Every city has ghosts, but some have more than others. Detroit is one of those places. When you have a city with such an incredible and tragic past still reeling from issues and challenges that impact a vulnerable population, spirits will linger. The truth is that in order to really appreciate and understand Detroit, you need to go looking for them. They’re not hard to find here – every building, park, street and community has a story to tell that goes beyond the surface. If you care enough to listen, the ghosts reveal themselves. Sometimes, they find you instead of the other way around.
This is what happened to me on a recent Saturday morning. I was taking an aimless drive around the city, when I passed by a cemetery. The cemetery is a place that I can’t resist visiting. Whenever I go to a new city, it’s one of those places on my list of things to see. I’ve visited cemeteries in cities across the U.S., in Scotland, Germany, Armenia and Mongolia. They offer the best insight in getting to know where you are. They help piece together the story of a place that can’t be told just by its current facade.
I had no choice but to turn the car around and enter through the gates of Evergreen Cemetery. Located on Woodward Avenue, it was built in 1905 to accommodate the city’s growing immigrant population. One source even says that salesmen went door to door selling plots. The headstones are ancient and much of Evergreen feels largely forgotten about. The more I drove through its winding paths, however, the more I kept seeing familiar names – Armenian names – on the headstones I passed. It’s the distinctive “ian” at the end of Armenian last names that make them so easy to spot. It’s the reason why when Armenian-Americans go to the movies, they stay until the very end, attempting to find that “ian” in the credits. There’s always at least one.
I finally stopped the car and jumped out, going through the rows of headstones by foot. Many were barely even visible, covered by grass and dried out weeds so heavy that even the minutes I spent trying to clear them away didn’t suffice. The graves dated as far as back as the late 1800s. They proudly displayed the lost cities in Turkey these Armenian immigrants came from, survivors of a genocide that dispersed them to every corner of the world, even Detroit.
This was the making of a diaspora, the rapid creation of the Armenian-American, who left behind tragedy to start again in a strange, unfamiliar country. With the Armenian population of Detroit now living beyond its borders, the graves were virtually the only remnants that the community had not just existed, but thrived within this pioneering city. Having lived in America for over a century, many have assimilated. For some, the language has disappeared. The food however, is too good to ever fully go away.
Their story is different to mine. I am not even a first generation American. I was born elsewhere and didn’t become a U.S. citizen until I graduated high school. I have never inherited any heirlooms or fine china. There is no way I can trace my lineage using Ancestry.com. Visiting the city and villages my ancestors have come from is close to impossible. The one constant I know is movement, not permanence. The only anchor I know of is my immediate family.
Their story is different, but it is still connected to mine. The roots they planted in this country give me some sort of landing pad, some continuity to connect with my heritage here not just as an Armenian, but as an American.
One hundred years have gone by since the Armenian Genocide, but that same cycle is repeating again, with a different population tasked with trying to survive and be resilient as the world crumbles around them. Michigan has once again become a safe haven – the biggest in the country, for Syrian refugees escaping war and violence. This city has always been a place of refuge, but many of those stories, like the ones revealed by the Armenian headstones of Evergreen Cemetery, have been forgotten. Finding them is essential in knowing who and what this city is made of, in dispelling the myth that this place is some kind of revitalized blank slate ready for the taking. Since my time at the cemetery, I’ve attempted to dig deeper to find the pioneering African-American history at the park across my house, to find the legacy of one Detroit business that has been around for the last 143 years. Acknowledging these histories are important, even necessary to reconciling them with the city in its current manifestation, to solving issues that intersect race, gender and economics. Because unfortunately, ignoring ghosts doesn’t make them go away.