I spent my 8th grade summer in Detroit. We stayed with my paternal grandmother. She was what some might call "a character," but I remember her as petite, fearsome, sui generis: lecturing my brothers on the dangers of jeans too tight, dishing out concrete globules of wholegrain oatmeal every morning for breakfast (she was a health food nut before it was hip), squirting skittering bugs on the walls with her special-recipe homemade (and ineffective) insecticide. It wasn't a summer filled with creature comforts—the heat was sweltering, and the grownups got the electric fan—and it wasn't a storybook American summer—no beach or pool or biking around with kids from the neighborhood—but I remember it with unique happiness. Every time we got in the car, it seemed that either Derek and the Dominoes or the Brothers Cornelius and Sister Rose would be playing on the AM radio. We spent hours making necklaces and chain mail vests from pop can tops. My favorite hangout was the main library, where I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn for the first time and worked my way through the Erle Stanley Gardners and the Phyllis A. Whitneys. And my grandmother's house was close enough to Tiger Stadium that we'd walk over there for the occasional ballgame.
I haven't been back to Detroit since traveling there in the early '90s for my grandmother's memorial service at the funeral home next to Berry Gordy's Hitsville USA. Late that night, my father and my uncle unwound, let their hair down, and told stories that filled in some of the blanks about her life (and theirs). She migrated to Detroit from the Mississippi delta town of Friars Point. My father, the youngest of four, was born in Detroit three months after the 1929 crash. My grandfather left to find work in Pennsylvania coal country, and never returned. She got my father and uncle admitted to one of Detroit's tech high schools, where they were among the few black students enrolled, but she was not so successful in breaking down barriers when she tried to join one of the city's grocery cooperatives.
My father and uncle ended their formal education with high school, joining the service after graduation, just before the armed forces were desegregated. But my father was an educated man. He read Thomas Hardy and Ayn Rand for pleasure, wrote elegant prose in a calligraphic longhand, and recited poems from Volume 10 of The Junior Classics to his children at bedtime. I don't know what he would think of what's happened to his hometown and to the generations that followed his. He left Detroit without looking back and never expressed much nostalgia either for it or for any big city, and spent his last years in complete contentment in a small Midwest rural town. He died before the birth of the internet, but he was the first person I knew with an Apple IIc, and he loved to read and write and pontificate. I think he would have had something to say, and it would have been worth hearing.