The Long Drive Home

Bear on BenchI’m going home.

That was my first thought as I scrambled myself out of sleep in my parents’ RV the final morning of my trip. Before long I could smell butter melting in a pan. The night before my parents had been discussing breakfast options, and my mom brought up the possibility of pancakes.

“We have the mix,” she said, “But I don’t think we have any syrup.”

“I have maple syrup,” I said. My parents looked at me. Even I was surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth.

“The people I stayed with in Ithaca make their own every year, and they gave me a whole jar,” I explained. I hadn’t opened it because I didn’t want it to go bad or have an unsealed jar of syrup bouncing around in my car, but it didn’t seem to matter with only hours left to go.

Wooden BlocksMy final stop was Leavenworth, a popular weekend vacation town for Seattleites. Leavenworth is a theme town, capitalizing on its German roots. The whole place is covered in stereotypes and kitschy paraphernalia, from the architecture to the decorative beer steins. I got into Leavenworth an hour before my folks and walked around for a bit. Despite living a mere two hours away, I’d never been. I saw the nutcrackers and the hats and the fairies. I saw more of those same damn decorative pieces of wood with white lettering in different sized fonts that spout cliches and grandpa jokes. Most of the shop employees were in costume. I went browsing for decorative glass figures in a store run by a Polynesian woman in a German blouse.

I met up with my parents for lunch at a local diner. My dad ordered the Schnitzel and I got a brat with sauerkraut. I made the wrong choice. Mine was sour. His was covered in gravy and came with a pretzel bun.

FairiesAfter saying my goodbyes to my parents I hopped back on Highway 2. It’s a road I know well, because it’s the one I always took to get to summer camp growing up. It’s also home to the small town of Startup which itself is the home of the very best milkshakes in the world. I have, on more than one occasion,  driven the hour from Seattle to Startup just to get a milkshake.

The final two hours of my trip had the potential for a lot of culminating actions, but I neglected all of them. I didn’t bother to stop at my summer camp to reminisce about days gone by. I didn’t stop for my favorite milkshakes in Startup because I was so full of German candy. I forgot to listen to the road trip playlist that I’d spent months reworking and remastering. I just sat in my car and drove, listening to podcasts and futzing with the cruise control. It was like any other day of my trip.

Seattle Sign PortraitI came home to a cold, clean apartment. My boyfriend was on a trip to Hawaii at the time, and I had the place to myself for a few days. I don’t remember what I did first. I don’t remember how long it took me to unpack. I don’t remember most of that evening. My notes on the day were routine, outlining a few details from Leavenworth and a scribbling about German candy. But I must have been feeling grand, because at the very end of my notes was this:

“The Journey is over. It has just begun.”


“Welcome to Generica!” the Right Reverend Brian Prior announces as I pull into his driveway. Brain and his wife Staci live in the kind of planned neighborhood that all financially stable white people are supposed to live in. They like their house just fine, but neither can shake the uncomfortable feeling they get from living in structured suburbia.

My first morning in Minneapolis I drive into the city to visit Brian at work. Brian’s office is in a fairly unassuming building a few blocks away from the famous Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. I tell the receptionist that I’m here to see the bishop, and she says he’ll be right out. She offers me water, which I politely refuse. After a few minutes Brian’s assistant, a capable woman in her 30s, comes out to let me know that he knows I’m here and will be just another minute. She offers me water, which I politely refuse. She’s glued to her phone, and clearly knows his entire schedule for the day. She disappears and I watch as several employees around my age pull vinyl signs out of boxes. “I wanted to see what we have before I do a big order,” one of the young women says to another.

BellBrian emerges, giving his last goodbyes to a young black woman, a priest by the looks of her collar. Brian’s assistant leads me into his office, which is a minimalist wonderland. There’s an austere bookshelf on the wall which is filled but not full. The books represent varying degrees of religiosity, with some specific to the Episcopal church and others on secular philosophy. His desk is clear and clean. There’s an iPad on a stand with no external keyboard. There are no cords anywhere. I sit on a comfortable but simple couch, opposite a pair of matching chairs. The coffee table is decorated with a single, colorful bowl of peanut M&Ms. I grab a handful to help fight off my envy for his beautiful workspace.

“Tell Katrina what she should do with one day in the city,” Brian instructs his assistant with a smile. I recognize the tone. It’s the same one my boss always uses when he knows I’m better than him at something. She starts rattling off a list as Brian glides around the room, clearing away the water glasses from his last meeting.

“Would you like some water?” he asks me.

Brian has another meeting to run off to, but he takes a moment to introduce me to the young people I’d been eavesdropping on before. I ask them where I should go for lunch, and there’s much confused debate as the group tries to come up with the best recommendation. Once again I’m reminded of my own workplace, where we often can’t manage to pick a lunch locale to save our lives. Before I leave one of the young women offers me a small piece of plastic off of her keychain. It’s an unlimited pass for the city’s bike sharing program. She’ll be in the office all day, so she sees no reason I shouldn’t take advantage of it. It’s the best way to see the city, she says.

Man an Woman taking Photos at the CherryI take off, hitting destination after destination. I start with the iconic cherry and spoon sculpture in the park. I’m excited to discover that it was designed to be a bridge, but disappointed to learn that you’re not allowed to walk on the art. I grab some fried tofu at the Malaysian place the staff recommended, and ride my bike up Nicollet Mall. I quickly fall in love with the bike sharing program. It combines the best parts of both buses and taxis. The racks are spread throughout the city, and the only rule is that you have to return the bike to a rack – any rack – within 30 minutes of checking it out. I download the app to my phone to help me find the nearest racks, and I never have a problem getting a bike when I need it.

RuinsAfter a quick stop in the beautiful Guthrie Theater, I walk to the back of the Mill City Museum to check out the open area in the back. The rear of the building was destroyed in an explosion, and it’s been turned into an open air exhibit. After snapping a few photos I start towards the river and the Stone Arch Bridge. I see a sign indicating I’m entering “Mill Ruins Park,” and there are a few scattered pieces of old foundations around the sign. I assume they’ve named the park after the nearby old mill, and I head towards the bridge. After walking 20-30 feet I glance back towards the shore to see a scene out of a movie. Set back into the sloping riverside are the actual mill ruins. They look like they belong in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, or maybe some live-action version of Cinderella. If it weren’t for the modern city buildings less than 100 yards away, you’d swear it was the kind of place fairy magic comes from. The walls of the mill structure are crumbling so that some rooms are fully open and others completely closed – perfect for a romantic assignation with a prince. There’s water coming in and out of passageways just big enough to jump over if, for example, the treacherous Captain Barbossa was coming after you with a sword. And of course there are plenty of half-collapsed walls you can hide behind in case you find yourself in a shoot out with – or against – Indiana Jones.

Locks and FallsAfter the Mill Ruins Park, the stone bridge and manmade waterfalls almost seem like a let down. There are so few adventures I can imagine having on them. I hop on a bike and make my way back towards the diocesan offices, stopping to take a photo of Mary Tyler Moore along the way. Brian and I meet up with Staci at her school, and the three of us carpool downtown for dinner. Our pizza is delicious but quick, as Brian has to run off to a men’s prayer group and Staci needs to be back at school for the parents’ open house. Other than a few passing moments at General Convention, I haven’t seen Brian and Staci since he was elected bishop and they moved away from Washington several years ago. Our time is brief, but it’s worthwhile. In planning this trip it never occurred to me that I could use it to renew so many old friendships.

Mary Tyler MooreI briefly consider driving out to the Mall of America, but decide I’d rather have a quiet evening back at the house. Minneapolis is a big city, and because of the bike share I was able to cover seven miles of tourism in a matter of hours, hitting every major attraction on my list. It was exhausting. Most of my big city visits are like this. There’s so much to do and see that it’s hard to slow down, let alone process. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off just picking one thing I really wanted to do in a city, and forcing myself to hang out in that spot until I’m overcome with boredom. It’s not a bad idea, I suppose. Maybe I’ll do it  next time I’m in a big city. Unless, of course, there’s a bike share.

My Bad Host, Aunt Sally

Aunt Sally is a bad host. I know this, because she tells me so several times on the phone.


I was introduced to Aunt Sally by my friend Sally, who was named after her aunt. Sally and Aunt Sally are very similar people, a fact that they don’t seem to understand and will barely acknowledge. Aunt Sally and Sally are the only reason I bothered with Madison in the first place. Originally I assumed that when I drove through Wisconsin I’d stop in Green Bay, Milwaukee, or possibly Appleton. But Sally insisted that Madison had the absolute best Saturday farmer’s market in the world, and I had to go to it if I could.


When I arrive on Friday evening, my bad host Aunt Sally has only bothered to set out a lovely table for two on her back porch, with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese on top of basil and crackers for h’orderves. Dinner is merely homemade chicken salad on a bed of lettuce, with veggie kabobs fresh off the grill. And since nearly every ingredient comes fresh from her garden, she only has one strawberry (which she saves for me). I should have seen this coming. Aunt Sally warned me she was a bad host.

Farmer's Market

Saturday morning we borrow a bicycle from the neighbor (Aunt Sally tracked it down for me the day before) and the two of us take off on the six mile trip to the capitol. We’re on a dedicated bike path almost the entire time, which Aunt Sally tells me is packed at 6AM every weekday from all the people commuting around the lake to get to downtown. Things start to get unusually crowded for a Saturday as we approach our destination. I’ve come to town the same weekend as the Ironman Triathlon. Hundreds of people are swarming around the capitol area in preparation for the event on Sunday. Competitors are doing practice laps in the lake, and we cross over the secured area where hundreds of bikes are to be stored.

We park our own bicycles and head to the capitol building. Aunt Sally and I walk the entire loop of the market, which surrounds the deceptively large and classically Jeffersonian structure. Eventually I decide to grab myself a turtle bar from one of the bakery stands, and Aunt Sally picks up an apple and some cheese curds for herself. We sit on the grass at the base of the building to enjoy our lunch.

LibertyInside the building, Aunt Sally gives me a crash course in Wisconsin politics. “In this building, you can have a concealed weapon but not a camera.” She starts talking about the protests that happened back in 2011, explaining the backstory. Apparently the people of Wisconsin are unaware that they were front page news for several weeks. When Aunt Sally begins to explain how protestors would sing in the rotunda, I interrupt to let her know I’ve already seen the footage on youtube. She says they still come to sing on most days, though the crowds are understandably smaller. Lately there have been some arrests, including the arrest of a few elderly citizens. Aunt Sally wonders if the arrests will make national news again.

Bike Racks

Back near the triathlon headquarters, Aunt Sally and I sample the products being peddled at the event booths. We admire the gluten-free, dairy-free energy bars, and get our calves massaged using a pretty sweet muscle roller (which Aunt Sally ends up buying for herself). We pass by the bike holding area, which is now packed with bicycles in waiting. Aunt Sally mentions how expensive professional bikes like these are, and the two of us speculate on how many tens of thousands of dollars are lined up on the racks below.

From the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), we get a good view of the swimmers out on Lake Monona. Ironman triathletes must complete a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and finally a 26.2 mile run. I understand why some people do it, but it’s sure not going on my Bucket List.

Parking and LakeWorn out from watching other people expend so much energy, Aunt Sally and I stop at a chocolate shop on our ride home. We talk politics a bit more, and she’s amazed when I tell her how in Washington State the legalization of marijuana passed by a wider margin than gay marriage. I tell her that the city of Seattle banned plastic bags at the grocery store, and she couldn’t believe it. “How do you get something like that to happen?” she asks with envy. It seems like Aunt Sally would welcome a plastic bag ban, but can’t fathom an entire city’s citizenry allowing such a thing.

We end our day at a fancy pizza place, and Aunt Sally helps me pick a good place to go to church in the morning. We talk more, and I enjoy every minute I spend with Aunt Sally. After all, she’s just like my friend Sally. As I leave the next day I thank Aunt Sally for her hospitality, and tell her I had a wonderful time spending the weekend with her. I don’t think she believes me, but then again, Aunt Sally is a bad host.

Photo Tour: San Francisco

Ashbury Architecture

Ashbury Architecture

Good to know

Good to know

Inside Grace Cathedral

Inside Grace Cathedral

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

It has something important to say

It has something important to say

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

Reaching out at on of the world's premiere suicide locations

Reaching out at on of the world’s premiere suicide locations

They told us somebody had jumped onto the tracks

They told us somebody had jumped onto the tracks

How the cable cars move

How the cable cars move

It's a bit much for my tastes

It’s a bit much for my tastes

Home sweet Oakland

Home sweet Oakland


The Sorrow of Ste Marie

Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.


From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go

It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”

But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).

From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay

The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.

And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.

Boat Spectators

I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary. 


I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so

And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”

And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

She’s gonna shed her grace on me


NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.

Check out them out: Mick SterlingKevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Detroit

“Don’t go to Detroit.”

That’s what people would say to me when they saw my route. Because Detroit is awful. Detroit is bad. It’s scary. It’s full of crime. It’s sad. It’s wasted away. Go to Ann Arbor instead. Don’t bother with Detroit. That’s what the Americans said.

The Canadians, however, seemed to have a different picture of Detroit. When I told the Canadians I met in Toronto that Detroit was my next stop, they expressed both joy and jealousy. “I love Detroit,” they would say to me. When I told them how Americans think of the city, the people in Toronto shrugged it off. “It just has a bad rap,” they said. “It’s a great city.”

After spending two very enjoyable days in Detroit with a couple of new friends, I started to wonder about the city’s reputation. Outside of the special excursions we made to the more deserted parts of town, Detroit felt like any other city I’d visited. There was of course one small difference.

When I first crossed the boarder into the city I pulled over at a McDonalds to use the internet and get a quick bite to eat. I sat there with my Chicken McNuggets and couldn’t help but notice something strange about the commercials playing on the TV in the corner. I recognized the brands and the premises, but they were slightly different than the commercials I’d seen before. The attractive, smiling white people had been switched out for attractive, smiling black people.

The patrons of the restaurant were also black. So were all of the employees. For forty minutes I watched people come and go and I remained the only non-black person in the building.


Integration is a myth.

More specifically, it is a myth that 50 years ago our society became integrated and all racial segregation since then has just been the gradual end of a now extinct way of living. Yes, things were much worse then. Yes, we have come a long way. But the truth is, racial segregation is alive and well.

I know what you’re thinking, “Of course it is. We all know there is still racism in America. We know that there are still plenty of black neighborhoods and so-called Chinatowns.” That’s what I would have said, too. But the unspoken caveat to those words is always “But come on, at least it’s not that way everywhere.”

Stop One

First stop on the DC Metro. I am the only one in the car who isn’t black.

It is that way everywhere.

The problem with being a stranger in a strange town is that you don’t know where you’re not supposed to be. Sometimes during my travels I would get lost and end up driving a few blocks in the wrong direction. And when I say wrong direction, I do mean the black direction. It sounds awful because we like to think that as a society we’ve moved past that. After all, if we hadn’t, we would all feel pretty horrible for sitting around and letting it happen.


A few months ago a demographic researcher at the University of Virginia took the most recent U.S. census data and used it to create a racial map of the United States. There was a different color for each major racial group (red for Asian, yellow for Hispanics, etc), and a single dot for every citizen. Some images, such as the one for Detroit, caused a lot of discussion online. The map clearly showed how the city is broken up by racial districts, with black, white, and hispanic existing in completely separate spaces.

It’s not just Detroit. I see it in every place I visit. It doesn’t matter how big or small the town is. In Savannah the black/white divide is on Bull Street, at least until you get to the entirely white downtown (which is flanked by black neighborhoods on each side). The racial map of Tulsa spins out like a color wheel, with green dots to the north (black), yellow to the north east (Hispanic), and blue to the southeast (white). In Memphis we went to see Wild Bill’s (north of Jackson Avenue), and my host was so concerned about the neighborhood she told me to stay in the car while she went to ask the convenience store owner a question.  In San Francisco I went to Mission Town, which has trash on the streets and bars on the windows, unlike the houses just two blocks north of 16th street. New York City is so divided the map could have been drawn in crayon. In Roswell, NM the Hispanics have a concentrated area in the southeast, but it’s almost entirely white north of – I kid you not – Country Club Road. I could go on. Pick any spot on the map and you will see it.

And everywhere I went I found people that could easily identify the “bad part of town,” while being completely unaware that they were also talking about “the black part of town,” or “the Mexican part of town.”

Detroit has become America’s bad part of town. It is that little section of the country that most of us never need to drive through, that place that you know used to have a really beautiful movie theater and a great music scene. It’s the place you wouldn’t try to walk through at night. The place with the high crime statistics that make you look over your shoulder at the man walking behind you and wonder, “Is he a criminal too?”

My guess for why Detroit doesn’t have the same effect on Canadians is that they’re not from “this town.” They don’t hear what we hear on the news. They’re tourists who don’t realize that there are some parts of this country where you just don’t go at night.


Detroit as a city is almost entirely black. The strict dividing line at 8 Mile Road (the city limits) is true. I drove past it on my way out of Detroit, and the city turns from black to white at that block. While I was in Detroit I mentioned the census map to my host Lizzie, who hadn’t seen it yet. I pulled it up and we took a look at her city.

Second Stop: Three white people get on the train.

Second Stop: Three white people get on the train.

Immediately we found that we were sitting in the most racial diverse part of town: Wayne State University. We started searching the map for other anomalies, and Lizzie would try to figure out the reasons behind them. One concentrated section of white people was near a well-known country club and golf course. Another collection was in the Sacred Heart Seminary. There was a small population of Asians around the hospital. For each deviation, we could determine a cause. I mentioned to Lizzie that the lines in Seattle were present but not as severe, and we turned the map towards my home city.

I showed her the various neighborhoods and gave my explanations. The strong patch of red indicated just how many Asian students attend the University of Washington. The sparse number of dots near Bill Gates’ house showed just how big the homes are in Medina. After a few minutes in Seattle, I pulled the map down to my real home town of Des Moines, about 40 minutes south of the city. I hadn’t looked at Des Moines yet, but I pointed out the streets I could recognize, showing her my childhood home, my school, the church I grew up in, etc.

“What’s right there?” she asked, pointing to a dense patch of yellow that indicated a Hispanic neighborhood.

“Huh,” I said, “I don’t know.”

The racial map doesn’t name every street, so I pulled up the Google map of the city to compare. Back and forth I went, over and over again, trying to find an explanation for this tiny concentration of Hispanic people.

“They’re apartment buildings,” I said. Looking closer at the Google map, I realized there were businesses back there as well, and a lot more houses than I ever realized. I tried to picture the area in my mind. “I guess I just never had any reason to go in there.”

“Oh,” Lizzie said.

“This is the road we took to get to church,” I told her. “I drove by this neighborhood twice a week for ten years.”

Third Stop: A few more white people get on board.

Third Stop: A few more white people get on board.

The Hispanic neighborhood has probably always been there. I just never knew. I needed a researcher from Virginia to tell me about the people who lived ten minutes away from me my entire life. This is how we’ve managed to keep up this beautiful lie of segregation ending in the 1960s. We don’t know it’s there because our lives are carefully crafted to avoid travel outside the racial lines. I never went into the Hispanic neighborhood near my house, why would I? Why would I go to those grocery stores and auto shops when there are all those other businesses on my way to school? You know, the businesses where all the other white people go. As far as schools in the greater Seattle area go, I would say that my high school was fairly diverse. There were black people and Koreans and Russians and Mexicans and Colombians. It was easy to pick out these group of course, because everyone clumped together. I had my white friends, the Koreans had their Korean friends. And there was no hostility. I knew plenty of non-white students. They were in all my classes and we worked together and laughed together and got along famously. We were friends. And then at lunch I went and sat with the other white girls because it’s high school and that’s what you do.

But it doesn’t change. I went to college and I had white friends. I met my white boyfriend. I got my first job out of college, working with all those white coworkers. Every step of the way, there I was, following the path that would lead me directly to people whose skin color matched my own.

Forth Stop: Black people begin to leave the train. More white people get on.

Forth Stop: Black people begin to leave the train. More white people get on.

I had the chance to move into a decent apartment with some friends of mine a few years back, but opted not to. Why? Well, my bedroom would have been a bit small and frankly, it was in a pretty sketchy part of town. Excuse me, I mean it was in the black part of town. I didn’t realize this consciously of course, I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to understand its racial makeup. I just knew I’d heard bad things, and there were a few too many chain link fences for my taste. None of the streets or businesses felt familiar. I didn’t feel comfortable there, so I didn’t move there. Instead I moved into a tiny studio twelve blocks north in a very nice, very white part of town.

I was ignorant, and ignorance is our enemy. Ignorance breeds complacency, and we have all allowed ourselves to willingly engage in racial segregation through complacency. We give white people no reason to venture into non-white neighborhoods, so they don’t even know they’re there. We make sure that there are plenty of Asian-run businesses right next to where all the Asian people live, so they never have to bother with white people when going to the grocery store. And you probably hadn’t thought about it, but in less you live near an institute for higher education, you probably live in a segregated neighborhood.
So this is what I’m saying, very openly, very plainly, and with so much conviction I feel guilty about it: I am an active participant in racial segregation. And so are you.


In high school they explained it to me like this: beer sales always go up at the same time as ice cream sales. So does eating ice cream make people want beer? No. There is another factor. A lurking variable. The beer sales have nothing to do with the ice cream sales. It’s just hot outside.

Correlation, not causation.

Final Stop: The racial majority on the train has swapped from black to white as we enter downtown. Had I stayed on the train, I would have seen it turn entirely white.

Final Stop: The racial majority on the train has swapped from black to white as we enter downtown. Had I stayed on the train, I would have seen it turn entirely white.

I don’t know how to end decades of self-segregation. I don’t know how to separate race from poverty from crime. There are a lot of black people in Detroit. And there is a lot of poverty. And there is a lot of crime. And these relationships show us correlation, not causation. Sometimes I feel like we have lots of data on the ice cream and beer sales, but we never think to check the temperature. We don’t notice it’s hot outside, I suppose, because it’s always been hot outside. There is no non-racist time in America to look back on for comparison. Beer and ice cream sales have never dropped.

The fact is, the only model most of us know for getting rid of racially segregated neighborhoods is gentrification. I heard this word tossed around a lot in my travels, and always with distain. People hate the idea of gentrification. People don’t like the white majority coming in and taking over. Yet they also don’t want to live in a racially segregated society where no one ever tries to live apart from their color-coded tribe. And knowing that racial segregation can lead to economic segregation, people also know it’s unfair and unrealistic to insist that the minorities move into white neighborhoods. Trying to “fix” the problem of segregation is a good way to lose an argument with yourself.

The best thing I can think to do is start looking for those lurking variables. Not just the Who and the What, but the Why and the How. And while I encourage you to read and research, I don’t think we’ll find our lurking variables in studies and statistics. I think we’ll find them when we personally make the effort to cross the lines. I think the answers are south of 16th Street, or on the other side of Madison. I think we could all stand to get a little bit lost in our own home towns. Take a look at the map, and purposely go towards a splash of color you didn’t know was there. You might be surprised by what you find on the other side of 8 Mile. It’s more than just a bunch of green dots.


End Note: If you’re interested in some of the more proactive ways in which housing discrimination has been created and maintained, I recommend an episode of This American Life that aired last November call “House Rules.” The audio and transcript can be found here.

You Won’t Believe What Happened to Me in Detroit

Wayne State Thinker

Lizzie was the youngest host on my trip to put out towels for me. It think it might have been her mother’s idea. Lizzie is a friend of a friend I know through the Episcopal Church, and (like me) she’s the type of person who is mad enough to enjoy spending two weeks in a convention center discussing church politics every three years. Lizzie lives with her roommate Maria in a little apartment on the Wayne State University campus. Both are students, which explains why they’ve opted to live in a place that only has one real bedroom, with Lizzie sleeping behind screens in the living room.

My first night in town we went to the casino. It may seem like a strange destination for three young college-educated women to select, but Maria had a plan. The casino has a VIP club that anyone can sign up for. When a person signs up, they get a free spin on the prize wheel. There are no duds on this prize wheel – you’re guaranteed to win something. And if you’re already a member (like Maria), you get a bonus spin for each new member you bring to sign up. Lizzie and I both signed up and we got four spins between the three of us. We collectively won $30 in free game play, and Maria took us straight to the nickel slots. She said the trick was to cash out every time you won anything, since the machine automatically spends your winnings before it spends the rest of your free game play. There was a time when cashing out at a slot machine would have meant a pile of actual nickels. These days it’s a printed slip of paper you can exchange with the cashier. The three of us sat at our machines pushing colorful buttons and printing slips for 10-20 minutes. Lizzie and I had no idea how the machines worked, but it was fun all the same. By the time we had used up our free game play, I didn’t have anything (I had won the smallest amount in the free spin), but Maria and Lizzie each had a stack 15 to 75 cent winning slips.

Armed with just over $12 in slot winnings, we went to Greektown, the area directly below the casino. Maria took us to the Astoria Pastry Shop and used our winnings to secure delicious treats for all three of us. Sitting at a little table in the shop we ate our pastries and discussed our success. Parking at the casino was free, which meant our entire evening cost us nothing. Maria explained how she loves to take people to the casino to spin the wheel. Most of the time she gets free game play, but there are other prizes, such as a nice dinner at the casino restaurant. Personally I was amazed that signing up for the VIP club had no consequences. I never received a single phone call or email from them asking when I’d be back.

Puppets copyThe next morning Maria and Lizzie headed off to class while I walked over to The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It had been less than a week since the City of Detroit had declared bankruptcy, and a recent appraisal of the city-owned art was making people nervous. Lizzie explained that appraisals happen all the time, but she was still a little worried that the collection was going to be packed up and sold. She recommended I check it out while I still had the chance.

The DIA is free to locals, and I had to make a point to declare myself a tourist in order to get them to take my money. The fee was low, and the audio guide only $2 more. With my map, audio guide, and walking tour in hand, I went straight to the bottom floor and began my exploration of the art. I had only gotten through half the museum when I realized I was about to be late. Lizzie and Maria had invited me to sit in on their choir class. They were supposed to be performing a Dave Brubek opera for the jazz festival that weekend, and this was one of their last rehearsals.

I speed-walked from the museum to campus, scarfing down a hot dog on the way to keep my stomach from growling during the class. I was the only audience member for this particular rehearsal, though no one questioned my presence. While the music was enjoyable, I was more entertained with the feedback the conductor was giving to his students. One does not often hear the accusation that “you’re moving to quickly on the diphthong.” In order to help everyone better understand the complexities of 5/4 time, he had us all try to conduct along with him. Everyone failed at this, including me. It’s hard to un-train the Western Ear.

Private Property

That evening Lizzie and I drove over to see the old Michigan Central Station. The massive, abandoned building is close to downtown but years away. It almost doesn’t feel real – like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. You don’t usually see buildings that big in such a state of disrepair. In any other city, the property would be too valuable to go unused, and the structure would get torn down in favor of something more profitable. But in this section of Detroit, it’s just not worth it.

In its day the train station was the primary way to get in and out of the city. Before airplanes and interstates, everyone who was anyone arrived by train. You can still see it in the grand, geometric lawn that stretches out in front of the station. It is meant to impress. It’s the kind of first impression you want to give as a city. It’s the view you want visiting presidents to see.

Lizzie and I walked up and down the station fence taking pictures. She sighed. “I do believe the city is improving,” Lizzie said, looking up at the broken windows, “but this is proof of how great we once were, and how far we’ve fallen. I mean, this used to be the first thing you saw when you came to Detroit.”

The Dream is NowAbout 100 yards away was the other feature we had come to see. Back in the fall of 2012 a group called Urban Put-Put ran a Kickstarter to build a small and unusual mini-golf course in a vacant lot near the train station. Maria had told us about it, and she and Lizzie spent most of the day texting and Facebooking friends to see if we could scrounge up some clubs and balls, as the outdoor course is BYO. We hadn’t managed to acquire the equipment, but thought it would be fun to look at the course anyway.

Put Put

The formerly vacant lot was overgrown once again. We stomped our way through the high grass and weeds to explore the course. The holes were interesting and different, with old bicycles secured in concrete and car frames filled with pipes. As interesting as it might have been to play the course, it was in no condition to be used. Too much had been destroyed with time and covered by the uncaring force of natural growth. No one had played there in a while. It was unlikely anyone ever would again. Lizzie and I didn’t say much about it, but the punchline was clear: yet another “Detroit Rebirth” project turned sour. It hadn’t even lasted a year.

We drove back towards downtown. The jazz festival was in full swing, and we ended up parking farther away than originally planned. Per Maria’s suggestions we got dinner at Lafayette Coney Island (not to be confused with its rival and next door neighbor, American Coney Island). Lafayette is the kind of place where they look at you funny when you ask for a menu, because there are only about four things a person can order there. We both got the classic Coney Island Hot Dogs (aka chili dogs), and headed over to the festival.

The Detroit Jazz Festival has been going on for over 30 years and still draws a huge crowd. Lizzie had heard that Macy Gray would be playing that weekend, but we didn’t realize she would be there that evening. In fact, as a nearby patron explained, she would be playing at the stage directly in front of us in less than an hour. We secured a few uncomfortable bleacher seats with good views and waited for the show to start.

Macy GrayMacy Gray was playing as a featured singer for the Dave Murray Big Band, and it was a match made in heaven. The band was great and Macy was hilarious. “This is a love song about us,” she told the crowd, “all 3,000 of us.” When Macy left the stage at the end of the first set, most of the crowd cleared out. Lizzie and I weren’t sure if they thought she wasn’t coming back, or if they were just nervous about the rain. Either way they were right, because the downpour started less than five minutes later. From our position pushed up against a nearby building trying to stay dry, we could hear them announce over the loudspeakers that the festival was officially over for the night. When the rain stopped, Lizzie and I considered the pros and cons of trying to get to the car. Was the storm really over or just taking a break? Could we get to the car before the next drenching? We took a chance and we made it. Well, almost.

The next morning Lizzie, Maria, and I went to Eastern Market, one of the largest farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen. Maria and Lizzie weighed the prices of perspective vegetables against how much they wanted good quality cheese, and I ate an entire pint of raspberries by myself, as is my custom. We passed by a pair of buskers playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” on the banjo and upright base, and I couldn’t help but laugh at all the things people had told me about Detroit. I had asked Lizzie the day before if she was ever worried about crime near the college or downtown. She told me that there was really only one crime that happened near her, and that was when thieves would snatch iPhones out of the hands of unsuspecting Freshman.

“Because they text and walk at the same time, and they hold their phones way out here,” she told me, holding her hand far in front of her face. She said they call it Apple Picking.


I’m sure that there’s a lot of Detroit Lizzie isn’t privy to and that I never saw. But the Detroit reputation is powerful, and I can’t help but find it laughable that I spent my time there eating pasties, listening to jazz, wandering through the art museum, and eating fresh fruit at the farmer’s market. Every city has its good side. And Good is the only side of Detroit I saw.