For reasons that involve politics, religion and the pursuit of life’s persistent questions, I found myself gardening in front of my Church one Sunday afternoon in June 2005. First Church is located in Detroit, on the side of Forest Avenue where students rarely park, lest their cars turn up missing when they return from class. The Church has been a presence there since 1916. Detroit is a rust bucket city with many socially redeeming features but few prospects for economic development. There are plenty of fabulous ruins, our train station sits, behind razor wire, windows gone, roof caved in, marginal residents of same don’t pay rent. It is a stark contrast to Chicago’s and Denver’s train stations, which are newly redone and busy with travelers.
A man approached me as I finished watering the perennials. At first glance, I took him for a panhandler. In this neighborhood, panhandlers compete. Only the excellent speech can turn jaded heads. Perhaps he hesitated for too long before starting his pitch, or perhaps his head was too well shaved, or his casual clothes were a little too well tended. Something about him said, “not panhandler”. He told me he was from Seattle, on a road trip cross the country. He was meeting up with his Internet friend. They’d corresponded, but had not actually talked face to face. His friend was driving down from London, Ontario. They were to meet at Cass Cafe, across the street, but it was closed. He was either for real, or had the best story ever.
There are restaurants in that part of town, close to the University, but most establishments are not open on Sunday. Sundays tend to be a time when the place is empty, the gardener can be alone with the fabulous ruins. Many of these buildings were built in the heyday of the auto industry in the 20’s.
Here was a rare and wondrous sort of person we in Detroit are not used to, a tourist. I was thrilled to have an actual tourist to be mean to or nice to, as I wished. This must be what it is like to be a New Yorker. I felt powerful and also a little silly, as I did not know how to describe the location of the only open restaurant in the neighborhood, though I’d gone there all my life. I only knew it was next to the medical center. Every one knows where the Medical Center is because we don’t get many new people. We shall have to get our act together, be more like New Yorkers.
Most cities have tourists, they even tend to take them for granted. But we in Detroit are used to the cash poor, not the information poor. I didn’t even know what cross street the Majestic restaurant is on. Anybody who hangs out in our city’s core already knows where the Majestic is. Information I don’t have much use for tends to get buried deep in some dusty folder in my brain. This young man did manage to find his lady love, more exactly, she pulled up on Cass and found him. So I went on with my own business, never to find out the end of that story. I do love that they were young and had the fabulous ruins to play in, if only for a day.
It is a new world. Communication tools are changing our way of life. Maybe we in Detroit will benefit from this. Maybe there will be economic development in this long forgotten part of town. Motivated souls drive through this area on expressways. The core of the city has resembled the third world for many years. Last month, 39 Americans soldiers were killed in Iraq. During the same time, 35 people were murdered in Detroit.
It is bittersweet, after all these years. Me and the panhandlers, whose spiels have grown increasingly excellent, we used to have this place to ourselves in the summer on Sundays. During the week, the area bustles with students and hospital patients and staff. Come the weekends and evenings and most everyone takes the freeway home. That day was peaceful and sunny. The power of the Internet has come even to this place off the freeway, off the beaten track.
May we use it well, this new and mysterious tool, the Internet. May it be a democratic tool, used for the good of all, not just a few. It is important to remember that decisions we make now on it’s use will affect our children, grandchildren, and many future generations and ought not to be made to serve other benefits besides short term profit accumulation.
The development of computers has had many contributors. After corporations and NASA developed hardware, there were students who slogged to computing centers with armloads full of punch cards, learning to debug their programs. The universities that our tax dollars have supported for so long have borne fruit beyond our wildest dreams. These little tabletop jobs are convenient, a far cry from the old mainframes. They morphed quickly. The way I heard it, the armed forces developed the prototype internet in the 80’s. The shenanigans in Silicon Valley are still being sorted out. We have become everybody’s neighbor with these powerful machines.
I rejoice in the love between these two young people, one from Seattle and one from Ontario, their knowledge of each other made possible by this giant brain that our planet has developed. It is romantic. The machines brought tourists to Detroit, and that is powerful indeed.