Friday, January 6, 2012

Hob-Snobbing--Detroit author recounts her childhood in Southwest Detroit

On Saturday, Jan. 7 at 2 p.m., avowed Detroit Snob and venerable author, Mary Minock, will be holding a book release party for her new memoir, “The Way-Back Room” at Lido Gallery, 33535 Woodward Ave., Birmingham, MI (248-792-6248).

Mary’s memoir is about her difficult childhood growing up in Southwest Detroit. She now lives in her childhood home. The memoir comes for a true place of love about the city and all its beauty and blemishes.

Ahead of her big day, Mary took a second to talk to me about her book.

Des: Why did you feel compelled to write a memoir about your childhood in Detroit?

Mary: I’ve been a long-term poet, and I’ve held a constant attachment to the city and the neighborhood, even when I’ve lived in other cities.

When I was lucky enough to inherit my childhood home on Clark Street, and moved back into it in 1996, I discovered immediately that some things were exactly the same—for instance, the moon rising over Clark Park, the light, the earth, the pattern of spring mud puddles, the snow flying on my birthday. These things triggered many memories.

And then there were the friendly ghosts—my mother, my father, the old man who lived downstairs who built the house and was still alive when I was a little girl. The continuity, the way people who live in the neighborhood negotiate the spaces in similar ways to people who came before, got me to thinking, feeling and remembering.

And also a mission: besides the personal one of chronicling my own story, the attempt to re-create a dense fabric of our lives back then. People need to remember in detail. They need to remember both the good and the bad. For so many Detroiters whose neighborhoods changed drastically, and who got cut off from the city, it seems the best way to honor it is to paint those detailed memories.

Des: There's a widely-held conception that rioting by inner-city blacks in 1967 sparked white flight. Your book challenges that assumption. What light do you shed on that notion?

Mary: The idea that the 1967 Riot sparked white flight is just preposterous, even though it seems to explain things among people who don’t know or understand the history of the city. During the time I write about in the 1950s, in my totally white, mostly Irish Southwest Detroit neighborhood, the suburbs were being sold by developers. Veterans had access to insured mortgages through the G. I. Bill. Expressways were being built so that people’s sense of reasonable spaces lengthened. Along with building the cars, workers were encouraged to buy the cars, and so the system of mass transit was weakened. A house and a car in a suburb—it didn’t matter whether it was a modest or rich suburb—seemed to reflect the notion of “moving up.”

In the book I chronicle some of the conflicts in Holy Redeemer Parish in the middle 1950s when there was a flurry of people moving away. Since patterns of segregation in the city were still very strong, hardly anyone even considered blacks moving in. Instead, Protestant white southerners moved into our neighborhood.

There was also that strong cultural conformity of the 1950s, the consumerism, that made people think that anything new—a house, a car, an appliance—made them happier than the things that were old. The only place to build a new house was in the suburbs. It was the dream of the suburbs that lured folks out of the neighborhood.

And there was even more to it. The patterns of “urban renewal” during the Albert Cobo administration insured that many viable ethnic neighborhoods—Chinatown and Black Bottom, for instance—were either decimated or cut in two. That led to more instability in the city—people had to move somewhere. All of this happened long before the 1967 Riot.

Des: People often talk about being "culturally Catholic" even after they've essentially left the Catholic Church. Is Detroit also "culturally Catholic?"

Mary: Well, that’s a good question. During the time of my memoir, the Catholic Church was immensely powerful among so many ethnic groups who lived in dense ethnic neighborhoods. We thought of neighborhoods by parish—Holy Redeemer, Saint Hedwig’s, Saint Gabe’s, Sainte Anne’s, and so on, and we knew immediately which ethnic group belonged there—Irish, Polish, Hungarian. Yes, I’d say that during the time of the memoir, you could call Detroit “culturally Catholic.”

There were also neighborhoods that were intensely Protestant, or intensely Jewish. I think the answer lies in the close connection of people living in neighborhoods of the same ethnic and religious background. I guess that Detroit is still culturally religious. Religion provides the glue to keep people connected to the community.

Mary Minock's house in Southwest
Detroit circa 1942
And, of course, for so many of us who left the Church, the connection between what we were taught, what we thought, and how we experienced the world, stays with us forever, and ultimately, for me at least, provides a great deal of humor and comfort.

Des: Southwest Detroit has changed significantly from the enclave that you grew up in. What are the differences?

Mary: Many of the differences are ethnic. The neighborhood changed from being densely Irish, to being densely white Southern, to being densely Mexican-American to being densely Latino. The continuity is that it’s still ethnic. Some of the same buildings on Vernor that I remember as Irish pubs became hillbilly honky-tonks and are now Mexican restaurants. Traffic still crawls up and down Vernor Highway.

The biggest negative difference, that neighborhoods face all over Detroit, is the lack of amenities that we took for granted back in the 1950s. Commercial strips, for instance, like Fort Street, pretty much looked like neighborhood streets in New York City today. We could live in the city and walk. Even as children, we could hop on a bus and get practically anywhere we wanted to go. It’s very sad to see and live with that difference.

Des: What has been the reaction to the book? What is the most common question that you get?

Mary: People are loving the book, if I do say so myself. They identify with the characters. They enjoy the detail. They also seem to accept that I needed to tell the good and the bad side of the story—that to neglect the real story of loss and grief along with the resourcefulness and humor—would have made the book dishonest. I’m so gratified to see that so many people accept my story. That’s quite a gift for me. Mostly, though I’m glad to see that others are using the book to remember their own experiences of childhood in and out of the city. And not just remembering the sentimental. The book has avoided being one of those sentimental “remember-what-a-good-time-we-had-in-Detroit” when we and it were young.

Des: You have embraced the idea of "Detroit Snob." What does that mean to you?

Mary: Well, to me a Detroit Snob (I like it without the Caps—“detroit snob”) is someone who lives in and embraces the city and understands how we go about living in it now. And perhaps embraces too that it’s become quite eccentric, and there’s a lot of humor to be had in the impossible situations we find ourselves in—people we meet, surprises, transcendent acts of kindness. And the generosity of its inhabitants.

I just don’t think anyone who doesn’t live here, or at least who doesn’t come here regularly, can appreciate the love and humor of its inhabitants. It’s still a city, and there’s a great deal of city sophistication that comes with living among all types, even in being surprised when something like a street light works.

Finally, I like the word “snob” to show cohesion. We’ve got something you can’t find elsewhere. Why not be proud of it? And detroit snobs are pretty humble—they don’t even capitalize snob when they announce it on a tee shirt.

1 comment:

Sharron said...

Just a terrific interview, Mary. I'm passing it on to my husband, Richard, who worked in Detroit from 1998 - 2006 as the Director of the Detroit Council of Churches. He'll be very interested in what you have to say. He knows Desiree too. We both loved and advocated for Detroit. My family settled there back in the early 1900s.