Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Memories of a Detroit childhood

MADE IN DETROIT: A SOUTH OF 8 MILE MEMOIR. By Paul Clemens. Doubleday. 244 pages. $23.95.

Where I was raised, in Dearborn Heights, Mich., the backyards behind the houses that faced ours were in the city of Detroit. The houses across the street looked like ours and so did the houses behind those. But at the line that divided our city from Detroit, there was a bump in the road.

An actual bump.

Nearly all the kids from the Detroit side of the neighborhood went to Catholic schools, even if they weren t Catholic, though many were. Going to public schools in Detroit wasn t an option.

Their dads all seemed to be firefighters and policemen, and so the area was nicknamed Copper Canyon. It was one of several neighborhoods along the city s perimeter named for the primarily white municipal employees who lived there. They d moved out to the farthest fringes of town, but stayed just inside the boundaries to comply with Detroit s residency rule.

I grew up thinking every neighborhood had its own police helicopter. Its nightly drone was comforting as the cop from up the street swept his spotlight over swimming pools and little kids who d come out to wave at it in the summertime.

Reading Paul Clemens Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir was a lot like reading the story of this neighborhood. His family reminded me of my friends families.

Frustrations vented about city bureaucracy were the ones I heard at cookouts and block parties. His confusion over race was the same anxiety my friends and I had, particularly as we went to college and started applying abstract lessons of our liberal arts education to the day-to-day experience of living in the nation s most segregated metropolitan area.

Although the book is mostly concerned with what it is to be a white Detroiter, its strength is its straightforward storytelling about the author s life. Clemens weaves vignettes from his life into a broad political and social history of Detroit.

But the stand-out moments are the old show-don t-tell bits: a trip to midnight Mass on the city s east side; football practice as fall turned to winter; a brief description of going with his father to an auto-parts show in the city s north end at the same time the Auto Show was drawing higher-end crowds downtown.

He writes: Inside the hangar, manning hundreds of similar tables, were urban men factory workers, construction workers, tool-belted climbers of utility poles who handled hot drinks in cold weather with a reverence that others reserved for Eucharistic wine, men whose ability to tolerate scalding hot beverages seemed to be matched only by their ability, while standing out of doors in frigid weather, to tolerate full bladders. I was impressed by the wads of bills these men had in their pockets, not yet understanding that those rolls of tens and twenties bespoke nothing but their possessor s pennilessness.

Clemens is aggressive on race, describing his ambivalence with an honesty that s rare in discussing race relations. But his literary side too often gets in the way, dissolving into long passages on his reaction to William Faulkner and its relationship to a purely fictional novel he planned to write about a white kid in Detroit. I found myself just wanting him to get on with it and tell his own story.

What does it mean to be made in Detroit ? For better or worse, the city is rooted in a manufacturing history, of course, and proud of what s real, and proud of what s tangible, even in its most crumbled, confused, and burned-out state. That s what it is to be made in Detroit. When Clemens gets that, that s what s best about his book, too.

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