Whole Foods in the ‘hood

I took a train from Toronto to Windsor yesterday and then caught the Tunnel Bus from Windsor to Detroit. I was stateside for only a few hours, but I can tell you that I felt intensely relieved when the Tunnel Bus brought me back over to the Canadian side. The force of the relief surprised me.

Seen from a bus window, Detroit’s downtown area looks OK. In fact, it looks quite prosperous with all the statues and gardens and giant American flags and impressive stone buildings. But then the Tunnel Bus dropped me at the Rosa Parks Transit Center so I could get a bus to Whole Foods, and that’s when it hit me that I was in Detroit. From that point onward, I started counting the minutes until I could get back to Canada.

The Rosa Parks Center is just outside the downtown core and serves as the main transit hub for the local bus system. It was built in 2009, but it already looks much older. The ground is filthy and the seating area, bus signs, garbage receptacles, etc., have been badly vandalized. I was glad there were six police officers (count ‘em – six) patrolling the station in pairs. I only wished there’d been more.

I rarely get intimidated to the point that I’m conscious of every word that comes out of my mouth and every movement I make (and every person positioned within lunging distance of me), but I was definitely that intimidated at the Rosa Parks Center. I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. A Swedish woman who had tagged along with me from the VIA station in Windsor, heading for the Detroit travellers’ hostel, asked me to wait with her for 15 minutes until her bus came. And this was someone who’d been fearlessly travelling the world by herself for several months. So, we huddled close together inside the bus center, next to the manned Information booth.

When her bus pulled up, I walked her to her stop, and we said our good-byes. Then I marched as confidently as I could over to my bus stop. There were several groups of young men and a few young women talking and laughing loudly. They fell silent as I walked by. They didn’t appear to be waiting for a bus, just hanging around. I spotted an older, neatly dressed woman standing by herself and made a beeline for her. We did the weather chat thing. As it turned out, we were both heading for Whole Foods, so she told me to sit with her and she’d get me there.

When the bus arrived, we climbed on board and sat down near the front. A young mother with two small boys, one probably about 7 and the other maybe 3, sat next to us. The older boy was quietly reading a book, but the 3-year-old was squirming and yelling and throwing pieces of paper around, so the mother slapped him hard on his hands. This started him howling and screaming, which started her slapping him again. This went on for most of the five minutes that I was on the bus. I was glad to get off. I can still hear the loud slap of her hard palm angrily hitting the back of his tiny hand. I haven’t heard that sound for a long time, certainly not in a public place.

The Whole Foods in Detroit was controversial when it was built and remains controversial for some who view it as an “elitist” and “racist” intrusion. From a building and product stand-point, it is almost the same as any of the other Whole Foods I’ve visited over the past few years, but what stood out from every other store were the security guards. Two were monitoring/guarding the entrance, and several more were patrolling the store itself. I don’t recall seeing even one security guard in any of the other Whole Foods I’d shopped at, but perhaps they’d been in plain clothes so I didn’t notice them.

Another difference was that I was one of the few white people in the building. Most of the staff and customers were black. It didn’t make me feel intimidated (like at the Rosa Parks Center), it just made me feel out of place.

I was also surprised to see what appeared to be a homeless man emptying the contents of a gigantic plastic bag full of cans and bottles directly into his non-Whole Foods shopping cart. This was being done inside the store, and he was being assisted in this by a Whole Foods customer service attendant.

In any case, I did my shopping, had a quick lunch, bought a souvenir tote bag that said “Detroit Whole Foods”, and headed back to the Rosa Parks Center. My tunnel bus was just pulling in when I arrived.

Detroit souvenir.

As I was hurrying toward the bus, an elderly neatly dressed man fell in step next to me and asked me if I was a school teacher. I thought that was an odd question, and I told him no, but that I used to tutor, and he said he used to mentor students but had recently retired from council. I looked at him when he said that, and he seemed to be sincere. I would have liked to chat with him longer, but the Tunnel buses were every half hour and I didn’t want to wait that long at the Rosa Parks Center.

When I took my seat on the bus, a feeling of immense relief came over me. I felt safe rolling towards the Canadian border. I love going to the States, but my jaunt to Detroit was different. It was the States but it didn’t feel like the States.

Would I go back to Detroit? Probably not. Did anyone say anything to me or threaten me in any way? Certainly not. Did I witness any violence? Other than for the mother slapping her child, no, I did not. I still wouldn’t go back, though, not even for the Whole Foods. I felt out of place there, and tolerated but not welcome.

I’m glad I went to see Detroit for myself, but it’s not a place that I’d want to spend any amount of time in. And next time, if I did go, I wouldn’t go alone.