July 19, 2013 by Amy Elliott Bragg
When I give talks about early Detroit history, I like to talk about adversity.
We have faced a lot of it.
In 1834, a cholera outbreak killed a seventh of Detroit’s population, including this guy, George Bryan Porter, Governor of the Michigan Territory.
His successor, Stevens Thomson Mason, was 22 years old — just a kid. We consider him the hero of our fight for statehood, but Michigan went broke during the Panic of 1837. Mason died in New York, a failure, when he was 31.
Detroit was surrendered to the British in the War of 1812. This was the cornerstone embarrassment of the war. The burning of the White House was bad. The slaughter of Kentucky volunteers at River Raisin was bad. But this was worse. We did not fire a shot. We gave in. Hundreds of people died trying to get Detroit back. William Hull, the general responsible, was sentenced to death for cowardice. President Madison commuted his sentence.
Of course, Detroit’s formative disaster was the Fire of 1805, during which the entire city, at that time a century-old place full of crooked streets and cramped wooden buildings, burned to the ground. It was June, so it was easier to persevere than it would have been in January. People camped out in the streets, held mass in the open air, had nowhere better to go. Detroit’s patron saint, Father Gabriel Richard (sadly, not officially a saint), is said to have coined then what we now take as our motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.
By the way: Gabriel Richard died during the cholera epidemic of 1834.
This is what the Nain Rouge is all about. The Nain Rouge, based on an old French fairy tale, is about the unfair amount of bad things that happen in Detroit. The legend of this little shit is that he always shows up right before a major disaster. You can blame him for any disaster you like. The riots. Predatory lending. Strip malls. Indian removal. Demolition of your favorite historic building. Kwame. Brooks. Cholera.
Yesterday I wondered forward, thinking about the people 100 years from now who will be haunting the library (whatever the library looks like in 100 years) and thinking back at us, thinking about this time. To them I want to say: Hello. This is pretty weird, serious and sad. But in the face of this big uncertainty, we are working, living, and hoping for better things. In fact, it’s likely that many of us will not experience life any differently today and tomorrow than we did yesterday or the day before. It’s possible that this could make things better.
Resurget cineribus. To be frank, this bothers me sometimes (although I’m as guilty as anyone of perpetuating it). It shall rise from the ashes. It used to mean, simply, Our city burned down. Today the irony comes too easy, as we struggle to recover from a decimating century that has included a fair deal of actual arson. Plus it’s kind of a shrug move, right? Let’s just hope about it. Pretty sure it will be okay.
Yes, we all think Detroit is on the upswing. We all hustle harder. We believe Detroit will rise from the ashes.
Does hoping for better fix anything? Does it matter if we are optimistic? Who cares if we hope for the best if we can’t tackle regional disinvestment (see recent legislative stalemate over scrapping legislation, for one among a million examples), boneheaded expressway expansions, financial insolvency, buses that don’t come?
Will bankruptcy fix these things? I don’t know.
But in spite of it all I do know, and am inspired by, this city’s perpetual march through adversity. It’s almost banal at this point, a truth as old as time: sooner or later, something will go wrong in Detroit. (And as Aaron Foley wrote today, something is wrong in your city, too. So don’t be so smug.) Unless we all die of cholera, we will still be here, and it will be okay.
A postscript: If you’re upset, or full of dread, or even city-motto-derived hope, may I recommend making a “resurget cineribus” donation to a Detroit-lifting organization of your choosing? A few humble ideas: Gleaners Community Food Bank, People for Palmer Park, Greening of Detroit, Young Detroit Builders, Motor City Blight Busters, Preservation Detroit (disclosure: I am a board member), Mariners Inn, Alternatives for Girls, Transit Riders United. Help clean up and recycle tire waste in Osborn on Saturday. Write to your legislator and tell them Detroit’s future is important to you.
Just a suggestion. Resurget cineribus like you mean it.