West Side Story

“Here you are free and you have pride.
Long as you stay on your own side.” -West Side Story

So I grew up on the Eastside of Detroit… Between Warren and Gratiot. Everyone used to say to me… you don’t look like an Eastside girl and you certainly don’t act like one.

Wtf does that mean? I AM an East side girl though!

Well it meant my Grandmother wasn’t 38 when I was ten; She had gray hair and already had her AARP card. I knew my father’s name and better yet my Mother knew it; My parents were married when they conceived me. We could read; Everyone in my family had a degree, most multiple ones. No one had purple hair and we wouldn’t be caught dead in Farmer Jacks in our house slippers. Nobody had a bullet wound in their upper arm and I didn’t have a cousin or brother nicknamed Ray-Ray. I was smart, spoke proper English, wore glasses, had my hair in a bun, and went to private school. I just didn’t meet the stereotype.

Trust, I lived in the hood. We had a neighborhood dope boy; neighbors who had card parties every weekend playing the O’Jays way too loud; Gunshots woke me up at night; and once there was a dead guy hanging from the jungle gym at the park around the corner. It took the police forever to show up and the trap house was just two doors down.

But our home, like most of the homes in the area, was a multi-unit family home my Grandparents bought with their good state incomes, and planned to pass down for generations. That home saw four generations of us. West Side families lived in primarily single family homes, in homes their parents bought. Many of them the firsts in their families to go to college, succeed, and get good jobs, so they moved to the side of town most recently developed. The east side was more community centered, the west side more affluence centered. Neighborhoods boasting large sprawling mansions became a sign of success. Two family flats, which dominated Eastside areas, looked at as nods to the past. Although multi-unit homes were a better and much bigger investment.

Most of my friends grew up on the West Side of Detroit. I went to elementary and high school on that side of town. No one ever told them they didn’t seem like West Side girls because for the most part, I was the assumed anomaly. Neat, well dressed, well-spoken, smart girls don’t live in the Eastside, right?!?

Wrong!

I got this impression that people believed if you lived across Woodward you were the worst of us, Detroit being over 90% Black at that time. Much similarly how white flight saw White people moving to suburbs across 8 Mile, drawing a line in the sand of what was and was not the desirable place to live. I believe Black Detroiters did the same with East and West.

Sadly, it’s a tradition steeped in intra-racial stereotypes and bias that reeks of Stockholm Syndrome. We do the same things to one another that are done to us. We come up with these fallacies about each other, where we live, what we do for a living, how much we make, what groups we belong to, what we wear, drive, and live in… to deem ourselves elite and others regular or less than. It’s indirect oppression begat from being the victims of direct oppression. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

To White people. Detroit is crime infested, don’t go past 8 Mile if you want to stay safe. You might die.

To West Side Black Folks: The East Side of Detroit is really ghetto and everything we have tried to escape. You might die.

Sound ridiculous… it is. We don’t have to try to separate ourselves into the same have and have not categories that have been forced upon us. We don’t have to pass judgement on one another and be apologists to white racism. We also don’t need to straighten up and fly right to gain White respect or adhere to American ideology of what makes someone “worthy” to gain success. We are a people of community… and America is a country based on individualism. When we abandon who we are to adhere to culturally absent rules… we lose that culture.

The truth is that originally as Detroit developed, it was modeled after other big cities with its concentrated population that started near East Grand Blvd, the former Woodward, and spread out. Post industrialization and as auto manufacturing in Detroit took off, the population increased. With its large land area, Detroit had so much land to spread out to, single family homes took over. It became a popular place for banks, as the housing boom meant a mortgage boom. The construction of highways meant even more spread could factor in.

That was then. This is now. What was once a sign of affluence has led to a lot of plight. As automation took over, those high paying lucrative jobs at Ford and Chrysler were down-sized. Folks could no longer afford those mortgages or to keep up those homes. Homes sat through harsh winters in foreclosure. Arson littered the city leaving vacant lots, many streets up and down Grand River having just a few homes per block. With population decline and the very large area of the city, there just aren’t enough people to live in and maintain those homes.

It’s one reason why areas such as East Village, West Village, the Eastern Market area, and surrounding downtown areas hit in the revitalization boom because they are easier to get around in the new walkable, bike friendly neighborhood model. Many areas of the West Side are simply too spread out. Those areas with larger homes do well for investment purposes, but overall those more dense areas are the most popular and see the most development surrounding them. Plus, it has opened the eyes if a lot of Black residents in the city who simply never traversed these areas of the East side. They heard of the gang infested Red Zone and the notorious Mack and Bewick and jumped on that as representative of the entire side of town.

The truth is, there is no real difference. That’s just ignorance.

For every chick in slippers at the party store on the East Side, I raise you a girl in her hair bonnet at Foodland on the West Side. For every hood girl with a struggle ponytail on the Eastside, I give you one really bad closure and visible lace front on the West Side. For every drawn on eyebrow, there is a separate but equal set of feather duster eyelashes. For every Uzi on Mack and Bewick, I raise you a Tec-9 in Brightmoor. For every jheri curl still in existence in the East Side, I give you a bad Luther, curl just don’t quite curl right Duke kit on the West Side. Sound ignorant as hell? Well it is.

We must know our history. Detroit has been made rich in culture because of the influence of our hustle. While all of our hustle hasn’t been good, it’s all been real. But crossing a street doesn’t make us better… and it sure as hell doesn’t make us worse.

I was raised on the East Side. I am not an anomaly. I just don’t fit your uneducated stereotype. Let me find a good multi-family home on the Eastside in good condition, I’ll take that over your one family Westside joint in a heartbeat. I got more hustle in me than you might think from looking at me.

“If I got to choose a coast I got to choose the East
I live out there, so don’t go there
But that don’t mean a nigga can’t rest in the West”-Notorious BIG

About Last Night

Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin/End like leviathan. It’s deep, well let me try again -Nasir son of Olu Dara Jones

Imagine being a 45 year old Black man from one of the most notoriously dangerous projects, Queensbridge, performing your, and arguably hip hop’s greatest, 25 year old album backed by the fourth oldest symphony orchestra in the nation. Imagine that. In a country where we have more Trayvon Martins and Khalief Browders than Nasir Joneses and Shawn Carters… it can be a hard thing to imagine, let alone dream. But dreams do come true.

Imagine a young boy with an amazingly dope skill and talent making his way out of the scratching and surviving many on his block still live in or died from to the stage in a tux, conductor Leonard Slatkin behind him … getting ALL the way busy do you hear me… cueing violins, cellos, and a bass, being almost able to touch the music in the air, and then freaking the shit outta that beat by seducing it with your poetry. You are in what was once known as the murder capital of the world, yet can look out into a sea of faces, the first ten rows full of all the Black Excellence you could handle in our best fur headbands and velvet blazers (It was like a Renaissance High School reunion and the University of Michigan Black Celebratory in one room #soarphoenixsoar and #goblue). All of us just like you, once children familiar with the sounds of booming systems, gum popping, chicken frying, gunshots, and the ice cream truck song in simultaneously sonic synchronization. We are now successful adults with assets and investments quoting every lyric of your songs, and getting lit af when the orchestra exited, the DJ cued up, and you put on a hip hop concert in the same position Sergei Rachmaninoff once performed his masterful Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Street Dreams are made of these…

Last night was magical… symphony going up on a Tuesday. It melded our generations greatest gift to the culture, hip hop, with the tradition of classical music. It makes sense that hip hops influence by African call and response and griot storytelling would interplay so well with classical, which is based in Greek music theory learned from ancient Egyptians. It’s Black mixed with Black.

At one point Nas referenced word choice and how the harshness of the words was to reflect the real harsh reality of the streets he was telling stories about… speak with a criminal slang

Yet the play between the violins and his words was like playing cats cradle, your fingers maneuvering around the strings almost rhythmically changing shapes until you pull it apart, destroy it… begin like a violin end like leviathan

It’s deepit’s (a) deep well… his lyrical ability is mathematic it’s so precise, and you gotta dig deep to get to the source, the meaning. Dude’s wordplay is legendary. He definitely studied at the school of Kool G Rap.

Didn’t get it? Well let me try again

“Wisdom be leaking out my grapefruit, troop”

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Because he once was a student of not only hip hop, but the ancestors, the culture, history, he is now a master teacher with so much knowledge it’s leaking outta his head like juice… and the juice we need isn’t guns and drugs and sex, it’s knowledge, which is power.

“I dominate break loops, giving mics menstrual cycles”

And so he’s about to give you all this good juice in the form of these lyrics that will pour over this break beat… and when dude is done, the mic will bleed cuz he breathed fire on it, sliced and diced it, split its wig. It’s over. End it. Period.

Nas is like…

He left us with an experience. The only thing he didn’t do is perform “Hate Me Now” with the orchestra… but that might have made the roof cave in. Perhaps he saved us like Khalessi. It is winter… dragons and such. It’s lit🔥 … but let’s not go too far with the fire. Nonetheless, at 45 he finessed that mic better than he ever has, and with a confidence and long stride that had the ladies like…

and their dudes just understood. The sexy was palpable. It rode on top of the music notes like…surfboard. And as a connoisseur of hip hop , it’s rise to perhaps the most popular form of music worldwide, and fine men… I was inspired. Inspired to write more and to dream more #fortheculture and for myself. And equally inspired to King our brothas when they show and prove, hold their own, and get a classical music conductor to swag surf with his baton. Cuz dreams do come true… live at the BBQ!

Detroit… Stand Up (written 2013)

“You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust/I’ll rise.”

I have read the articles most of my life…

Detroit is the murder capital of the world, the most dangerous city in America, the Beirut of West.

I have thought it, hell…said it, a few times myself.

Yet, I remember it differently in my young mind.

I remember playing on my block on Burns on the Eastside, between Gratiot and Warren as a kid…all the homes on the block occupied by Black successful families. Seeing the d-boys drive down the streets in Fleetwoods with woofers taking over the whole trunk and making their cars vibrate to Run DMC.

Walking home from St. Cecilia Elementary School down Livernois, a group of us, fourth grade to sixth grade, making our way home, stopping at the penny candy store where the man behind the counter topped with plastic jars lined in plastic bags full of Sour Patch Kids and Jolly Rancher sticks knew our names.

Throwing my skates over my shoulder to go to Northland Roller Rink, and roll bounce to JJ Fad, and try to skate backwards to Computer Love.

Arriving at the Boblo dock downtown, at the end of every school year to get on the boat and hustle to Stevie Wonder, and see whose version of the Schoolcraft was the sweetest.

Going to the State Fair in High School to play games, eat the yearly elephant ear that left powdered sugar on my new outfit, and talk to the boys that walked past and broke their necks trying to catch a glance.

Taking class pictures with my girls in matching outfits.

Going to get dance team outfits at Mammoth on Grand River.

Going on my first real date at the Bel-Air movie theatre.

Driving around Belle Isle thirty times blasting the same mixed tape over and over and over…

The closest I came was being at a party that got shot up, yet standing on John R and 6 mile at midnight trying to call my mother from a dirty pay phone…yes a pay phone…my biggest fear was what she was going to say.

I never saw the drugs and the guns. I knew they existed and I was aware, but I wasn’t apart of that culture. So for me, Detroit, was always home. It was where I learned about myself. It was where I was educated, where I learned to want more, in part because of my surroundings. It represented the best of life and the worst of life. It was festivals and parties, murdered friends and dying blocks. But it was home.

“Out of the huts of history’s shame/I rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise/I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide/Welling and swelling/I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/I rise”

Today, I see it with adult eyes. I pay taxes, a mortgage, a water bill. I got thieves breaking in and stealing my packages. I got young boys throwing Dorito bags on my lawn… “Excuse me young sir, but the trash bin is not my grass!”… and I correct them swiftly.

I see my property value decreasing, and my car insurance increasing. I wake up to a broken car window, a runaway Rottweiler in my yard, and go to sleep to gunshots and sirens.

I also sit on my porch in my well-manicured neighborhood and watch my son ride his bike, the kids play basketball.

I see weeds as tall as men in the parks and the streets look like images I have seen of the moon. Businesses are closing, some are opening, city services are all but non-existent except in those tax bases. Yet every once in a while, I see the sun really come out. I see the community gardens, the residents cleaning up debris and garbage. I see the for sale signs coming down, and moving company trucks pulling up. I see change coming. I see those of us, who love this city, doing our part to take it back…to keep each other safe.

This city is much like my high school’s mascot. At Renaissance, our mascot was the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a mythological bird that continuously rises from the ashes of its ancestors. The kids that went to school with me (#demninefoes stand up) are some of the most successful and brightest imports from this city… in the country! We have become the leaders and best all over the nation. We are the generation that will help resurrect Detroit from the ashes of financial despair, political instability, and social chaos! We will rise into the steps of our ancestors who fought to resurrect this city after the riots, and who kept it afloat after white flight!

The Spirit of Detroit

You can call a thing any name you like, but it’s spirit is what gives it its meaning. If you were raised on these city streets, you are one of a kind! Here, you can see beauty and fear in the same block, the same square foot. A sea of suits and ties becomes a pond of panhandlers. A $50 thousand dollar car sits in front of a home with a foreclosure notice. An outsider would see confusion. A Detroiter sees opportunity.

We have a spirit of resurrection. Neither proud or ashamed of our faults, we recognize there is no perfection, but in hard work there is the promise of progress and success. We didn’t come this far only to come this far! So the next bankruptcy, corruption, murder capital article you read…remind yourself that this city is not just a dying infrastructure but a living testimony!

And still, like dust…we will rise!

Excerpts from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

Some of My Better Times

“Cruisin down the river/Dancin til your feet got numb/Cool summer breezes blowing through your hair/As you stood gazing down the river…”

I remember the first time I walked up those stairs to the dance floor, “Roxanne Roxanne” by UTFO was blasting and I had a pocket full of change jingling to play video games. I couldn’t wait to dance and was so excited to be able to explore without parental supervision. I was nine years old. It was the Boblo Boat.

Fast forward, same steps, one of those long rope licorice hanging from my teeth, a few years before the last boat would dock, and my last time on the boat. My ponytail was flapping against my back and the strap from my short overalls was hitting my thighs as the little brown boy I thought was cute was pulling my hand to go dance.  The boat seemed to sway in syncopation to whatever song was playing. Nobody sweat their hairstyle out because the breeze from the water made it almost chilly on that second floor deck… little chill bumps raised on our arms as we prepped and schoolcrafted our way to happiness. A whole 45 minutes away from our destination, the fun began on the Boblo Boat.

Boblo was cool, it was rides and running around, hot dogs and games. But the boat ride started and ended what was the best part of the summer getaway. Our parents sat on the deck, talking shit, smoking cigarettes, drinking whatever they brought in their bags next to our frozen juice boxes, and holding our jackets and backpacks, while we ran around the boat… culminating in groups on the dance floor, with our girls in the bathroom slicking our hair back up into the ponytail the breeze had messed up, and coming of age. I grew up in the Boblo Boat. I slow danced to Computer Love on the Boblo Boat. I won a dance contest on the Boblo Boat. I stood and watched the steam stacks when we could get up to the third deck. I watched us move father from Detroit into familiar but unknown parts of the river, imagining how it would one day feel to see other parts of the world. Yet I felt a sense of serenity as I could see the big blue sign near the docks, back home, my home, my city.

I was getting dressed today, almost 30 years later to the day I last watched the water splash against the sides of the boat from the steel gated balcony grills, and the news story caught my ear.   The scene on the tv sat me down on the bed. The Ste. Clair, aka The Boblo Boat was up in flames. All I could think of was that wooden staircase… what seemed like a red carpet into my summertime dreams… and that mean Errol Flynn I would laugh watching my mom do on the deck before took off to join my friends… It was the summer of 1989. Some stuff just never fades away. I remember the year because I heard “Cha, Cha, Cha” the first time on the ride going and back, and I walked around repeating…  “Watch me do my thing with an ‘89 swing”

…On the Boblo Boat!

big up to Royce da 5’9