RenCen Benjamin Jensen scaled Move to Detroit

Move to Detroit

Photo by Benjamin Jensen
Photo by Benjamin Jensen

Over Labor Day weekend I cruised to Detroit in a gold, mid-2000’s Dodge Caravan. The vehicle, my dad’s spare, was filled with two large bookshelves, a desk, a few side tables, several boxes, and large, purple Rubbermaid tubs full of living-in-one-place-for-four-years-detritus. I had also dragged along my 16 year old nephew for the adventure. There may have been one or six cans of Red Bull too. The only thing missing was granny sitting in a rocker atop the van. But, you and I both know my granny would never consider moving to Detroit. Most of my friends wouldn’t either.

We arrived in Detroit after a transcontinental journey–AKA the four hour drive from Ludington. I had only been to my new address once. Since I took M10 to Jefferson Avenue the first time, I decided to do so again. Plus, I thought my nephew might enjoy the “scenic route” to my new place. We came across Cass Corridor where I pointed out Wayne State University, my new school. We rounded the bend under the Cobo Center and face-planted into a line of cars waiting to enter the tunnel to Canada. This stressful congestion turned providential as I began to point out Hart Plaza, the Guardian Building, and the People Mover. I hadn’t quite realized how much of a gallery Jefferson was—it added legitimacy to my decision to stick with the usually avoided route to the east side.

Once I’d navigated through the exodus to Windsor, I made my way up Jefferson. I only vaguely remembered what we would pass along the way. One thing I did not remember about Jefferson was the stop lights every few blocks. For the first couple miles, the van paralleled an INS SUV. I didn’t know if I should treat it like a cop car and avoid speeding; I’ve since overcome that anxiety.

As we followed the Detroit River, I watched my nephew’s eyes light up at sites like The Jeffersonian. I was touched, however, to see his brow furrowed and mouth slightly agape as he took in the blight peppered throughout the Jefferson Avenue corridor. I saw him feeling the same feelings I had when I first drove down Jefferson. Detroit needs help. Who’s going to do it? Especially when the question I was asked in the last two months before the move was “People can still move to Detroit?”

The next ten minutes were spent observing more of the strange contrasts in Detroit, but those were overshadowed by the sudden change from Detroit to Grosse Pointe Park at Alter Road, where shoddy strip malls give way to small estates with tudor and colonial style homes from the first half of the 20th century.

“This is where you’re going to live?” asked my nephew. I looked at him with the highest arched brow that I can pull off. “This lasts for a little bit and then we’ll be back in Detroit—where my flat is.” I took us down Jefferson as far as Cadieux and turned left. Cadieux took us past “The Village” which is Grosse Pointe’s almost quaint downtown. A few minutes later, we were at the corner of Cadieux and Mack. The intersection is another vivid example of Grosse Pointe’s affluence contrasted with Detroit. I looked over at my nephew and said, “And we’re back in Detroit. Ready?”

I continued on Cadieux without knowing for sure which street to turn on. As soon as I came to the notable Cadieux Café, I remembered that was my turn. Entering my neighborhood – East English Village – is a surreal experience. One is met with beautiful tudor homes that seem to represent the heyday of Detroit, but the immediate homes are surrounded by lackluster lawn care and hand-me-down vehicles that reminded me I was in the Detroit of 2013.

Deep within the neighborhood sits the 1920’s colonial duplex that houses my upper flat. My nephew and I pulled up to the curb and I parked. Since I was just brand new to Detroit, I still felt skittish about even being outside. I don’t usually indulge the notions of naysayers, but in that moment, I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable being outside in Detroit.

I quickly got over that fear with the pressing need to unload the van. And because the early September heat, we unloaded in fewer than 30 minutes. By then, it was almost six. We were hot, sweaty, tired, thirsty, and chagrinned from the Detroit experience. Naturally, I suggested we go to Midtown for dinner.

I meandered through the Grosse Pointe area back to Jefferson and headed southeast. But right after the large Chrysler plant, I was inspired. “Want to get off the beaten path?” I asked my nephew. Really, it was my way of finding out how comfortable he was with the idea of us meandering through the streets of Detroit. He nodded and I recognized the same excitement I was feeling in his eyes.

I turned right on the next road and headed up to Mack. I recalled the Mack from the Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit border. This Mack, smack in the middle between East English Village and Midtown, was a very different road. Art deco commercial buildings teetered toward the road and partially burned homes swam in a sea of vacant, unkempt lots. This was the Detroit I’d expected. A chill buzzed through my body. The vulnerability I felt in this unfamiliar place was thrilling, but it was actually the opportunity I saw all around me for urban farms, community centers, and Detroit citizen-owned businesses—especially those related to food. This part of Mack is really a site to behold. It’s one that no museum experience can come close to replicating.

A friend, and native to the area, recommended Motor City Brewing Works. Since I was so exhausted by the time we were getting back on the road, I decided to follow the recommendation. My nephew and I arrived at MCBW to find a packed restaurant. The host offered two seats at the bar. We took the immediate seating out of sheer eagerness. The bar ended up being the perfect spot to view the Tigers game on the TV and to people watch. We were both entertained by the hip, diverse patronage, and I begin to feel that moving to Detroit was truly the best decision I’d made in my life thus far.

We ordered opposing styles of pizza with the intent to share. But after sharing one piece, we both devoured the rest of our own picks; mine was the Mediterranean and his was the The Godfather. Once filled and rested, we walked across Canfield in Midtown because I wanted my nephew, who runs high school cross country, to see RUNdetroit. His eyes lit up at the very existence of a store dedicated to running.

We spent almost an hour at the store where Justin Craig, co-owner, helped my nephew try on compression accessories. The two talked about running as I chilled out on a conveniently placed leather sofa. The two wrapped up their conversation, my nephew made his purchase, and we headed out the door. Without realizing it at the time, I was already comfortable with being outside in the city.

It was officially time to leave Detroit and head back northwest to little, old Ludington. For the first time in my life, the drive to Ludington no longer felt like a drive home, but was instead a drive away from a new one.

Jon Arntson, Contributing Writer

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