(photo taken from the passenger seat of a Budget Rental truck, in transit from Brooklyn to Detroit)
Happy Dr. Martin Luther King Day!
Today, I want to answer a question I get asked frequently, and tie in a little history as well. The question in question: how do you get around if you don’t drive? The answer is simple—ride-sharing apps and kindness. I’ve never had a license. I’ve had a driver’s permit twice in my life, and have driven a car approximately 4 times in my 29 years on the planet, once on the (mostly rumble strip) of the Massachusetts turnpike, even. I can’t say that I’ve never lived in a place where it was necessary, but I’ve gotten by just fine so far. And then I moved to Detroit. When I tell people that I don’t drive, often they assume I mean that I just don’t have a car. That is only half the problem. When I tell them I don’t have a license, the reaction often makes me feel as though I missed an important step in becoming a fully fledged adult. I’ve paid taxes since I was 14, I have bought my own groceries and cooked for myself since I was 17, so I’d like to think I get a little leeway on the adulthood scale. After all, after graduating from college I lived in places where a bike and a transit pass were all I would need to get by. Detroit proper is roughly 139 square miles and its public transit system runs through my neighborhood with a kind of minimalism that Kanye would admire. Primarily, when I need to travel it’s because I need to get to work. If I miss a bus, or one is late and I miss connecting buses, it would mean much larger repercussions.
(There are five different vegetables on my dinner plate. I'm a real grown up, I swear!)
Unlike a number of people, I’m not inherently averse to public transit, even after years of riding trains and buses in Boston and New York. I’ve been nearly pick-pocketed, nearly puked on and literally sat upon on public transit, and it has never deterred me. And yet, I’ve managed to get through 2.5 months in Detroit without using the buses. I know I will soon, but this is where ride-sharing apps come in. Yes, it’s more expensive and no, I don’t always use them, but they’re cheaper than cabs, and I don’t have to play the guessing game of when the car will actually show up. Full disclosure: I use both Uber and Lyft, and while I’m more politically and ethically inclined to chose one over the other, one has a greater abundance of drivers on the road at 7:30 on a Thursday morning.
Since being in Detroit, I’ve had a fair share of interesting conversations with drivers. One, who lives in my neighborhood gave me his personal number within five minutes of my knowing him, genuinely telling me to call him if I needed anything, because to him, my being a teacher meant that I was doing good things. Another, making the long-ish drive from my house north of Hamtramck to Western International High School in Southwest Detroit, asked me as we neared the school if we were even in Detroit anymore. Yet another had a spate of confusing and fearful things to say about the city—that you can’t trust anyone, because they would be nice at first but they’d be trying to get something out of you, “except for Bengali people, who you could always trust.” That same driver also said that if you were to be murdered in Detroit, you would never see it coming, because “that’s just how it is here.” Sometimes being alone with one person is more maddening than being squished on to a bus at peak hours. That ride prompted intensive research (on Wikipedia) where I discovered that, in 1930, Detroit’s electric streetcar system had 547 miles of track, making it only the second piece of history from the Depression Era that I would like to see come back—the first being the Works Progress Administration.
There is, of course, the M-1 line which will stretch 3.3 miles up Woodward Ave. I’m sure that will be occasionally useful to me a few years from now, but in the meantime, I and thousands of carless city residents still have to get around. I won’t throw my hat into the ring of opinions about what the city ought to do for reliable public transportation here, but I will say that I often feel that the question of how I get around should not be nearly so frequent in a city this large. Instead, I will briefly delve into something relevant about Woodward Ave on this particular day.
On June 23rd, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Walk to Freedom in Detroit--a 90 minute march down Woodward and through the city center. That particular day was chosen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Detroit Riots. The 1943 riots were an eruption of racial tensions in the city starting on Belle Isle and carrying over to the mainland. In the end, 34 Detroiters were dead—25 black and 9 white. The Walk to Freedom saw 125,000 people march, culminating at Cobo Hall where Dr. King gave his first iteration of the “I Have a Dream” speech. I find it remarkable that King’s most oft remembered speech was given in Detroit two months prior to the March on Washington. It makes perfect sense—the 1943 riots would never have occurred in a society that judged people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. The same was as true during the 1967 Rebellion as it is today. I also find a kind of delightful irony in thinking about so many residents of the Motor City congregating to walk together down several of the city’s major arteries. By 1963, Detroit’s streetcar system had already been out of operation for seven years, which is what allowed this kind of demonstration to start on Woodward without impeding mass transit.
The legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs helped organize the March to Freedom. She said in a 2010 interview with Democracy Now that she “didn’t have much use” for King at the time, as she was more inclined towards Malcolm X. She then went on to explain that it wasn’t until King went to Chicago in 1968 to work on the Poor People’s Campaign that he endeared himself to her politically. The Poor People’s Campaign is a crucial element of King’s legacy, and not often regarded as highly as, let’s say Selma. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a multi-racial coalition to set about the work of fighting for greater access to employment, better wages, and equity in housing for the poor. Given today's high number of tax evictions and an unemployment rate of 14.9% as of September 2014, Detroit would thoroughly benefit from such a campaign. To put it in perspective, the country’s overall unemployment rate was 5.8% at the same time. This was merely months ago. Again, I’m not going to wax politic about what I think should be done to change this, although I am available for consulting. What I will say is that given the number of unemployed, underemployed and otherwise impoverished people in the city, more jobs, better wages, and a more frequent and reliable transit system are needed. Expecting the majority of Detroiters to own and afford to maintain a car is not pragmatic even if it weren't for the economic condition of the city, and I’m wary that the moderate expansion of the bus system will fix the issue.
As for me personally, I’m going to start taking the bus when I can. I’ve also laid out my budget specifically so that I can take driver’s ed. when the roads are less slushy/icy/dangerous and also hope to purchase a car by the summer. Until then, I hate to ask, but would you mind giving me a ride?
Casey Rocheteau, Inaugural Write A House recipient