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Visiting Detroit: You Can Never Go Home Again

A Google Earth view of how the street I lived on as a child looks today

Published in ChicagoNow, August 25, 2017

Well, that’s not totally true. You can go home like I did last week, visiting family in the Detroit area where I grew up. You can drive by the places you lived and reminisce about your childhood. But you can’t control how time changes the places you remember. In that sense, you can never go home again, except in your memories of things past.

My grandfather gardening in his suit in the old Detroit neighborhood

The first home I remember was on Cortland in Detroit. I don’t really have a photo of the two-flat we shared with my aunt and uncle, but my memories of the block, my house, and my grandparents’ house in the same neighborhood are quite different from the photo above that I pulled from Google Earth. I was advised is was unsafe to revisit the actual block reflected in these pictures from my childhood.

Me on Cortland in Detroit back in the day

Life in our old Detroit neighborhood with Mom and my brother

In 1952, my family moved to a small ranch home in the suburb of Oak Park, Michigan. Here’s how it looked when I drove by it recently:

My suburban home as it looks now

And here’s how it looked in the years I lived there:

My suburban home as I remember it

What happened to the bushes in front of the house? Where did the lamppost and backyard basketball court go? I guess a lot has changed over the past 50 years, including me.

Suburban living circa 1953

Much of Motown looked the way I remembered it after I had moved to Chicago, after the 12th Street riot of 1967 and the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Empty land where homes had burned. Boarded up abandoned buildings.

A trip down Woodward – the way I remember Detroit from past visits

We explored the Heidelberg Project, definitely something new to me, although it has been there since 1986. The street is used as a canvas by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton, showcasing recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.

Heidelberg Project built around foundation of a burned down home

“Each work of art is carefully devised to tell a story about current issues plaguing society. As a whole, the HP is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have become discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, what do you really see? Is it art? Is it junk? Is it telling a story? That’s for you to decide.”

Driving through the new downtown was surreal. There was very little I remembered from my trips with my cousin down Woodward via bus to go to our orthodontist and then treat ourselves to hot fudge sundaes with butter pecan ice cream at Sanders. I’m pretty sure that Sanders store is gone, but they claim to have seven shops left in the Detroit area and two on Mackinac Island. Best not to seek them out at my age.

How downtown looks today – lots of change

I am thankful to have a treasure trove of old pictures scanned from my parents’ photo albums that keeps my memory of growing up in and near Detroit fresh. But the Detroit of my childhood is largely gone. As I reflect on my journey to find my roots, Paul Simon’s song “Old Friends” runs through my head.

“Long ago . . . it must be . . .I have a photograph

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”


by Laurie Levy
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