this point since I never actually lived on any street within the city. I am a phony because I only lived near the city of Detroit.

When I lived in Warren, Michigan, I could look across 8 Mile and see Detroit from my kitchen window. (No, I do not hang out with Sarah Palin.)

Before that, I lived in Hamtramck a couple of blocks from the Detroit city limit. Hamtramck is a small city that is completely surrounded by Detroit.

The street I lived on in Hamtramck created and at the same time broke down some racial barriers. I lived on one side of the street where all the houses were occupied by white people. Across the street, all the houses were occupied by black people. Divided right down the middle. At the age of four, all the white and black people sitting on their front porches sort of looked the same to me.

One of my first observations of racism took place in the women’s clothing section of a department store. I was with my mother and grandmother. Two teenage girls debated over the monumental decision of which blouse they should buy.

My grandmother spoke in Polish to my mother, “Just look at that, black people are shopping here!” Her words implied that these black teenagers should be banned from certain places and activities. This is the first time I remember being fed a racist thought.

This was the late 1950’s and within a few years all the houses on my divided street were torn down. The dismantling continued into the 1960’s.

DIA on the Brink: Does Man Live by Bread Alone?

Detroit is living a real life ethical dilemma these days. If a city is burning, do we pull out the old woman or do we rescue that portrait of Van Gogh?

Detroit went into bankruptcy last week. The emergency manager in Detroit, appointed by the State of Michigan, has been eyeing the vast and valuable art collection held by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The city owns this museum and its assets are potentially up for grabs as creditors and city pensioners alike look for some good money coming out of a bad situation.

Union contracts can be rewritten. Creditors may get pennies on the dollar for their investments. The retirees may find their pensions slashed. Money is needed for turning the streetlights back on that have been dark too long; money is needed for the razing of thousands of blighted buildings; money is needed for police, fire, and EMS services that seldom serve city residents in a timely manner. The city population keeps dropping and the tax base can’t support the over $17 billion debt.

The DIA has one of the best art collections in America, and both tourists and residents would feel the pain if it was dismantled.

But real people may get hurt while the art still hangs on the wall.

A letter writer to the editor of a Detroit newspaper said that if he had to make a choice between gutting retiree benefits or selling city assets, he would be saying,  “What is the opening bid for this beautiful Van Gogh?”

This is hard for me since I find the DIA to be vital and relevant. I need art and bread, and I believe (perhaps naively) that art can uplift everyone in society. Detroit without its great museums, would be even sadder.

So what’s it gonna be? Should the Degas and Matisse survive? Or does the old woman have any need for a stinking painting?

World Peace and Stable Furniture

When I first saw a photo of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I thought to myself, what the heck is Fritz doing in the newspapers?

My mother knew a Ukrainian handyman that did odd jobs around the house. Sometimes he would come over and just bullshit with her and have a beer or a shot of liquor. I’m sure he’s dead by now, but he sure did resemble the Iranian president.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Sept. 23, 2009

Fritz was always unshaven and his handyman jobs never required him to wear a tie. He was slender, with an olive skin tone, and had the same kind of wrinkles when he smiled as Ahmadinejad.

Fritz scavenged the sidewalks on garbage days and his worksites for any usable junk to add to his collection at home. A spare bedroom in his house had, among other stuff, a couple of used toilets stored there just in case he needed parts.

One time when Fritz was over my house, our cat jumped through his open Impala door window, fell asleep in the backseat, and took a ride with him back home to Hamtramck. Fifty years ago Hamtramck, was filled with a huge Slavic, mostly Polish population. All my grandparents came from Poland, settled in Hamtramck, and never learned to speak English since they didn’t have to. Everywhere you went, Polish was spoken. Help wanted ads for a bank teller preferred applicants that spoke Polish, and that was just within the last five years. Over the last 30 years, many people from the Middle East and Southern Asia began settling in Hamtramck. Today Hamtramck is the most diverse city in Michigan with 41% of its population coming from foreign lands.

One time Fritz took my mother and I to a closing down paint store in Hamtramck. He went to scavenge more junk for his collection, I think my mother and I went along for the ride. I saw an old wooden shelving unit that I wanted for my books. It was pretty ugly with its splotches of different colored paint, assorted stains, and wobbly legs.

I wanted to cut this shelf down since it was too high and uneven. Fritz liked to think that he was indispensable as a handyman. He said cutting down the legs was a complicated job and I couldn’t just jump in there and start sawing with any success. After all, I was female and not in the handyman line of work. But I measured and measured the shelf and cut it to the height I wanted. Then I painted it my favorite color, green. The shelf sat evenly, sturdily, and freshly painted on the floor and stunned the Ukrainian.

The southeastern corner of the Ukraine and the northwestern corner of Iran is only a day’s car ride from each other. Maybe that explains the physical resemblance between the president and Fritz. Given a few weeks, his ancestors could have walked the distance either way. After World War II, Fritz himself walked from Russia across Poland and Germany to France where he somehow shipped himself to the United States.

So when I see the president of Iran, I can’t just echo hatred over a professed enemy of my country. I have to smile and think back to this Ukrainian character I knew from my childhood. Mahmoud, are you handy around the house? Maybe we can all find unusual, non-destructive connections with our adversaries. The world is not that large, somehow we are all related. Wow I didn’t know I could do bleeding-heart liberal. But it would be nice to give peace a chance.