Saturday, November 17, 2012

Regional Surfing

According to my very scientific count on the Wikipedia pages, there are 158 municipalities (cities, townships, and incorporated villages) in the four-county area that I think of as metro Detroit (of course, there is much debate as to what actually constitutes metro Detroit, notably among some of my neighbors in Washt Co who want nothing to do with the rusty lands to the east. But these are the counties whose leaders, plus the mayor of Detroit, make up the Fab Five at the Mackinac Conference).

Wayne 43
Washtenaw 28
Oakland 60
Macomb 27

Can you guess which municipality?

Now I'm going to count how many of them I have been to, roughly and from memory, even if I only drove through them:

Wayne 24 (this is the county I grew up in)
Washtenaw 14 (this is the county I now live in)
Oakland 31 (this is where I went to high school)
Macomb 12 (this is where most of my extended family lives)
Total 81

Thus, even with my fairly extensive connections to each county, I have only even driven through about half of the municipalities in each one. Or if my wheels did touch their turf, I wasn't aware of it. What are these places? What is in them? Where do the people who live in them go to get coffee, buy hardware, see movies?

Now, in some cases the answer to that last one might be...nowhere. In the slew of bedroom communities that have sprung up, many places depend on the closest larger suburb for their employment, consumption, and socializing needs. Growing up in Redford Township, I know that almost all our shopping took place in, and nearly all my friends were from, either Livonia or Farmington Hills. The people of Huntington Woods, bless their souls, don't have a restaurant to speak of within their borders (they do have half a zoo, though, and possibly more animal residents than humans).

Clearly, there is fun to be had in Redford.

But that doesn't mean they don't have a life, or some sort of unique municipal character. Redford Township, for example, is the home of Silvio, a man who creates gigantic cement-and-found-object sculptures in his backyard and is rather famous in the folk art crowd. And the location is not totally incidental. Though he could have wound up anywhere after sailing in from Italy, the fact that his Sineighbors and local officials have not squelched his creative fervor is a testament to either their tolerance or inefficacy (maybe a little of each).

Could I tell you if anything similarly quirky lives in the neighborhoods of Lenox Township? Not at all. Could I explain the charm of a much more rural place like Freedom Township? Not terribly well. And can I promise to not feel discomfort when I drive among the enormous waterside houses of some more exurban subdivisions?

Well, sadly, no.

We talk about global understanding, and honestly, in my generation we're getting pretty good at it. I can count on one hand my friends who have never been abroad. But I'd need like seven hands to count the friends who have never been downriver, or to the far west of Washtenaw County, or up to the Pontiac area. We need a little more regional understanding, and my suggested strategy is the same: exposure.

Must we go to Spain to surf?

I've been a member of Couchsurfing for a couple years now, and have enjoyed the opportunities to meet lovely people in unexpected places. The couch community in Madrid kept my head above water when I was a floundering expat. But we could use this model to think more about the parts of our own communities that are foreign. We are often least willing to confront our cultural differences with the people who live across town, and it's equally possible to feel isolated and lost in your native corner of the world.

 So why don't we do inter-county couchsurfing? Hang out with someone who lives in Keego Harbor for the day, and figure out what that place and its people are all about. Meanwhile, feel more competent navigating the place that is your home. Maybe I'll start a new goal--to visit every municipality in the region!

You know what the hardest part will be? Not having a car. But that, friends, is a topic for another post.

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