In his novel The Heroes of Henley’s Woods, Mike Worden recalls one memorable Warren summer filled with sandlot baseball, adolescent camaraderie, and idealized mid-century innocence. Worden’s portrayal of Warren — Michigan’s third largest city — as a respectable community where people raise families and live quietly, cleanly, and safely would probably resonate with most Warren residents. Like many of the bedroom communities sprawling from the Detroit city limits, Warren is a city of remarkable homogeneity; its citizens are very much the same in social status, income, education, and, most glaringly, race. More than ninety percent of Warren residents are white, eighty percent of Detroiters are black. The contrast could not be starker.
Though they share a border (the famous Eight Mile Road), Detroit and Warren are worlds apart. The relationship between the two cities has a Cold War feel, ruled by an atmosphere of fear and suspicion on both sides. Warren grew directly out of the disintegration of Detroit’s communities and industry in the second half of the twentieth century and seemed to offer people the security they felt they were losing in a failing city. As whites fled Detroit for the ordered neighborhoods of Warren, the city’s reputation as a racist community grew as some residents actively, and sometimes violently, tried to exclude blacks (Sugrue 266). In his short story “Good Neighbor,” Jim Daniels, a Warren native, shows how subtly this can occur when he describes the uncomfortable situation of a guilt-ridden man returning to apologize to his old neighbors for selling his home to a black man (Detroit Tales 93-99).
In his poem “Time, Temperature,” Daniels describes the border between the neighboring cities:
Eight Mile Road. Six lanes wide. The long barbed shout, pale slab, sizzling fuse I didn’t know a black person till I was nineteen. I could have almost shouted from my porch. (M-80 31)
“Time, Temperature” depicts the relationship between Detroit and Warren as a constant struggle: “In Detroit, it has always been a matter / of taking sides” (36). Daniels illustrates the intensity of the relationship with repeated reference to violent force: National Guardsmen arriving in helicopters during the 1967 riots, a neighbor passing out rifles in fear of the spreading violence, a liquor store employee robbed at gunpoint. Daniels’ work challenges the more idyllic view of Warren and suburban life in general. For many residents, the reality of a quiet suburban life — barely eked out — is constantly endangered by tenuous employment, racial fear, and general disenchantment with what life has to offer. In “All Packed,” a story about an aimless young man, Daniels shows how many in Warren face limited options, whether real or perceived. The main character, Andy, equally dreads the prospects of factory life and a college education. Unemployed, his life going nowhere, he is trying to shake the feeling that he is destined for misery by planning a move to Houston to find work. He describes his hometown: “...this street was the same as a street five miles over — Eight Mile Road, Nine Mile Road, Ten Mile Road, all the way up to 32 Mile Road. The square boxy houses, schools, grocery stores, the cinder-box bars, tool-and-die shops, and the long flat blur of factories” (No Pets 53). The homogeneity that is the promise of Warren can be suffocating and even debilitating.
The young and unemployed are not the only Warren residents who experience these feelings. In Daniels’ series of Digger poems, he focuses on the life of one blue- collar family man to show the dissatisfaction and fear that, for many, is at the center of suburban living. In these poems, Daniels brashly contrasts the promise of the American Dream with Digger’s working-life reality. Digger is constantly wracked with anxiety related to work, his family life is filled with antagonisms, and there is constant reference to alcoholism. “Digger’s Melted Ice” ends: “Your son asked you once / why you drink so much. / Part of my job, you said.” (M-80 52). Despite occasional punctuations of happiness, the poems are dominated by an overarching hopelessness and images of work and death. “Digger Thinks about Numbers,” describes the workday:
Every day you’re supposed to make 800 axle housings tubes. If you make 800 you sit down for the rest of the day. Some days you try to make it and do. Some days you try but the machine breaks down. Some days you break down. And every day you start back at zero like you never made those parts the day before. (Places/Everyone 52)
And in “Digger Shovels the Snow,” even as he watches his daughters happily making snow angels and playing in the yard, Digger laments: “You bend down again / for that heart attack / you know will kill you” (Places/Everyone 37).
Daniels’ writings on Warren are important for giving a literary voice to the white working-class population of greater Detroit. Though thematically his work is often bleak and harsh, there is hope in his honesty and his willingness to take on the tough, complex problems that have tainted the relationship between Warren and Detroit for half a century.
vJeffrey R. Zachwieja, a reference librarian at Marygrove College, is a lifelong resident of Warren, Michigan.
Daniels, Jim. M-80. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.
---. Places/Everyone. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
Daniels, Jim Ray. Detroit Tales. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2003.
---. No Pets. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog, 1999.
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.
Worden, Mike. The Heroes of Henley’s Woods. Mt. Clemens, MI: Gold Leaf, 1998.