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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Eight weeks, 7,368 miles, 153.5 hours of driving

Damn big country we have here.

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On Detroit, and changed white attitudes

Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.

Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.

Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?

After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.

Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.

Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit. Read More 
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Yesterday: Niagara Falls; Tonight: Reading in Gaylord, Michigan

Erie Canal bridges, Rochester, New York. Photo: Scott Martelle
Well, we've begun the slow trek back West, and after overnighting in Port Huron we're off to northern Michigan today for a 6:30 p.m. reading at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (see the Events page). I've never visited the shop before (I recall only being in Gaylord once, more than 25 years ago, while working for The Detroit News) but where I'm very much looking forward to talking about Detroit: A Biography, because of the high recommendation my old friend Bryan Gruley gives the store.

We made a brief detour as we drove west from Rochester, New York, through southern Ontario, and stopped in at Niagara Falls, which I haven't visited in more than a decade. It never fails to impress with the sheer volume of water that tumbles over the edge of the Niagara escarpment, and the beautiful attention to the grounds, particularly on the Canadian side, where we stopped.

But history is never far from mind, and as we watched the water tumble and roar, I couldn't help wondering what it looked like in the early 1800s when it was the impassable barrier between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, and the ocean beyond via the St. Lawrence River. The opening of the Erie Canal, a mind-boggling project in itself, in 1825, took Niagara Falls out of play as a navigation barrier, and, as I wrote in Detroit: A Biography, that was a crucial turning point in the development of Detroit as a trading hub, and as an economic lifeline for the upper midwest.

The canal eventually was superseded by the railroads, of course, but I like how this summer trip of ours has both inadvertently and purposefully touched on some of the elements of the book. The photo inserted in this blog post was taken from the deck of the Mary Jemison during a two-hour trip we took on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal while in Rochester, another place that found riches with the opening of Clinton's Ditch, as it was called. Today we head into the heart of what was Michigan's first major industry, logging.

And on Wednesday, we head to Detroit for a couple of days. That stop will be purely social, with no readings planned. And then, like the western expansion itself, we point the nose of the Fusion toward the Pacific and head home.Video by Margaret Mercier-Martelle. Read More 
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A night at the ballpark, and the freedom to insult

Frontier Field, Summer 2010/Credit: Scott Martelle
Last night was beautiful in Rochester, New York, a perfect night for baseball. So off I went to Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings, and one of the prettiest AAA ballparks in the country (I try to go every time I'm back in town). It was my second night in a row at the ballpark, after joining eight members of my wife's extended family on Tuesday. Last night I went alone and splurged the couple of extra bucks for a $12 seat a dozen rows back from the field on the third-base side.

Turns out it was the "insult" section. I was surrounded by regular attendees, many of whom knew each other by first name, and many of whom also embraced baseball's questionable tradition of heckling the players.

But a few of them also were heckling other fans. A young man with long black hair and sunglasses walked past to a seat in the second row; a woman in her late 50s called out, "Get a haircut!" Another woman around the same age, in the row behind her, added, "The sun set an hour ago!" An older man in the next row closest to the field spewed an endless stream of criticism, all audible to those around him, about the play, the players, the audience, the music -- he was like one of the two crotchety old men from "The Muppet Show," but without the humor.

Sitting there on a balmy evening, sipping a cup of beer, and watching the two squads of young players struggling to achieve a dream, I got to thinking about the divide between the players on the field, the fans around me in the stands, and the stream of negativity. Players sucked, coaches couldn't coach, pitchers couldn't pitch, the music was crap, this guy will never make in the majors and that guy, he used to be up but they sent him back. Nope, couldn't cut it. Did you see Kent Hrbeck, here tonight to sign autographs? Man is he fat, really let himself go, didn't he? Get a look at that girl; my mother never would have let me out of the house dressed like that! Ugh! The tattoos on that guy! Do you see them? He's going to regret that later, I tell you.

America's favorite past-time: The tearing down of others. Next time you wonder what motivates kids to bully others, think about the role models we give them, and the kind of behavior that passes for acceptable in the adult world. Read More 
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The summer of John Paul Jones, and high-impact gardening

Photo - and truck - by Craig Martelle
Posting has been light around here for a variety of reasons, most deriving from being on the road. I'm in Western New York now, bouncing between my parents' house in Wellsville and my in-laws in Rochester. Lotta labor on the Wellsville end as my brothers and I have been digging out old rotted lilacs, scrub brush, railroad ties and the occasional yellow-jacket nest (I won't show you the welts from the stings).

The picture at left is a mass of lilacs (one of many) that we dug out with a backhoe and are taking to a gully on land one of my brothers owns that needs fill. The lilacs haven't been thinned in decades, and the trunks and roots were too rotted to save. We're thinking of replanting with new, healthy lilacs, but may just leave the open space.

And, every morning, I'm working on the manuscript for Jones's Bones, at a pace of at least 1,000 words a day. It may please you to know that I've just polished off the Battle of Manila Bay. As for why, you'll have to wait for the book to find out (I'm such a tease, I know).

We begin the drive back to California in a little more than a week, with a stop at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan, on August 14 for a talk and signing. I'm really looking forward to that - I imagine there will be a lot of interested folks turning out, most with personal Detroit stories to tell. It should be a very engaged conversation. I hope to see some of you there.... Read More 
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