06 April, 2012

Birmingham, Michigan

Downtown Birmingham is a treasure: shopping that caters to everyone tastes—everything from locally made crafts, antiques, Mom & Pop restaurants, to pricey boutiques and handmade toys; downtown Birmingham has a thriving Public Library over-looking a beautiful local park that hosts a festival of twinkly lights in the winter, massive carnival in the spring (complete with giant Ferris Wheel with views of the whole town), and live concerts in the summer complete with bake sales, dancing, picnics and full-out patriotism and general community magic). And, because it is so easy to walk to the main strip almost anywhere in town, there is nothing like watching the tweenagers congregate on the streets outside the movie theatres trying to pretend they aren't waiting for their parents to pick them up around the corner... (that was obviously once me…wasn’t it also you? Didn’t I see you there…?)
There are so many beautiful nooks and crannies in this seemingly sleepy, Wonder-Years-y suburban town complete with wide American streets peppered with Labradors, slip-n-slides and children on bicycles. There is a buzzy downtown with two cinemas, boutique-y shopping, and utterly glorious places to eat for every budget.


But part of the peculiarity of metro-Detroit is that no single neighborhood is like another and they are all too nebulously nuzzled and inter-mingled up against one another to know where one begins and another ends. It is, of course, a driving city too, so as a kid you are stuck riding your bike to downtown Birmingham (scores of 12-year-olds wander the streets outside the cinemas at weekends) and as a teenager you are suddenly in a car and 40 miles away within 15 minutes on the giant American highways with nothing particularly important to do. Something about that dilemma feels charmingly typical to American suburbs— having been the plight of youth from the 60s until now.

Birmingham is 4.8 square miles, 12.4 square kilometers, 2 High Schools, 17 churches. 3 post offices. 1 train station. 3 golf courses. 2 cinemas. 4 seasons. 1 river. 1 annual Spring carnival. And 20,000 really nice Midwestern people and probably 1000 assholes. Give or take.


detroit from the air
The sun sets over the downtown and from the hill you see the kids riding off homeward bound, the teens driving down Woodward Avenue with a new taste for freedom.
Sleepy shops.
Families at home.
Swim meets.
Football games.
School plays.
Snow.
Birth.
Daily Life.
Love.
Death.
Repeat.
No, this isn’t a Thorton Wilder play.
This is Birmingham, Michigan, and it is more than merely a town in which I grew up.

*

Sure, Birmingham has its drawbacks.

Like any small, Midwestern town it can be small-minded, frustratingly provincial, gossipy, and even snobby, full to bursting with self-importance and incestuous jerkwater politics, but that comes with the small-town territory.

Some of the youngsters are so pampered and privileged that they lack drive altogether.
Example:

    Michigan Stoner Kid 1: Hey, wanna get stoned, then get a Slurpee and drive to the 24-hour Meijer?
    Michigan Stoner Kid 2: Do I!

These poor privileged losers spend their youths (and often, a great deal of their adult lives) stuck in an ambition-less, grey rut suffering from what I like to call A-ffluenza.

heaven.
Some more driven, visionary, or even just plain scrappy kids stare at the horizons beyond the country club golf courses, the endless miles of highway, or from the rooftops of downtown parking garages, and achingly itch to leave.
Some do.
Some do not.
But no matter where any of those youngsters end up, you would be hard pressed to find any one of them who wouldn’t agree that Birmingham was a great place to have been from.


For truly, no one could prepare you for an entire childhood spent walking along the banks of Quarton Lake; making tree forts in the spring, picking berries for pie in the summer, and, of course, ice skating in the winter.

Or trip after trip to Mills Pharmacy on Maple Road across from the both First Presbyterian and First Methodist, and next door to the First Lutheran Church, where we used to buy as much candy as possible for a single dollar (Individually wrapped Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids were only 5¢. Candy bars 50¢. Laffy Taffy. Pixie Sticks... Magic.) from the charming bearded man behind the old-fashioned candy counter so like the one in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you practically expect the charming bearded-man behind it to burst into song at any moment.

Or little local quirks like a street named (I need everyone to just breathe): Big Beaver Road. Believe it. And the I-75 Highway Exit onto Big Beaver Road? That would be Exit 69.
(I’ll give you a moment)
Believe that too—you can’t make stuff like it up.

Or the majesty of The Woodward Dream Cruise, a classic car event held annually on the third Saturday of August that spans all the way from Pontiac to the State Fair Grounds inside the Detroit City limits, just south of 8 Mile Road. During the post-war era, people would "cruise" in their cars along Woodward, from drive-in to drive-in, often looking for friends who were also out for a drive, perhaps seeking an opportunity for a chance to "burn rubber" in a quick getaway from a newly green traffic light. (Today, the Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the globe. You can see muscle cars, street rods, custom, collector and special interest vehicles dating across several decades. The majority of the cars on display are those that were prevalent during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.)

Or, the joy of a visit to Dairy Deluxe, the classic Birmingham summer hangout that goes by many unofficial titles (among them, the "Twirly Dip," "Double D," to name but a few). Dairy Deluxe in reality is really nothing more than a hut with a giant, neon-lined ice cream cone sign atop it. But truthfully, it is much, much more. The same people have been running Dairy Deluxe for nearly twenty years and they still write down your order by hand on bits of paper, count your change out with their minds and make your order themselves, handing it to you through a teeny tiny window box on the corner of Woodward and 14 Mile Road. (A Snickers flurry is a summer classic. Or make it extra Detroit-y by getting a sundae with Sander’s Hot Fudge— un-be-lievable.  Also, you absolutely know you are in Michigan because Dairy Deluxe is closed from November through March.)

Or, fueled by the twinkling of taillights, and the ever-changing weather, the indescribable sense of purity that filled you as you drove down Woodward at midnight with a friend like Justin Bodary, where many a meaningful, formative conversation was accompanied by a plethora of his favorite classic film soundtracks.


Beyond Birmingham's borders lies the Detroit suburbs of Royal Oak, Dearborn, Berkley, Warren, and Bloomfield Hills among many others... all of which have their very own personalities and some very impressive features— such as Berkley's old fashioned drive-in A&W burger joint where they bring the food to your car on roller-skates. Or (one of the most elaborate and elegant shopping malls in the world) The Somerset Collection in Troy? Or Royal Oak's Yippie-ville (“Yippies” are a term I coined that describes the Royal Oakers perfectly— I perfect blend of Yuppie chic mixed with Hippie values. You know? Yippies) delights which include the very best rubber stamp store, raging goth scene, community theatre, and (crucially) milkshake in town. Plus Greektown, a plethora of 7-11s, classic cars galore, lake culture, millinery shops and above all, quality people.

And it is of course the people of Metro-Detroit that I miss the most. My neighbors on good ol' Fairway Drive— we all used to get together for actual summer picnics and barbeques, we drank sangria in our backyards those summer nights, then walk along the River Rouge that flowed behind our houses.
We gathered together at Thanksgiving.
The childless German couple down the street threw an Oktoberfest gathering that included beer and an actual appearance of lederhosen.
Tom and Sal moved into the corner house by the river bridge with their beloved dog Riley after the elderly woman passed away in 1997. They were the first gay couple on the street and the Silbers rejoiced.
Bill across the street with his beautiful baritone voice and a love of classic radio, with his wife Pat and their flurry of offspring on the kitty-corner.
The sometimes surly Dick with his gentle wife Anne from directly across the street; Anne was our beautiful Southern Belle who watched the phones while we all trudged off to the funeral home declaring in her Virginia drawl as we left “why it would be my absolute pleasure y’all, your father once kissed me on the cheek in thanks and I blushed because he was so handsome.”
The aloof couple [left] next door with their pack of adopted greyhounds.
The almost frighteningly bright Augestein quartet [right] next door with whom we shared so many wonderful dinners.
And The Kuhnes; who lived around the sharp curve of the street and had two gorgeous daughters we all watched grow. They moved away in the late-90s, but we never lost touch because we would continue to check in, laugh, and meet for dinner in our very own Downtown Birmingham...

All of this begs the question: What exactly is a "home?" What makes our hearts cry out for both the crushing and the familiar, what makes us yearn when far away, fills our minds with exponential memories and fuels us when faced with every adversity life presents us?

I don't know the answers.
But I do know this: Though I was among the youths with eyes scratching at the sky, chest positively pounding with a charging sense of purpose that lay beyond the borders of our town; somehow, however reluctantly, and in some cloak-and-dagger, stealthy manner, Birmingham, Michigan became my home.

 Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.
                                                              - Charles Dickens

11 comments:

KG said...

Great post, Al!

Nina said...

Wow...really enjoyed that.

Ann K said...

And it misses you !!! Come visit soon, beds are waiting...

Anonymous said...

So come visit, we miss you!

Erin Sager said...

Wonderful post about Birmimgham. Simply lovely. You capture it all - the good and not-so-good.

S said...

I guess when I come out to NYC we will have to get together and share stories about the beloved mitten :)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. You actually made me nostalgic for a place I typically avoid :) xoxo

Alan Stamm said...

Nice stroll through your Wonder-y Years, Alexandra.

You may enjoy traipsing down memory lane at this nostalgia fest with more than 1,000 members -- perhaps including past pals and Somerset shipping-mates.

Anonymous said...

Dairy Deluxe sometimes opens mid February :)

G2 said...

Lovely, Alexandra. Please give the B'ham group another chance. You've effectively summed up my feelings about growing up B'ham. G2

Tom said...

Just Beautiful Al! Please schedule some time so we can have a BBQ when you come to town...we miss you very much! T&S

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