In her new monthly column, “Detroit Archives,” Aisha Sabatini Sloan explores her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit.
Inside the Whitney Mansion in Detroit
A few weeks ago, I met up with my mom and her friend Judy at a Detroit brunch spot, the garden of the Whitney Mansion. Billed as “an oasis in the heart of Detroit,” the outdoor courtyard is the site of wedding receptions and concerts. A bustling crowd of diners clapped politely as a revolving line-up of indie and jazz singers performed in a corner of the garden, their backs facing Woodward Avenue. Built in 1894 by a lumber baron who was celebrated, I guess, as “the wealthiest man in Detroit,” the ornate mansion has been restored to its original splendor. On this morning, the garden was abloom with smiling people and their garden-themed summer wear. The maître d’ had a podium. Our food arrived overlaid by fancy covers.
After we ate, we walked around to the front of the mansion. “I remember the homeless woman who lived there,” Judy said, tracing the lines of the nook that woman had made for herself on the porch. Judy and my mother had worked together at the Whitney Mansion in the late sixties. Gawking mansion-goers drifted in and out of the ornate doors.
Upstairs in the bathroom, Judy and my mom pointed out the architecture of their memories, bisecting the bathroom stalls with their pointer fingers to show where the wall of their office used to be. Downstairs, they gestured at the restored fixtures, at the parquet floors, the paintings on the wall.
“This is where I pierced your ears,” my mom squealed, pointing to the spot where Judy sat while my mother pushed a needle through her lobes to meet “a potato or an apple” on the other side. The two of them giggled as they moved from room to room. “I wonder if we can go in the solarium,” Judy kept wondering out loud. They stood in the place where a switchboard used to be. Sometimes, Judy would relieve the phone operator, pulling chords and pushing buttons to connect callers. “Don’t you remember that Lily Tomlin sketch?” She said, bringing the old technology back to life through her best Tomlin imitation. “One ringy dingy?”
We encountered a tour group gaping at a gigantic safe on the wall. The tour guide gestured vaguely at its mechanics. “I know how it works!” Judy piped up, and the guide ushered her forward to pantomime how the wall-size safe door would have been opened. The tour group seemed intrigued, and Judy and my mom warmed to their audience. They explained that they worked here for the Visiting Nurse Association. “The FBI interviewed me in that room over there,” Judy said, pointing in the direction of the plant-filled, sun-drenched solarium.
I looked at the tour group, anticipating a big reaction. Instead, the group and the guide moonwalked out of the room, toward the entryway. They were on their way, perhaps, to the “ghost bar,” away from the building’s actual ghosts and on to something glitzier, something more watered down.
“Can we go in the solarium?” Judy asked a white woman behind a desk. “No,” the woman said. Judy tried to explain to her why the room was important.
One afternoon, when Judy was at work, the FBI had come looking for her. Two white guys in trench coats, just like you’d expect. Her boss, a Unitarian activist, muttered, “Well, I wonder what took them so long.” They took her into the solarium. They wanted to know why her bright red TR3 sports car with a white top, so low to the ground you could reach out and graze your hand on the pavement, had been seen at certain spots around town. Judy had trained as a peace activist, and she knew she didn’t have to answer their questions. “Why don’t you ask my car?” she replied, both brazen and scared.
Back then, Judy’s housemate belonged to the Black Panther Party. He would borrow her car while she was at work, to deliver the party’s papers.
“This woman doesn’t care,” I said a bit too loudly, annoyed on Judy’s behalf, as we turned to walk away from the desk.
“Yes, she does,” a black waiter said, missing no beats. He’d come out of nowhere, and displayed such impressive social dexterity, gently nudging his colleague to pay attention. It was as if he’d caught a falling vase, and I forgave the mansion for a moment.
We walked slowly up toward the second floor, past an astonishing, stained-glass window. It arced across the entire wall of the landing. There would be a wedding here soon, and well-dressed people wandered past carrying flowers, looking a bit lost. We tried to step out of their way when possible. There were paintings of ghostly looking children everywhere, an attempt, it seemed, to fortify the program called the “paranormal dinner tour.” I felt like I was on the pilot episode of American Horror Story.
As my mother admired the fireplaces and the woodwork, I puzzled over the art in one particular room. There were photographs that most Detroiters would describe as “ruin porn”—a piano in an abandoned factory, decomposing houses. I would be lying if I said that I don’t find beauty in these kinds of images, but for such a public space to display them as a representation of their own city surprised me. I wondered who the mansion hoped to attract as its clientele. Judging from the website, it’s the tourists whose travel to the city is contingent upon locating “an oasis” beforehand. A place inside of which the city’s hard times might still feel sexy, far enough off, best contemplated over an old-fashioned, alongside paintings of titillatingly creepy children.
In a class that I’m teaching right now, we are talking about braided essays—what you might call lyric, woven with multiple threads of narrative. A few weeks ago, one student asked us to think about the form in terms of haunting. As in, one strand of narrative is haunted by another.
In the late sixties, the Whitney Mansion served as home base for the Visiting Nurse Association. The VNA conducted an infant health study in an initiative to intervene on an absurdly high mortality rate in certain areas of the city—sometimes as high as 45 percent. My mother and Judy were part of a group of researchers deployed to hospitals and homes throughout Detroit to interview new mothers, and to determine, contextualize, and propose solutions for the factors contributing to these disproportionately high instances of infant illness and death.
The most distinct memory Judy has of working for the infant health study was when she encountered a mother who had a normal period until suddenly, her water broke. She and her husband were thrilled for the unexpected child. But then there was the other end of the spectrum: a thirteen-year-old in the same situation.
Another vivid recollection Judy has from that era is of taking a bus to one of the hospitals where she would be interviewing mothers. The Tigers were playing in the World Series, and the bus driver had the game on the radio. When the Tigers won, he stopped the bus and let everyone run out into the street. Everybody hugged each other indiscriminately. It was one year since the city had exploded with social unrest. Judy had been in California when news of the 1967 uprising (many Detroiters won’t call it a riot) came on TV. She saw her apartment in the footage and wasn’t sure it would be there when she got back. After she came home, she went to a bar to meet her boyfriend who was part of the band the Spinners. She was the only white person in the room, and the whole place fell silent until the band leader raised his hand and waved her over.
My mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, had just started dating my father, an African American cameraman who worked nights for the local TV station. He would pick up pork chop sandwiches doused in hot sauce from his mother’s house and drive my mom to each home on her list, waiting as she did her work. Inside the homes, my mother asked what she knew to be terribly invasive questions of mothers who were sometimes still children themselves.
The other night, as she hovered near the edge of sleep, my mother reminisced about that job with a dream-like intensity. She told me about sitting on one young woman’s porch, as the young woman’s baby slept inside. “She had a small washing machine on her counter in the kitchen,” my mother said. The day had been pleasant. They had formed a quiet bond.
Over my desk, there is a photograph of a little girl. A friend of mine found the photograph near a Detroit dumpster almost ten years ago. This is the face I think of when my mother tells me about the young woman on the porch. As if my brain is trying to reassemble something.
I keep thinking about Patti Smith’s performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony. It was barely a month after the 2016 presidential election, and Smith sang this song by Bob Dylan in honor of his prize. The song was filled with dystopian visions: Sad forests. Dead oceans. A bloodied branch. Broken tongues. At one point, Smith took a pause. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I’ve replayed and replayed it. Smith starts out the verse without any problems, addressing, a “blue-eyed son” not unlike her own. She sings, “saw a newborn babe with wild wolves all around it.” She manages the next couple of lines. What she’s meant to say when she loses her words is actually quite graphic: “I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’.” Rather than sing this, though, she circles back to the lyric that came before: “I saw the babe that was just bleeding. I saw the babe that,” she sings, her voice falling into fragments. She is unable to leave the newborn to the wolves.
Amanda Petrusich describes the event for the New Yorker: “audience members, dressed in their finest, wiped their eyes, blindly reached for each other, seemed unable to exhale.”
Smith writes, in the same publication, “I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.” She explains it as a case of nerves rather than a case of global despair, but every time I put that video on to play, the rationale seems not to matter. The performance forecasted moments when we would all lose our words—like the newscaster unable to utter the phrase “tender age shelters” while reporting on infants in migrant detention.
“Hard Rain” is based on “Lord Randall,” a ballad in which a young man has a conversation with his mother. If you reduce the song to its list of core questions, you are left with: Where have you been? What did you see? What did you hear? Who did you meet? What’ll you do now?
This reminds me of the conversations I have with my own mother. Sometimes, even after I’ve said goodbye, she’ll ignore me and begin asking more things about my day. Recently, I told her bluntly that she had to let me go.
So often, I hang up without asking her the same questions.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She is the Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Michigan Writers’ Program.
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