Reunions Remind Us of Who We Are

Three women standing outside smiling and talking holding coffee cups

Why do older adults travel to attend reunions in their hometown? For many of us, we know it’s asking for trouble: stirring up some old memories that might be best forgotten and left to lie dormant where they have been buried for decades.

In my case, I hadn’t been back to my hometown for ten years and I thought it was high time I took a long look at my beginnings during the 1950s and 1960s living at the most southern tip of Canada, along the U.S. border.

What I discovered was that going home was more than catching up with friends, although that’s a huge part of it. But it’s also about the landscape that lives on in your sensory memory long after you’ve left your hometown.

I discovered that going home was about recognizing the colour of the sky on a cloudless day and recalling how you looked up at the sky as a child and dreamed. Going home was about remembering the speed the river runs when the wind is high, and the fullness of the trees in summer. It’s about noticing how conscientious residents are to keep up their homes, to make them look attractive, in neighbourhoods, both wealthy and modest.

Yet my essential reason for going back home was about emotionally contrasting who I am today with the person I was growing up – that gullible, naive kid with big ideas and little experience. Going home was about making sense of the story of my life. As we age, that becomes increasingly important.

My childhood home was in Windsor, a city of about 320,000 across the border from the Motor City, Detroit, with its current population of close to 700,000.

Both border cities have faced hard times during the last fifty years as the North American car industry has morphed and retracted. After the deluge of foreign imports of automobiles began, Detroit and Windsor took a hit that many industries would not be durable enough to stand. After the Great Recession of 2008, the auto industry was on the brink of disaster, but with Canadian and U.S. government subsidies, it survived.

De-population hit Windsor and Detroit hard. After the 1967 race riots in downtown Detroit, people began leaving the city in droves and the population plummeted from a high of 1,850,000 in 1950, to about 700,000 in 2012. Detroit’s population is close to the same size now as it was in 1910, before the city’s automotive boom began. Recently, Windsor is again showing a population growth of 3 per cent, at 329,000 residents after years of stagnation.

Since living in the Greater Toronto Area for the last forty years, I was struck by the fragility of the economy in Windsor, and how important it is for the residents of both cities to point to the new developments in Detroit that are revitalizing that city. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Windsor, where the downtown district has become tired and the big attraction is a huge Caesar’s Palace gambling casino and hotel.

While Windsor’s main street is a corridor of bars and grungy shops, downtown Detroit is springing back to life after fifty years of nothing but trouble. The gorgeous art deco buildings of the 1930s, built when Detroit was the industrial engine of America, are being restored. There are hotels, restaurants, and office buildings lining Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main street. Stately old buildings have been turned into condos, some selling for more than $1-million. The Detroit jazz festival attracts thousands of music lovers. The new ballpark, the new arena and the new football stadium are all downtown and within walking distance of each other.

What I learned from going home is that it takes initiative, political will and lots of money to resuscitate a city and that the private investments in Detroit from the Ilitch family, who own Little Caesar’s Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, and Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, are the drivers of the urban renewal in Detroit.

It made me sad to see that there are no entrepreneurs on the Canadian side of the Detroit River who have invested in Windsor in the same way the Americans have done in Detroit.

Unfortunately, business and commerce in Windsor is not thriving. Most of my friends, now in their sixties, left Windsor to go to university and it’s disconcerting to see it now, the city having fallen on hard times. I suppose we count ourselves lucky that we didn’t return home after we concluded our education. Most of us never considered it. We settled across the country, mainly in Toronto or Vancouver. We created new lives, new careers, got married, raised children. At the reunion, many talked of the delight of having grandchildren to spoil.

Yet I’m willing to bet that for most us, home will always be a large part of who we are. We will always be connected to Detroit and the energy and determination of that city to survive, and it’s my hope that Windsor too will soon take a turn for the better.

What I would have wished to do at the reunion was to find out more about the people who travelled from as far as away as Europe to come home to Windsor. Most of us were raised in families who relied on small businesses for our income. Many were descended from immigrants from Eastern Europe, as were my parents, whose first language was not English. Many existed in a tight-knit Jewish community where fear of losing our heritage loomed large.

In fact, this reunion was a testament to how successful our parents and grandparents were at creating a generation of thoroughly Canadian citizens, while at the same time not abandoning our roots or our religion.

And so like generations of the children of immigrants to Canada, we were educated and thrived in this country. When I consider how hard our parents worked and how difficult it was for them to integrate into the larger community, I’m once again amazed at how successful the modern Canadian experiment has ultimately been and how lucky we are to be a part of it.

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