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Yes, Yes, Thomas Wolfe Was Right

Posted on 2012.02.07 at 21:29
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Detroit, Rock City - Kiss
It pains me to embrace such a monolithic cliché, but this is where the road has led me: You Can’t Go Home Again. The phrase was immortalized in Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel of that name, and it has since spread across the length, breadth, and depth of American culture, quoted in works from John Steinbeck to Stephen King to the friggin’ X-Men and everywhere in between.

But as I said, this is where the road has led me. Specifically, the road is Interstate 94, which was how I traveled from Chicago to Detroit in late November to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. From my present home on the north side of Chicago, I-94 is only a couple miles away. And if one travels eastbound on it for long enough, it will take you to within a few blocks of the house where I grew up on the east side of Detroit (exit at Conner Ave., take it north to Camden, turn right and go one block. It’s the corner house surrounded by trees).

This time around though, my route to the old neighborhood was slightly indirect. It came in the form of a simple domestic chore. My brother, who now resides with my father in the near suburb of Roseville, needed a lift to a body shop on Detroit’s east side so he could pick up his car. I was available and happy to help out.

Now understand, I find myself at the house in Roseville several times a year. But though it doesn’t take long at all to get from there to the old neighborhood, it had been some years since I’d made the trip, and time has only increased the psychic distance between the two locations.

As it turned out, I’d chosen the perfect day for such a journey. It was the day after Thanksgiving, late in the morning. In neighborhoods across America, this is a quiet time. People are rising late and moving slowly after the previous day’s festivities. Driving up and down those streets, it was obvious from the cars and other signs of life that a great many people still resided around there, yet I saw hardly anyone. This permitted me the indulgence of creeping down streets like Camden, Wade, and Corbett at a snail’s pace, the better to survey the landscape and embrace memories. Yet increasingly, I was feeling something else; something I hadn’t anticipated.

Long-time readers of this journal know that I usually bring my camera with me when I travel, and many of my travel posts have been lavishly adorned with photos. As you can see, there are no photos accompanying this post. Oh, I brought my camera along, but it never left my pocket while I was in the old neighborhood.

At first, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel moved to take any photos. After all, there were many evocative sights – houses, streets, intersections, and schools that brought back long-forgotten memories of my childhood. Then I realized: The personal, significant stories – the things worth remembering, memorializing, and celebrating – were all buried in the past, where my lens could not focus.

Then another realization came: I don’t think I need to ever physically go back there again. While it’s true that the neighborhood has deteriorated a great deal, that isn’t really the issue. Heck, even if those streets were now filled with million-dollar homes, there would still be one inescapable fact: the place isn’t mine anymore. The people I knew are all gone. Well, there are probably a few scattered holdouts, but they are surely few and far between. Speaking of which – the houses themselves are few and far between on many of those streets. Many of the ones that are still standing are burned-out or otherwise hollowed-out shells, awaiting only a bulldozer of a stiff breeze to take them down once and for all. At the same time, there are houses and lots that are as well kept as you could hope for. It’s a curious juxtaposition of… well, the Sacred and the Profane, I guess you could say. Which is all very interesting sociologically, but completely impersonal and detached from my own personal narrative.

The bottom line is this: There’s nothing there for me. I am Charles of Camden in name only. It’s someone else’s neighborhood now, to build, to rebuild, to destroy, to respect, to disrespect. I wish them well, but I am otherwise an outsider to the process. I suppose I will still make virtual visits from time to time via Google Maps, but my physical presence in that setting no longer makes any sense.

Postscript — I knew as I drove up and down those streets that I would have to write about the experience, but seldom have I found my thoughts more difficult to frame into words, which is why it’s February and I’m only now posting this.


(Anonymous) at 2012-02-08 23:09 (UTC) (Link)

Our House

I identify with your conclusions about that old piece of real estate in Detroit. In the past 25+ years, I could count my visits to the old neighborhood on one hand. (Interestingly though, in a dream state I am there quite often; some dreams also include the deceased.)
Physically, the place has changed so much that I don't recognize the houses that are left, because there are too many vacant lots in between.
-- ggreen
charlesofcamden at 2012-02-09 00:43 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Our House

Now that you mention it, that's a strange thing -- my dreams are often set in our old Camden house, even if the people are their present ages. It seems there's some deeply embedded connection to that environment that may never go away. I've spoken to a few friends who report the same thing about their childhood homes showing up regularly in their dreams.
(Anonymous) at 2012-02-09 23:25 (UTC) (Link)

The ol hood

3 days a week I make the trip south on Gratiot from Eastpointe. I pass through a great chunk of the eastside on my way to St Joseph's Church (just north of downtown...built in 1873 and the site of our father's high school graduation in 1949.) I've been making this trip for about 12 years.I too cannot put into words what I've witnessed in this time. Except for isolated pockets of "time standing still",all there is too see is an ever-increasing expanse of urban prairie. At night there are huge pockets of darkness (buildings abandonded...not even an operating street light.) At times this all seems other-worldly if not nauseating. The gloomy pall of death and decay and sadly palpable. The isolated pockets of actual light are the glimmers of hope. Many would leave if they could...others are there because they simply believe a better tomorrow is possible. I try to share a smidgen of positivity whenever possible during any chance meeting with Detroiters. The "believers" have been through enough already. I cherish my sweet memories of growing up on the east side of Detroit. I suppose that's what keeps me coming back. No,not delusions...it's all about giving hope where hopelessness reigns. At the same time realizing that trust is a rare commodity in this environment.Mutual suspicion is expected and a constant awareness of one's surroundings is paramount ! Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ?? I may be a fool but I'm not in a hurry...and I'm certainly no angel. fg
charlesofcamden at 2012-02-16 22:06 (UTC) (Link)

Re: The ol hood

I was hoping you'd run across this entry. Thank you!
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