Chuck Williams: Detroit wouldn't have been my choice for daugther's first real-world job

August 12, 2013 

When you drive into Detroit, everything changes.

The roads -- from the city streets to the interstates -- are so bumpy they will knock the front end of any vehicle out of alignment.

Many of the churches, homes, businesses, schools and factories are abandoned. They stand in various stages of decay as monuments to failure -- the failure of the American automobile industry as it once existed, the failure of the political system and, to a certain extent, the failure of people to adjust to a changing economy.

My wife and I recently spent four days in Detroit moving our daughter, Carmen, into the city. She is committed to spend the next two years teaching second graders at an elementary school a short drive west of downtown. Working with Teach for America, she has chosen to live inside the city limits instead of one of the many suburbs that offer a safe haven from the blight and despair that is Detroit.

God help her.

Detroit is worse than what you have seen in documentaries and read in newspapers and magazine accounts of the city and its issues.

It is bankrupt in so many ways.

Here's a real-world example: My daughter moved into an refurbished apartment complex on one of the major thoroughfares connecting downtown with the suburbs. The renovation is spectacular. The four-building, 1920s era complex near the Detroit River is coming back to life with intricate architectural details of another time. Dozens of Teach for America teachers are living in the compound.

It's a safe haven for creative young people looking to change the world. And if you want to see what needs changing, look just past the gates of her complex. It's next door to the United Auto Workers headquarters and across the street from a neighborhood that looks like a war zone -- abandoned and burned-out buildings litter the landscape.

One of the things that you notice on her street -- one that is not unlike Veterans Parkway in Columbus -- is cars run red lights. And they don't run them in the way people in Columbus race through a yellow light that turns red. People blow through red lights because they are not going to stop -- period.

And the Detroit police have a lot more problems than people running red lights.

The city has gone from nearly 2 million people to 700,000. My guess is many of the ones left had few options other than to stay and gut it out.

Parts of the city feel that desperate.

The suburbs are another story -- they have the feeling of safety, commercial viability and neighborhoods you would see in many other American cities.

The main exception I found to the intercity blight was the area around Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Lions call home. It's a great stadium area that would work anywhere from Atlanta to Phoenix.

But don't venture too far out of the sports and entertainment zone. It changes fast and hard.

There seems to be a plan to build new housing close to the center city and move people into those areas and out of the neighborhoods that stretch for miles.

But it will be a slow go.

Through Carmen's eyes, we got to see a little of the education system. You think the neighborhood she lives in has its challenges, visit the one where many of the kids she will be teaching live.

The first day of class, six of her 17 second graders showed up. Before the week was over, she and some of her colleagues were in the surrounding neighborhood making house calls trying to convince parents to send their kids to school.

The whole scope of that is beyond my comprehension.

And most of those students who are in the seats are woefully behind. She has second graders who are a long way from being able to write a simple sentence.

Detroit is broken beyond measure.

The father in me wanted to put my 22-year-old daughter in the truck and bring her home to Georgia. But that isn't happening.

That said, it is hard to express a father's sense of pride I have in her and what she is doing.

She knows how bad it is. She has seen it, and since December when she found out she was going to Detroit, everyone has told her how bad it is to the point she is tired of hearing it.

As we were helping her set up her classroom, I noticed there was a large rug that had a map of the United States on it. One of the last things I did before we left the school was take a roll of duct tape and put a big "X" on the Georgia-Alabama line at Columbus.

It was my less-than-subtle way of saying "don't forget where you are from and get the hell out of there as quick as you can."

A friend of a friend took the time to give us the lay of the land. He pulled out an iPad and showed Carmen the areas she should avoid and where she should do her shopping and buy her gas.

It was not the chamber of commerce speech I would give a young adult moving to Columbus for the first job out of college.

He talked of the virtues of certain areas, but his lecture came with stern warnings.

I pray she was listening.

But one thing he said, struck a chord. After spending four years in downtown Atlanta, Carmen has a confidence as she moves about a city.

"This isn't Atlanta," he said. "I don't know how it is in Atlanta, but in Detroit you don't get a second chance."

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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