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Detroit--a Nice Place to Be From : Ex-Residents Reminisce--but They Wouldn't Return

February 25, 1988|MICHAEL ARKUSH | Arkush is a Pasadena free-lance writer.

Detroit is urban, gritty, compact. The San Fernando Valley is suburban, glittery, vast. Two locations on the same soil, if not planet, couldn't represent a more distinct pace and perspective. One is known for making cars, the other for showing them off. One is a home for lifers, the other a haven for transplants.

So why then were 150 ex-Detroiters dining and dancing in a Valley hotel ballroom Saturday night, toasting their former terrain? You'd probably have a better chance of re-creating the Middle Ages than the Motor City.

No matter. This event wasn't about bringing Detroit to the Valley; these are people who abandoned the gray Midwest for sunshine and good jobs. They don't want to go back. They're not even crazy about a visit. For one night, they just wanted to remember, and perhaps recapture.

"We want to get back a little of our youth," said Bob Perliss, 60, a construction superintendent in Northridge. "Once a Detroiter, always a Detroiter. That's where we grew up, where we started our families. We want to feel that again."

Charity Event

Saturday night's gathering at the Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks was sponsored by the City of Hope Detroit chapter. At $33 a person, organizers expect about $5,000 to be raised for the Duarte-based medical center.

The Detroit branch, one of 500 chapters nationwide and one of about 20 that are organized around members' hometowns, was founded three years ago and meets monthly. This was its first big affair.

"People came here to see old friends," said membership coordinator Helen Medwed, "and remember old places."

Those old places were displayed on signs at each table: Hudson's department store, Greenfield Museum, London Chop House, etc. But many of the signs hinted at a Detroit that no longer exists. Nothing referred to the heavily promoted renaissance the city has attempted to effect in recent years. Detroit, after all, is a town constantly fighting its negative image.

"Trying to get someone to go to Detroit is almost impossible," said Medwed, who works as a headhunter.

"Along with Cleveland and Newark, it's not somewhere people want to go. There is dead silence when I mention a job open there."

Except for a handful, Saturday's guests were middle-aged or older; California has been home for decades. The Detroit they recall is one of close-knit communities, cozy ethnic eateries, and a lively downtown.

Crime and Corruption

Asked to defend 1988 Detroit, they don't. They talk about crime and corruption.

"Maybe some of it's blown out of proportion," said Faigie Vinegar of Sherman Oaks, "but a great deal of what people say about Detroit is true. There are a lot of killings and muggings. You seem to read about them all the time."

Medwed, in her mid-50s, prefers to talk about the positive Detroit--its symphony, public library and museums. Or the slice of life one can't capture on Ventura Boulevard, like Lafayette Coney Island in downtown.

"Coneys are these wonderful hot dogs with chili and mustard and onions, and a flavor you can't believe," Medwed said. "It's one of the first things I do when I go back to Detroit. That and Sanders' hot fudge."

Bob Perliss misses ribs and Cantonese food. He insists that the Cantonese in California just doesn't match up. As a minor consolation, whenever his children go back to Detroit on business they're entrusted with an urgent mission.

"They bring Chinese food back on the plane," Perliss said with a laugh. "I'm serious. They bring enough for three or four people."

And Vernor's ginger ale. "It's very gingery and it tickles your throat," Medwed said. "That's missing in the Vernor's you get out here."

Ex-Detroiters miss more than the culinary delights. Some yearn for the lost sense of neighborhood.

"Detroit's a small town," said Elaine Locksley, 49, of Pacific Palisades, who works as a management consultant. "You knew your neighbors back there. Out here, you don't talk to them."

Yet, the native Detroiters like Locksley, for all their nostalgia, are ecstatic about their escape from winter.

A Taste of Sunshine

"I got out of the Army in September," said Arthur Doctor, 79, of Westwood, about his decision to move west four decades ago. "By November, there was snow and sleet. After two years in the South Pacific, I realized there was nice weather around. The moment you have a taste of something better, you grab it."

Saturday's reunion also had its token celebrity. Celebrity look-alike, that is. With his shiny, tan forehead and rimmed glasses, Lewis Vinegar could be mistaken for Lee A. Iacocca. He often is.

"At least five times a day, somebody thinks I'm Iacocca," said Vinegar, 56, of Sherman Oaks, who, incidentally, sells automotive-related parts. "When Chrysler has meetings in Michigan and I'm nearby, people are always asking me if I'm going to chair the meetings."

Still, Vinegar's daughter would have liked more of the real thing. She left early for another party.

"They should have made the tables into cars," complained Beverly Vinegar, 31, who moved here last year. "They should have shown pictures of the old Stroh's plant. They should have re-created much more."

Huh, re-creating Detroit in the San Fernando Valley? What a crazy idea.

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