Wed, Apr

Searching for Detroit … and, Los Angeles


WE CAN DO BETTER-I finally got around to watching Searching for Sugarman, the excellent 2013 documentary by Malik Bendjelloul about Sixto Rodriguez.  Seeing the film, my mind circled back, as it does sometimes, to Detroit. (Photo: Rodriguez) 


In the documentary about this immensely talented, though largely unknown folk singer, Rodriguez's story is told against the backdrop of a ragged Detroit and beautiful Cape Town. While all but forgotten in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, Detroit-born Rodriguez achieved cult status among liberal, mostly white South Africans who found in his music a safe way to show resistance to the racist apartheid regime. 

Thanks to our climate and other enticements, I am not the only one out here on the Best Coast with a Detroit connection. A day after watching Sugarman, I got this email from Annie B. (her Detroit name) or Ann Lee Carpenter, as she is now known in San Pedro. I met Annie recently and we quickly bonded over our common love of the Motor City. 

She writes: 

“Back in Detroit this week and I had a chance to sit down and reread your [2014] article [on my hometown]. The airport was still eerily empty on a Monday evening. And I don't worry about my nearly 90-year-old mother driving on the streets, as the likelihood of her hitting another car is low. But overall, I continue to be a Detroit fan. 

Today's (tiny) Free Press headlines (below the fold, because "Flint, a failure at every level..." is still taking the prime spot) are "Profit checks up to $11K for GM UAW are biggest" and "In Detroit, lighting chief makes abrupt departure." One step forward, two steps back... 

Tomorrow, I'm heading to my old neighborhood, Brightmoor, to check out all the urban gardening activities.” 

In a later email Annie writes: 

“Yesterday we had robins in the yard. Today, fluffy white snowflakes, making suburban Livonia even quieter. 

“Reading your latest post about neighborhoods...On your next visit to Detroit, you'll have to include Brightmoor on the tour list. 

The urban garden area is expanding bit by bit... youth gardens, butterfly gardens and more (though not looking their best in Feb.) but at the same time, more boarded up houses, including a couple on my old block. And the ones that were boarded up and painted by local artists a couple of years ago are still boarded up, but the paintings aren't looking so fresh anymore. On the good side, fewer streets look like a war zone. Here's a video of abandoned Hubert Elementary School where I went to kindergarten. Always one step forward, two back. 

But... there's Scotty's.  Otis Redding and Carly Simon playing on the jukebox and it's packed at lunchtime (and it's not even Lent yet). Once you step inside it could be 1976 or 2016, nothing's changed. Still the best fish and chips bar none. So that's my litmus test. As long as Scotty's is still there, there's hope for Brightmoor.” 

With so much of the talk in Los Angeles about gentrification and Manhattanwood, the almost warlike images of once vibrant neighborhoods left to die are so incongruous. 

I can almost see some hipster entrepreneur buying the Scotty's name and opening up a branch at the Grand Central Market.  

But we can do better. Maybe Los Angeles should pay it forward by using the bricks from Hubert Elementary and countless other abandoned Detroit buildings to build housing for some of our 44,000 and counting homeless and many others unable to afford to live here. 

Back in California, Annie is enjoying the sunshine while no doubt thinking about her mother's no- longer-standing Brightmoor home. 

In her latest email, she closes: 

“On Saturday, I took my mom driving around the old neighborhood. We passed under the viaduct where my dad and his friends used to collect coal that "fell" off the train cars as they went past. My mom said they used to run home for lunch under these bridges and scream when they saw the "rub a dubs" (hobos).” 

While we here in LA may be booming as a city, with tens of construction cranes dotting the downtown skyline, it is the thousands of tents of the homeless on the sidewalks and freeway overpasses that have me concerned. The search continues. We can do better than this…in Los Angeles, in Detroit, in Flint and beyond.


(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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