If you head east along 8 mile, toward the water, toward the Points, there is a side street marked 8 mile that you can follow through the neighborhoods. Along it you will see small two bedroom homes along tree-lined streets. At one point the street curves right and then left again, and in this process 8 mile becomes something else: Brys street.
Drawn to a broken fence where this version of 8 mile ends, I began to film the flow of cars navigating this awkward stretch of road until I noticed voices emerge from inside a small garage. The door opened and a white man and woman in their late 50’s appeared. I asked them if we could talk about the fence. They agreed and began to recount the numerous incidents that had occurred on this curve over the years.
Sandy moved from Detroit and into this home at the edge of old 8 mile in 1986. Her house is two blocks from Mack, a fact she says, that people on the other side of Mack - “the people close to the water” - do not let her forget.
The broken fence surrounding Sandy’s yard was hit by a man on heroin who had lost control of his vehicle on a morning in late November. In addition to this incident, Sandy recalls a bag of money and a gun thrown onto her lawn by someone escaping the law, another drunk driver who smashed into the side of their garage, and one time, two men followed her car home and parked in front of her garage and waited. Eventually the mystery car left.
“I thought that crime was supposed to go down once we left Detroit”, she laughs.
When I asked Brian and Sandy about 8 mile, they said there was, “Nothing interesting down here.”
When I asked them about the stories I had heard regarding 8 mile being a line of division and tension, they said that “those issues were in the past and if it did occur now, most of that tension probably happens farther west. Out near the businesses. Here there are just two lane streets with houses. Nothing worth taking pictures of.”
I was taken aback. I had spoken to so many people who don’t live on 8 mile, that I had to wonder, maybe the people who actually live on the street see it differently then the people who live miles away from the border. Perhaps it’s less of a metaphor or a symbol for the people live on the street. Maybe for them, and people like Sandy, 8 mile is simply the place where they live. In Sandy’s case that just happens to be a curve in the road where 8 mile disappears and becomes something else.
As I put my camera away and began to thank them for their time, she elaborates on a theme she briefly mentioned earlier: Coleman Young.
“Basically, all of the division that you think of when you think of 8 mile comes from Coleman Young.’If you don’t like what’s happening in Detroit, you can move’ “, She quotes. ”And so people did. In a flurry”.
She goes on to describe how incredibly corrupt he was, to the point that, when she worked in law enforcement, the people she worked for were going to move in on The Mayor but were notified by the President of the United States to “not touch him”.
She speaks about him so many times throughout our conversation, that at one point I ask her, somewhat incredulously. “So all of the white people moved because of this one man?”
In the first of hour of our two conversation, crime is the central theme. Her neighborhood doesn’t see too much crime, which is part of the reason she says 8 mile isn’t that interesting. “Most of the crime is in the wealthier neighborhoods”.
“People are confused. They’ve never locked their doors and they wonder why they are getting robbed. They’re not used to it. Crime is spreading throughout metro Detroit. There’s no one left to rob in Detroit so they are coming up here.”
She talks about the different cities in Metro Detroit and how they are changing. She mentions how there are no African Americans in Livonia and how the people of Livonia are proud of that fact.
“Why?” I ask. Her answer wasn’t clear so I asked her a question I have heard raised on a couple occasions in Detroit:
“Why don’t they want to be near us?”
“Why do people take pride in not having black people in their city?”
“Why do people want to move when they see black people?”
“Why does your neighbor, who by your account has never had a bad experience with black people, look out of her blinds in contempt at a mixed race couple?”
“Fear.” Brian stated plainly. And then he searched for more words until he found them…
”Fear of the unknown.”
“Is the fear just of crime?”, I ask?
“If a middle class black family moves into the house across the street, if they have a steady job and enough income to afford a 300k house, is it really crime that the neighbors are worried about?”
“Nope. It’s this…”
He pinches some of the loose skin on his forearm.
“It’s the color of their skin. People are just scared about the color of the skin.” He was becoming emotional.
Sandy says that she misses living in Detroit. She has lived in her house since 1986, for 30 years, and doesn’t talk with any of her neighbors. “The only reason I talked to my next-door neighbor was because her tree fell on my house. Back in Detroit we knew all our neighbors. We used to always have block parties.”
I propose that a lack of community is a form of poverty, and add that if you look through different lens, a lens that our cultural rarely looks through, you could see a poverty stricken landscape in a wealthy neighborhood. A ghetto. She agrees.
“In the rich suburbs, things may look nice on the outside, but with more money comes more problems. And the problems are bigger, on a bigger scale. I’d rather not have a lot of money, but have good relationships.” I agree.
With exasperation and shame, Sandy mentions her neighbors who recently, after seeing some young black men playing basketball in the neighborhood have already begun saying that it is time to move. One of her neighbors in particular is deeply concerned over any house that posts for sale on their street. She’s worried that it might be sold to someone black. A mixed race couple moved in across the street and she would peek through her blinds in confusion and disapproval.
“These people are 70, though”, Sandy says. “It’s the young people who are moving into the city and aren’t afraid to mix. I know a woman”, she continues, “that when her children turned 16, she forbade them to drive in the city. If they did, she would take away their car.”
“When I was younger, I danced with a young black man, and my mother yelled at me furiously, ‘I don’t ever want to see you do anything like that again!’. I said, ‘Mom, that’s only Keith!’, but she couldn’t hear it. They were an older generation: Depression, World War II. It’s just going to take for the older people to die out.”
As she was talking my mind briefly drifted to that 16-year-old kid who was forbade from driving into the city. I thought about the voices and patterns that animate our daily lives, and how tricky these habits are to:
How does a limit like, “You can’t drive into Detroit or you will lose your vehicle” affect the way you see people on the other side of the border? Even if you never agree with the command, how does the fact that it comes from your parent’s affect your view of others?
When Sandy worked in Detroit, when she was younger, she would take the bus to work. One day, she recalls, a gang boarded the bus and broke all of the windows with bricks.
“I have friends who are scared to go downtown to a baseball game. A baseball game! I tell them ‘You’re surrounded by 40k people!”. You know, there are parts of the city you don’t go to, places over near Gratiot. You just don’t go down a block that doesn’t look good. It’s just like any other city. Every city has crime. You just have to keep your eyes open and be smart.”
After two hours of a far ranging conversation, Brian proposed that we are more alike then we are different and that this: talking in the driveway with strangers was part of the solution.
I thought of their first two answers to my first two questions:
“Yes. We can talk, and
“No. There’s nothing interesting about 8 mile”.