I’ve believed for a long time that the best way to learn to appreciate Detroit is to leave it — and then come back. Go build another life someplace else, maybe even fall in love with that life, and then come home to Detroit and discover, anew, all the power and lure of Detroit’s eminence and distinction.
For years, I’ve been giving this advice to young people, especially as they’re embarking on their young adult lives. You’ll love Detroit so much more after you’re away for a while, I’d say. Go find what else is out there.
Now, in the spring of 2021, I feel like I’ll never need to say that again. Because in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the planet, we all left Detroit.
As we packed up our public lives and cocooned in fear and uncertainty, we left behind the parts of Detroit that we all share. The Riverfront. The neighborhood parks. The community centers. The stores and bars and restaurants.
And most of all, the people.
We left each other during the pandemic year, out of necessity. Suddenly, and without warning. Woefully, and painfully.
So as we begin to come back together, back to the world of community and interaction, the question is: What will we have learned to appreciate more? What will we place more value on, now that we’ve seen how quickly it can all disappear and crumble into forced separation and tragedy?
For me, it will undoubtedly be Detroiters ourselves.
Of course, I have my favorite spaces in Detroit, and the things I loved to do before the pandemic hit. I’ve lived here most of my life, and have a long roster of places that define the city for me in ways that no others places can. But for each of them, my strongest association, and the deepest sense of loss over the past year, has been about the people I haven’t been able to be with in those spaces.
I miss us — Detroiters of all hue and belief, of all income level and predilection, in the places that mean the most to us.
Since I was a small child here, the public place that has spoken to me loudest has been Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember the first time I walked into that space, probably before I was even school age, and how Diego Rivera’s depictions of industry and our city struck me — not just for the visual stun they unleash, but for the powerful emotional resonance they have.
The Rouge plant workers who reminded me of the men I knew who wore jumpsuits every day while they painted cars or assembled them. The mother whose intense swaddle of her child was about protection — from what, I didn’t know. The grand depiction of machinery and production that perfectly captures not only our history, but our spirit.
For me, the strongest emotional resonance in that space comes from the people I’ve shared it with, the other Detroiters who come to mind when I think of that room.
I think of the retired judge who volunteers as a guide at the museum, and the intricate details she knows about the frescoes, their history, and their meaning. I think of all the Friday night concerts I’ve seen there, and all the friends I’ve shared those moments with.
I think of my own children, who’ve practically grown up at the museum and could probably lead a tour of Rivera Court and other spaces there. The museum has been open again for several months now. And so technically, I could be there whenever I want to. But there are still restrictions in place that make it so different — thinner crowds, less staff, smaller events.
I’m waiting. Waiting to go back until I can experience the museum with the people who made it matter so much to me in the first place.
The last public event I attended before the pandemic turned the world upside down was a small wedding that took place in the house where my family lived when I was born in 1970.
The house is now a literary arts and community center, a nonprofit I started a few years back to help reverse the decay that had left most of my old West Side neighborhood hurting. Really hurting. On our single block of Tuxedo Street, there were 24 abandoned homes when I started the project in 2017.
The wedding, just days before the governor ordered the first lockdown, was for the resident fellow who lives in part of the house and has built the nonprofit in the rest of it. She and her wife-to-be had been insistent that their nuptials take place at the house.
There were about 15 attendees — a mix of neighbors, friends, family. We were there to watch two lives commit to one another. But we were doing it in a space that meant something to all of us as Detroiters — a space that had brought us all together for celebration in a neighborhood that has to grab every opportunity for elation.
That’s the Detroit I miss. It’s the Detroit I felt most distanced from during the pandemic. And it’s the Detroit I’ve come to appreciate so much more during these months of isolation and loss and suffering.
I can’t wait for us all to be able to get back there, together.
Stephen Henderson is host of Detroit Today on WDET and winner of Best Radio News Reporter. See who else made our annual Best of Detroit reader’s poll here.
What I’ve missed…
Hour Detroit staff and contributors share what they’ve missed during the pandemic
As a woman of color (and former beauty editor), I understand how crucial it is to find the just-right, not-chalky foundation shade for my skin tone. While tester products have been removed from counters during the pandemic, beauty mavens like Melissa Butler of The Lip Bar in Detroit have developed new resources, such as online shade-finding tools and free, individually packaged samples to help us out. Still, half the fun is playing with products. I long for the days of leaving the shop with my perfect foundation in one hand and multicolored swipes across the back of the other. —Lyndsay Green
I miss sharing the pulse of city life with you. I miss making a last-minute decision to buy a ticket at the door at El Club in Detroit or wherever else that band that did that song is playing tonight. I’m at a point where I actually miss someone accidentally spilling beer on me. I’m even at a point where I’m kind of excited to meet your friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and barely being able to hear them while the opening act makes us regret going out in the first place/makes us fall in love with music all over again. —Ryan Patrick Hooper
I miss attending Ferndale Pride. Each June, I dress in something outrageous and bully my girlfriend into matching attire. We meet up with friends and endure the queue at Detroit Bubble Tea before perusing the street stands. Evening finds us bouncing from bar to bar, losing each other frequently, and making new friends in the bathroom line. What I miss most is the atmosphere of unapologetic authenticity that strips away all self-doubt, leaving you feeling liberated. Pride has been postponed again this year, but I’m hopeful for its return in October. —Ashley Winn
Last year, I drove to Amar Pizza in Hamtramck to order their famous Bangladeshi pizza with spicy hot naga peppers. The cashier had no trouble saying Zahir, but he stumbled to pronounce the name of the person behind me, a woman named Stacy. I love so much about metro Detroit, but especially this: In some parts, people find it easier to say Zahir than Stacy. I plan to return to Amar Pizza soon — only partly because of their delicious pizza. —Zahir Janmohamed
Whenever out-of-town friends came to Detroit in pre-pandemic times, I’d have them meet me at Dessert Oasis. The coffeeshop’s windows overlooking Capitol Park offer prime people-watching. We’d perch on stools sipping artfully poured lattes as bikers whizzed by and millennials chased dogs down the sidewalk. As my friends begin to make travel plans once again, I can’t wait to treat them to chocolate hazelnut croissants and catch up in person — the only screen nearby being that window displaying a view of vibrant Detroit life. —Stephanie Steinberg
When I moved to Detroit nearly a decade ago, one of the big events I came to love was the Movement Electronic Music Festival. Even more than the music fest itself, I loved meeting people from all over the world at after-hours parties, showing out-of-towners to all the bars and restaurants downtown that would stay open late for the event, and casually meeting legends of techno in the most random places. I miss seeing downtown filled with throngs of people in various stages of intoxication looking for the next thrill. Truly, a Detroit holiday — and one I hope to see come back. —Serena Maria Daniels
As I write this (and celebrate my two-weeks-past-second-vaccination day), I’m thinking about my newfound freedom to stroll into charming Main Street Art in Milford, where, as an artist, I will again be able to pick up squeezy watercolor paint tubes, turn them in my hands, and feel the soft tips of sable brushes. Perhaps a new pair of Michigan-made earrings is in order, too, because after all, I now have places to go and a reason to sport pretty jewelry. —Megan Swoyer
Like many museums, the University of Michigan Museum of Art navigated the pandemic by putting its exhibitions online. But art is a dimensional experience, and pieces only truly come to life when viewed in person, offering textures and nuances that are muted on a webpage. UMMA is a 10-minute drive from my front door and a five-minute walk from my office, and yet it has felt a million miles away for the past year. I look forward to shortening the distance between us once again. —Christopher Porter
Every year since I was about 8 years old, I’ve gone to see a performance of The Nutcracker. From New York City Ballet’s rendition at Lincoln Center to the Joffrey Ballet’s interpretation in Chicago, I’ve never missed a beat — until last year. Breaking the tradition nearly broke my heart. I’m looking forward to admiring the enchanting Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at The Detroit Opera House again later this year. Fingers crossed. —Lyndsay Green
Few treatments are as effective against the gray dread of Michigan winter as a couple hours at The Schvitz, a century-old Jewish bathhouse in Detroit’s North End that’s been my salve against the lack of sunshine for years. For those familiar with reverse-searing a steak, it’s the same idea, only instead of the porterhouse or T-bone, you are the one spending time in a 200-degree oven, elbow to naked elbow with your fellow meatbags. The heat keeps you humble and healthy. And if it doesn’t, the cold plunge after surely will. Especially the humble part. The old-timers go year-round, but I’m what you might call a cold-weather fan. Still, I don’t want to miss another season. —Mark Kurlyandchik
My friend Kaitlyn and I like running local 5Ks — the Free Press and Kona Running Co. races are among our favorites. Through our race experiences, we’ve improved our mile times, explored metro Detroit on foot, and tried new restaurants — our reward for getting up before the sun to run 3.1 miles is a decadent brunch. With many events nixed during the pandemic, I lost the motivation to lace up as often. But with the weather getting warmer and my urge to move stirring again — like many, my daily step count has been incredibly low over the last year — I’m looking forward to getting back at it. —Emma Klug
Getting a haircut late at night is an experience you can only have in the Middle East — and in metro Detroit. At Nabil Hair Salon in Dearborn, the sign says they close at 10 p.m., but everyone knows you can get a trim there well past that. It’s one of the experiences I miss most about my pre-pandemic life and that I look forward to enjoying again soon — sitting at Nabil’s, listening to Arabic music, and taking in the town’s gossip. —Zahir Janmohamed