Peripheral Vision

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Looking regal at a recent fundraiser luncheon, Patricia Hill Burnett, one of the grande dames of metro Detroit society, recalled going back to her former neighborhood to revisit the home she sold to Aretha Franklin.

Asked if she had any regrets about having left the stately Palmer Park-area residence beside the Detroit Golf Club, the painter and former beauty queen replied: “I only go forward,” which may explain why she celebrated her 90th birthday last year with much fanfare.

January is a forward-focused month — apt timing for the annual North American International Auto Show display of seductive new editions.

We love our cars. But those of us who grew up here know there’s life well beyond shiny models. We’ve witnessed the magic of Bondo patch jobs and the DIY benefits of using junkyard shrapnel to make things whole again. Weld on a new part and keep moving forward.

Despite our can-do nature, however, metro Detroiters tend to be guilty of rearview-mirror gazing. It’s tempting to look to the past, where our glory days seem to rest. But taking a cue from Burnett, we Rust Belt denizens might want to train our focus on the windshield panorama. Yes, we know how to make things. We also know how to fashion something new with parts abandoned on the scrap heap.

Pieces of what we once built trail us like tin cans merrily bouncing along behind a just-married sign. The question is whether those parts can help us put Humpty back together again.

The answer may lie in a perspective that’s often neglected: the side view. Fail to check the blind spot and — you’re blindsided.

Well-intentioned, determined doers hellbent on results can forget that there’s more to the ride (and rebuilding a city and its industry) than forward, reverse, full throttle, braking, and U-turns.

Like “teaching to the test” in schools, a blinders approach can feel like forward progress and look good on paper. But get derailed from that pre-determined path without a road map and what do we do in the no-man’s land of gray area?
It’s how we navigate the curves in the road that keep us from turning back or getting lost. One good turn (or Turin, in the case of the Detroit trip to Italy) can lead to a bright new landscape.

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