After Leaving Her Beloved Red Hook, a New Yorker Learns to Live — and Belong — in the Motor City
Illustration by Riki Blanco
"Can I touch your hair?"
The question catches me off guard. I look at the man, unsure of how to respond. Did I hear him correctly? He's definitely been drinking, but then so have I. A thin veil of cigarette smoke hangs over the bar, obscuring his face. Each of the stools between us is occupied, and all of their owners are now staring at me. A hush falls over the room. Everyone is wondering how the white girl is going to react.
My husband and I are sitting in the Elbow Lounge in Detroit. A small bar on a best-be-getting-on block of a best-be-getting-on street in what most people would call a best-be-getting-on city.
But we're not getting on. This is the city we now call home.
We'd moved here from Red Hook several months earlier and bought one of those crazy Detroit houses. We're the emigrant couple that New Yorkers always talk about. The what-if people who left New York after musing for years about somewhere cheaper, somewhere warmer, quieter, softer. Dreaming about bailing is the city's favorite pastime, of course, right after obsessing about real estate prices, hating the Red Sox, and complaining about those giant fucking golf umbrellas on the sidewalk. But who actually leaves? You would have to be crazy to leave The Capitol for the flyover territories. And Detroit? The murder capital of America, a bankrupt city, for a ramshackle house? Many of us spent our youth trying to get out of places like Detroit — or, in my case, Denver — and to New York. Getting to NYC is the ultimate "fuck you" to those back home. Who leaves that?
Everyone. And no one. And I could tell you all about how hard it is to leave, my tale of sadness and tears, but you're better served by just reading Joan Didion. She did it best. Does it best. And looks more glamorous than I ever could. My story is about what happens once you leave. How do you go from being a New Yorker to being a new anything else?
I became a New Yorker in that forgotten corner of the city known as Red Hook. I settled there even though everyone told me it was too dangerous — or worse, too far from the subway — because when I stepped off the B61 bus for the first time, in 2007 (after waiting 45 minutes at Borough Hall), I was immediately smitten.
I walked down to Valentino Pier and watched as the gulls circled and swooped and the barges, cruise ships, and tankers drifted in and out of the harbor. I was alone in a city of 8 million. The magic-hour light cast a rose-gold glow on the empty streets. I knew this was home. Love at first sight.
By the time I arrived, the neighborhood had stabilized. It was no longer ground zero for crack, Mob hits, or the roving pack of dogs that once ran the waterfront. But time had also stood still here. Red Hook had been forgotten, left alone. That meant poor public transportation and a lack of basic infrastructure for its 11,000 residents. There was a sense of inhabiting an in-between space: the beautiful chaos between the worst of the danger having passed and the worst of the rebuilding — the luxury condos and Estate Four campuses — just beginning.
I knew it would take time to earn my way in. Red Hook is a small town hidden in the big city. And I knew that, just like the small town of my childhood, I'd have to prove that I belonged.
I could already feel the locals rolling their eyes at me as I professed my love. Here comes another one, I could hear them thinking. We'll see how long she lasts. It was the same expression I'd catch on my own face a few years later when visitors would proclaim their own devotion to a post-industrial fishing village on the edge of nowhere. You can't trust a newcomer's commitment until they've shown themselves hardy enough to make it through at least one winter on the Buttermilk Channel. The moving trucks line up in September, when Red Hook is in her summer finery. Come February, those same moving trucks line up again as the wind starts to bite and the skies turn bleak and gray.
I planted myself in the best place I knew: a barstool. In Red Hook, it was at the Bait & Tackle, a quintessential locals bar with an abundance of taxidermy. (Sunny's was only open sporadically back then and the Brooklyn Ice House was still just the old, closed Pioneer Bar.) I bellied up and ordered bourbon. Neat. And then I did that again. Day after day, through fall and then winter, until finally, come spring, the locals started acknowledging me. Usually it was an enthusiastic hello to my dog Madeline and the mere arch of an eyebrow or flick of a wrist for me. But that was enough to make me forgive the smell of hot cat piss that summer, because the bar offered some hope. It was the place of community, a gathering spot for souls seeking solace not just in a bottle but, more importantly, in belonging.
Everyone who crowded around the end of Bait's bar had a nickname and easy rapport. There was Steamer and Sniff, Captain Chris and Canadian Chris, Crazy Dave and Whiskey Dave, and even my future husband, Hot Karl (sexy, I know). Some owned other businesses in the neighborhood; some worked in the local watering holes; others found their employment on the docks. That's the thing about Red Hook: Outsiders confuse it with Williamsburg, with hipsters, because they saw Francis with his long beard in Esquire or John with his epic handlebar mustache walking down Van Brunt Street. But that was just their look and had been since before stovepipe jeans came back. This is the land of people who can still build shit. Industry happens here, unabated, from behind thick warehouse walls, from the Cornell Paper & Box Company to glass blowers on the ancient pier. The stevedores load and unload the dwindling number of ships still docking in Brooklyn. This isn't some tourist town all prettied up for the guests; industry and residents live side by side. Sure, time is changing that, but — back then, at least — Red Hook was where you wanted to be should the zombie apocalypse come.
And Red Hook was good to Karl and me. We had a lovely apartment, great friends, and good jobs. But the closer we crept to forty, the more we came to wonder what the future would hold when two six-figure incomes were no longer enough to buy a place in the neighborhood Life magazine once called the crack capital of the country. What had drawn a self-selecting, tough, creative, ragtag band of outsiders suddenly was appealing to a wider audience. Rents were on the rise. Shells of buildings were selling for a million — and they'd probably need at least another million to rehab them. New owners "invested," and small businesses that had been there through the lean times feared they'd be pushed out. Celebrity artists, not just working artists, moved in. The streets ran thick with tourists on bicycles. And this was in 2012.
Inevitably, some evenings, deep into our third nightcap, Karl and I would talk about "other" places we might try. I wanted New Orleans, but the South is too hot for Hot Karl. He thought the West would be good, but I wasn't ready to go home. San Francisco seemed like a less interesting New York — same issues, less city. Eventually, sitting under dozens of stuffed geese, their webbed feet stapled to the ceiling, we'd land on Detroit. Always Detroit. I'd been there once, a decade before, and it captured my imagination. It declared itself to be my Plan B, should I ever find myself needing a Plan B. Which I didn't. Until I guess I did.
Karl and I thought we would fall in love with Detroit instantly, just as I had Red Hook. But the truth is that my first reaction to the city was "what in so many fucks have we done?"
I had imagined Detroit as Red Hook writ large. Sure, there'd be blight and disinvestment. After all, we'd read the stories, seen the photographs. But while collapse can look picturesque — like pure potential — when it's confined to one square mile of cobblestone streets on a scenic waterfront, it's entirely different sprawling out across 139 square miles. A ribbon of potholes and broken concrete unspooled before us as Karl and I drove through the city on our first visit. Burned-out houses on empty prairie blocks. Devastation and poverty surrounded us. Where, we wondered, was all that new investment we'd been hearing about?
The classic Elmore Leonard quote about the city was ringing in my ears: "There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living."
It didn't look like there had been any work here in a long time.
But when you move to a new city, you don't know what you don't know. We didn't know we were driving through one of the most bombed-out sections of town, far from the more stable, gracious neighborhoods we would later discover. We didn't yet know how to become an insider, how even to find the barstool to sit on and wait. I was just scared. Scared we'd made a wrong decision, scared of the stories of violent crime. Scared, most of all, that we'd be unwelcome. Hell, even people on the flight between New York and Detroit told us how bat-shit crazy we were, that we'd be run out of town or killed.
I wondered if I would fit into this proud, black city. I didn't know anything about being black or black culture. I wasn't sure I was even prepared to have the conversation about privilege and whiteness in Detroit. Did I even have the language? After all, like many people my age, I was taught that everyone is equal. End of story. End of racism. That certainly wasn't going to fly in a city where the favorite topics of conversation are the Tigers first and then issues of social justice and racial identity. What if I said something stupid? Would I even realize if I had?
I wondered how people would react to our buying a house for $35,000 and eventually spending nearly a half-million dollars restoring it. In a city with 40 percent poverty and a significant number of people unable to afford the basic necessities — things like water — just having a job here can reek of privilege. And here we were, showing up with not one but two good jobs and some savings to boot. We might have felt strapped in Brooklyn, but by the standards of Detroit — and most places outside of New York City — we were the One Percent. I didn't know how to tell them that I grew up living in a trailer in Colorado. That I knew what it meant to grow up poor in a place that had been forgotten.
The CVS just blocks from the house we bought made it clear where I was living. As I walked up and down the aisles looking for the familiar wall of shampoo, I saw nothing. It took me twenty minutes to find the tiny shelf where the hair products for white girls like me had been relegated. Nothing here was familiar; nothing was for me. It was getting real, all right.
By comparison, my Red Hook experience had been so white and detached. That neighborhood was more than 80 percent African American and Hispanic, yet it was easy to ignore/forget/not see that majority because the two sides of Red Hook — the "back" and the "front," as they are called — rarely mingled. The back faces the water and has Bait & Tackle and Fort Defiance and Home/Made and all the joints that draw New York media and the ink they spill. The front, the inland side, has U.S. Fried Chicken & Pizza and a spinning-window bodega that nobody writes about. (That chicken is good, by the way.) The two sides rarely worked together. The back hated the invading Ikea; the front welcomed the possibility of jobs. Each time change is proposed for the waterfront, it's a new class war.
The Red Hook that I love is an enclave of whiteness. Despite New York's priding itself on its diversity and the shade it throws at the South, much of the city is as segregated as anywhere after the workday ends. Smith Street. Court Street. The major thoroughfares of hipster Brooklyn, of my life, are one big ad for an America that likes the idea of diversity but isn't sure how to execute on it.
That Detroit drugstore, with its rows of Queen Helene Princess Curl and other brands I'd never seen, made me face what a lousy ally I must have been. Must be. It's easy to talk about diversity and all people being equal when you're on the conquering side of history and surrounded by a world that looks like you. I wanted to live in our new city as a member of the full community, rather than just existing in a small part carved off from the whole. But how do you actually do that? How do you learn to talk about race and whiteness in a place where you know nothing — not even how to buy hair products?
"Just don't be an asshole, kid," was my dad's answer. "And listen more than you talk."
Still, it's not easy. Detroit is an angry city. Angry because it has been left out of its own narrative. The "media" story in the past has been all ruin porn and hellhole: Nobody would live here; the only people who remained were poor and black. Now the rote story is one of revitalization and resurgence, with smiling photographs of new pale faces like mine. (No, seriously. The New York Times profiled us, sneering at our lack of financial sophistication.)
There is still a solid middle class in Detroit that never abandoned this city, never left, even when they could have or should have or were told they were crazy. And they are pissed. They feel invisible in the great rebuilding of the Motor City. Their lives exist largely outside of the downtown and midtown districts, where investors from, yes, New York, and farther afield, are flocking. Their lives don't necessarily intersect with the white, tech-savvy millennials who are taking up residence in new high-dollar condos in what were once low-rent squats or senior housing. Abandoned, derelict buildings aren't yet being reclaimed in their parts of the city.
They feel like a casualty of the future. There is a real fear that this city will finally get its shit together and then promptly turn its back on the poor, leave them behind; that those who never left, either by choice or by circumstance, are no longer wanted here as the children and grandchildren of those who white-flighted come flying back in. The latter bring dollars and demand with them, remaking the city with new restaurants and amenities, but don't pay homage to what held this city together after more than half the population left. That leaves us with a cultural divide: One group sees itself as coming home after having been pushed out; the other feels abandoned and wonders why the fuck they should welcome anyone back. "Don't let the screen door hit your butt on the way out" is the proper Southernism, I think.
And that is a complicated conversation to be having all the time. Everywhere. On Facebook. On Twitter. At the gas station. At the grocery store. It's just part of the constant dialogue of Detroit. It feels healthy but exhausting, having to face these issues head on every single day. Sometimes it makes me angry. Sometimes it makes me humble. But mostly, it makes me feel like I constantly need to apologize — for being white, for finally making it to the middle class, for having enough money to pay my water bills. I am a symbol, even to myself, of everything that others do not have. When I first wrote a story about our move and buying the house, someone left a comment saying I was "raping Detroit." I was so cautious, so uncertain, my first reaction wasn't even to kick his ass. It was to say I'm sorry. People are hurt when they see me and Karl get all the attention for doing nothing more than moving here when they have been in the trenches, choosing to stay no matter how bad it got. Nobody is applauding them, celebrating them, throwing them parades.
But this is our city now, too. We have earned a right to be here by investing in our home and our community and neighborhood. We're just as angry about what has happened and the stories that are told, though I can't imagine what it must have been like living for decades through the hate and ugliness. But we carry Detroit's blue-collar chip on our shoulders as well.
Still, this city needs more people. It needs capital. It needs more middle-class incomes to pay for all the city services that need to be rebuilt. But we can also show some respect for what has come before us and invest in the population that exists. Job training and workforce development are critical. The irony of that, here in the city that did much to build the American middle class in the first place, is not lost on us.
And so we find ourselves in the Elbow Lounge, one of our new Bait & Tackles. It's the bar nearest our house on Detroit's east side. The peeling red façade gives the impression of an abandoned Easter egg. The first time we drove by, I wasn't sure if we should go in. With no windows and no way to see inside, you just have to pull open the door and hope for the best.
Kevin, the owner, greets us enthusiastically and welcomes us in. The regulars all say hello and slap Karl on the back. This no-frills, cash-only bar is where Karl and I have spent our wedding anniversaries and a few Valentine's Days. Kevin stocks a special bottle of Woodford Reserve for us after learning that it's Karl's drink of choice. I'm a Bulleit Rye girl, but that sounds too hipster to admit, so I stick with Jim Beam. Neat.
"Have I shown you my grandbaby?" Kevin asks, pulling out his wallet. His daughter recently had her first child, and he is beaming. He passes the pictures around to everyone at the bar. You just know this child is going to be spoiled.
Kevin remembers coming here with his dad when he was a kid. It was a Sunday tradition, all the fathers bringing their kids to the bar while they watched a game or caught up on neighborhood gossip. It was just how it was done.
Kevin says he knew from a young age he wanted to own this place, liked the spot it held at the center of the community. Eventually he bought it. And just like Sunny's in Red Hook, he keeps it open only a few nights a week. It's his passion project, his side-hustle. His main job is as a nurse at the local hospital. He has his nursing degree from the University of Michigan and has been delivering babies and helping the sick for going on thirty years.
This is a man whose story should be told, I think. This is the real Detroit. These people and places hidden from the spotlight, living their lives, keeping the city proud and alive. They are the interesting ones, not us. The way everyone here welcomes us in makes me realize that once you get through Detroit's tough outer shell, get to the heart of its people, and show that you are committed, they embrace you. They want you. But you don't get the community just because you walked through the door. You have to do the time on the barstool. You have to earn your way into this city. You have to prove that you come correct, that you are here to participate, not because you want to change this city or you wish it were some other way. But because you love it as much as they do.
As Kevin takes the last photograph back from me, I notice the man in the corner of the bar looking at me. When he asks if he can touch my hair, I feel the tension rush through the Elbow. This irony — that these conversations usually go in the reverse — is not lost on anyone either.
Kevin tries to shush the man, tells him to leave me alone.
"It's OK," I say. "You can touch my hair."
The man walks over and stretches out his hand. His long fingers stroke my straight brown hair, flattening the flyaways just like my mom used to do.
"I've never touched white hair before," he says. Then he stumbles off.
Amy Haimerl is the author of Detroit Hustle, out May 3, about her experience leaving Brooklyn to rehab a historic home in Detroit. She teaches journalism at Michigan State University and lives with her husband, Karl; two pit bulls; and a stray cat named Jack. A launch party for Detroit Hustle will be held on May 13 at 7 p.m. at Atelier Roquette in Red Hook.
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