Detroit – A Haunting Hometown


The bankruptcy of Detroit, long after the implosion of the auto industry, has taught us that a city without Plan B is unsustainable. Mary Anne McMahon, who lived in Detroit from her birth in 1944 until 1976, has written about the city’s impact on her life when it was the richest city in America.

The Detroit of THE MOTOR CITY AND ME provides an iconic backdrop to a quintessentially American drama in which the players are members of an ambitious, middle-class, extended family. McMahon provides salient facts about Detroit from the influx of her German and Irish ancestors coming down through Canada, part of the stew of immigrants seeking to better themselves in the Midwest. The author describes their daily lives and contributions, and for this reader it brought back many little details of mid-century life that I had forgotten.

While this is a deeply personal memoir, there is something even deeper here, a kind of undertow that speaks for our generation; we went through much more chaos and change than we could blame on Asian enterprise. Case in point: McMahon relates the struggles of her ethnic ancestors to gain a foothold in this country during two world wars and the Great Depression, yet she is an adult before she hears about race riots — because she went to a Catholic school surrounded by pale European faces. Her innocence of blacks (except for her mother’s housecleaner) is revealing of that time; she might have observed how our narrow, perfect lives — near-sightedness as much as prejudice — contributed to 20th century conflicts.  Then: She reluctantly left Detroit to live with her husband on a military base in Germany. When her parents visited, they were uncomfortable until they found some Germans who spoke English. Our so-called “apathetic” or “do-nothing” generation explained our experience by looking inward.
Freud’s “psychoanalytic theory” gave us an excuse for our failings:  we believed childhood events could influence our mental functioning and emotional health as adults. The second half of McMahon’s story carries a heavy burden of this, her mistake entering a second marriage with an unstable man; and her own growth through therapy, friendships, and women’s liberation. (Plan B?)

The author has an epiphany in her new home: Houston was a boom town much like Detroit thirty years earlier. (I wish she had seen the irony: Detroit’s automobiles made oil-rich Houston possible, and made possible a whole new industry of migration to new look-alike, shining cities and sun-kissed suburbs, inviting people to escape from troubled cities like Detroit.)

THE MOTOR CITY AND ME is valid as a portrait of growing up in America, but can be much, much more if you read between the lines. Most obviously, it demonstrates an individual’s strong feelings of indebtedness to a community left behind. This evokes more than nostalgia; it allows grieving. We now are so mobile that few children can claim a “hometown,” nor even, probably, a life-shaping geography. McMahon has provided us with a springboard to wonder what the future relationships between people and places will be. Can any city remain unique? Have we reached a point in American history when we live longer than our cities do?  Does it matter?  Will we “settle” on one vast, constantly morphing wilderness we call the Internet?  Time will tell.

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