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‘Michigan’s always been a dream to me’

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(Editor’s note: Chris Gray recently joined City Pulse, replacing Kyle Kaminski, who is off to law school at Michigan State University.)

Lansing has a feel both rough-around-the-edges and familiar, the kind of city where I might push back the shrubbery and find mulberries. A native Ohioan could see the city as a hybrid of Columbus and Toledo — a seat of state government adjacent to a Big Ten university, but with an economy still tied to turning out America’s cars. An up-and-coming town but also one where a more prosperous time hangs in the air that’s still waiting for its day to be restored.

Michigan’s always been kind of a dream to me. My family has a fishing cottage in Washtenaw County where I spent many a sunny summer day growing up. My grandpa worked on the brake line at Detroit Diesel both before and after the creation of the UAW; he died of mesothelioma when I was an infant and his Michigan landscape has long had the feel of the place I lived before I was born.

I’m coming here to provide an alternative angle on local Lansing news after six years as a healthcare reporter in Oregon and a more recent stint chucking cheese into the shredder at a frozen-pizza factory outside my hometown of Defiance, Ohio. I’ve navigated the fragile journalism landscape for 15 years, and it’s often been a circuitous course.

After a pair of internships in Pittsburgh and Columbus, the 2004 election led me to bolt from Ohio for the West Coast once I finished college at Miami U, looking for greener, more progressive pastures. I needed a place where the political mentality didn’t hinge on support for a bogus war and demagoguing against gay marriage. My first job in Oregon was at Wendy’s; the second as a night auditor at a boutique hotel in downtown Portland. Then I stayed in Oregon with a city-hall reporter job in Roseburg, an old timber town more conservative than anything in Ohio, if often with a dope-smoking right-wing libertarian bent.

A failed romance and Northwestern brought me to Chicago, and back to the Midwest. I fell in love with the city, hustling community news on the North Shore and writing stories for the alt-weekly that weren’t being told on the city’s South Side, stories of foreclosure, food deserts and transportation apartheid, and grassroots efforts in the black community to address the problems. 

I rode out the global economic depression in the city for three years in this way, then left on a freight train from the Santa Fe yard with a grant to study modern hoboes, riding container trains to Oakland and then hitchhiking up 101 from San Francisco to Portland, and back east from Puget Sound on the High-Line through Montana. Like my subjects, who befriended me and let me into their underground culture, I soon couldn’t stop traveling, hitting the Atlantic Ocean at Rhode Island, picking apples in Vermont before trekking west till I reached Oregon again, in dire need of work and a dry place for the winter.

I cleaned up, acquired a reporter job at a healthcare news journal and was thrown into the staid and earnest atmosphere of the Oregon State Capitol, where I became a well-known presence in the building, and thorn in the side of the drug companies, insurers, hospitals and other money-oriented players in our American healthcare system. 

Oregon has a lot of good things going for it and I enjoyed reporting healthcare policy and budget battles on weekdays and exploring its ample wilderness on the weekends, losing myself in the Cascades from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Shasta, where I picked up a cat companion in the woods. But the West Coast was never home, and it was hard to look at the whole adventure as anything but temporary.

The 2016 election had the opposite effect of an unhappy result 12 years before — instead of cleansing my hands of my home region, I wanted to return and understand what the media and everyone else had gotten so wrong. Ohio had always been fickle, but Michigan? Wisconsin? Pennsylvania? What had happened to make my industrial heartland shift so starkly from coastal America?

It took me two years, but an eventual shakeup at work cost me my job and I floated back, living on the road for two months with my cat, looking for a new opportunity. Journalism and communications opportunities were few and far between and many were less than soul-satisfying. I took my time touring the Navajo Nation and Santa Fe, a buffalo chased my car in Oklahoma, and a dip into Mississippi allowed me to see some of the most potent civil rights locations of the 1960s with my own eyes.

Eventually, my unemployment ran out, I moved back home and took factory work awaiting a more promising job. That came with an offer from Berl Schwartz and City Pulse. I could take a stab at Michigan, write serious stories, write them in-depth and fairly but without the false equivalency of so much of the mainstream media. I’m plunging headfirst into uncertain waters, but with the hope that with the good people of Lansing, I can make it work.

(You may reach Gray at chris@lansingcitypulse.com and (517) 999-6710.)

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