DETROIT (AP) — One of my earliest memories of growing up in Detroit is the first night the city burned during the 1967 riots. I was 5 years old, standing with my grandmother outside our clapboard home as the Michigan National Guard rolled down Warren Avenue.
There was shooting and screaming. Buildings burned. A gas station exploded nearby. Sparks fell everywhere.
It was the fiery baptism that would define Detroit over the next 46 years.
I didn’t live through Detroit’s “Golden Years.” By the time I was born, the Arsenal of Democracy, Motor City and Motown had grown tired. My hometown aged very badly, and at 4:06 p.m. Thursday, it became the largest city in U.S. history to go belly-up.
The Detroiter in me wonders why it took so long.
One can only be embarrassed, as if having to explain away Detroit’s reputation as being the most violent city in the country. Other cities with high homicide rates may leap frog each other each year as to which will be the country’s murder capital. But to many, Detroit will forever wear that badge.
The city’s violence kept me away after high school and college. Its dirt, squalor, lack of real opportunities and horrible public education keeps me from raising my family there now. Many of the best and brightest have taken their children and money and simply moved away. If they’re honest, few will say they’ll ever move back.
I drive into the city each day, shaking my head at the scores of vacant houses along my route. I’ve taken my two daughters into those neighborhoods, gently reinforcing the need to excel in school so they won’t have to grow up like I did.
Every late-night comedian has taken shots at Detroit. I’ve heard those jokes — and some that are much worse — about the city and its people while riding a bus in Chicago; from kids in my dorm at Michigan State University; even at a conference outside Washington, D.C. They burn the ears and boil the blood because Detroiters have thin skin. We can verbally dismantle the city and ourselves. How dare an outsider do it?
We’re the ones who, through our sweat and hard work or that of our parents and grandparents, helped build Detroit from the production lines of sweltering car factories and other plants.
Back then, it was about chasing the American dream. Now, for too many of the 700,000 souls who remain, it’s about surviving the soaring unemployment and lack of opportunity that keep hope in check and have helped leave the city with tens of thousands of vacant homes.
It’s praying that an errant bullet doesn’t smash through your living room wall and find you or a loved one.
It’s riding buses for miles trying to find even minimum wage jobs where none exist. It’s about cringing at news reports about the hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen by the ex-mayor and his cronies.
Detroit is tired and I can’t help but think the city is weeping down deep in its tough old bones. I’m crying inside, even while writing the stories and filling pages in Detroit’s history.
I don’t know if wiping away as much as $20 billion in debt through bankruptcy will fix Detroit. I don’t know if in emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s restructuring there is a potion to save any of the young people who will die this year on its streets.
I can’t say if businesses will wait out this fiscal storm and then see opportunity where they saw none before.
But at least and at last there is a plan. In Detroit’s drawn out, decades of failures there is hope.
And maybe — maybe — somewhere down the road there still is time for Detroit’s golden years, even in my lifetime.
Williams is a Detroit native and graduate of the city’s public school system. He has been a reporter for 28 years, and for the past six has covered Detroit for The Associated Press.