Attention National Media: It’s Time to Change The Way You Cover Detroit

10/21/11Follow @XconomyDET

When the Economist‘s piece on Detroit (“The Parable of Detroit: So Cheap, There’s Hope“) landed in my inbox this morning, I dug in, curious. This is the Economist, after all, which typically puts its jaundiced British eye on American subjects and reports without bias or mercy. Ah, yes, I thought—here comes a super legit international media outfit to tell Detroit’s story correctly. And they did, sort of. But there are a few things irritating Detroiters about the way we’re covered by reporters that I’d like to air out.

First: Can we please, please, PLEASE stop holding Slow’s Bar-B-Q up as Detroit’s savior? It’s a restaurant, and if not for its location right next to the highway that carries suburbanites to and from the city, it would probably be like any other restaurant in Detroit, only with a better beer selection. I have absolutely nothing against the Cooley family (though, judging by this mock Twitter page, others in Detroit might) and I appreciate their efforts to improve the Corktown community. But the truth is, what they’re selling to their mostly white clientele is a “Detroit experience” that involves hardly any Detroit. Any given Sunday, Slow’s has a two-hour wait. Drive by: You can see for yourself how the men in Dockers clutch their wives protectively while their teenaged children creep tentatively toward the Michigan Central Station ruins to snap a few photographs. Then they eat, walk across the street to the security-patrolled parking lot, get in their cars, and go home.

I suppose it’s better than nothing, and considering how racial prejudice still haunts every single issue in this region, it may be the best we can hope for at the moment. But reporters should know better. I understand that all of us in the word-juggling business are being asked to do more with less, and that reporters often don’t have the resources to stay in town longer than a few hours. So, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I hearby offer any visiting journalist a spot on my “guest futon” if they want to stay a few days and truly cover the city. I live in a cramped Detroit apartment that I unfortunately share with cockroaches, but at least it’s authentic.

And if it’s authenticity you seek, then please let me show you around. The Economist‘s report seems to play around the edges of authenticity, but falls short. If you come with me, the first rule is that you’re getting out of the car. Had the Economist done that, they would have seen the Brightmoor neighborhood as more than a charitable foundation’s pity project. It’s a very poor section of the city, true. But the residents there feel passionately about where they live and are responding to the lack of city services mentioned in the article by planting gardens, watching over each other’s homes in an attempt to curb crime, and opening storefronts.

The other neighborhood the Economist mentions by name, the Osborn area, is one closer to my heart. If you’re a fan of hip-hop, the north-east part of Detroit is the birthplace of the music of Slum Village, J Dilla (and the countless artists whose sound he shaped), Kid Rock, and Eminem. It’s also where my boyfriend grew up, and where his parents still live.

There is no doubt that the level of decay and despair there is shocking—it doesn’t feel like America, and it makes you wonder if anyone outside of its residents even know it exists, because our governor and president surely wouldn’t allow things to stand in such a state of wretchedness if they had seen it. But there are also blocks of tidy ranch houses, like the one my future in-laws live in, that house blue-collar families of every flavor. Often, if the family has had possession of the home for 20 or more years, they no longer pay a note on it. And Mayor Bing wants these families to pick up and move to the other side of town? You can understand, perhaps, why those public meetings get so “nasty.” Not to mention the Eastside vs. Westside dynamic in the city that is alive and well, and will be just as big of a stumbling block to the relocation plan as convincing people to leave homes they’ve lived in for decades.

As I’ve said before in this space, Detroit is an endlessly fascinating city to me. It has an energy that, if I may quote my friend Jason Lorimer (Detroit will be hearing a lot more about him very soon), “sits on your shoulders.” We have problems, no doubt. But many people who live here can’t imagine living anywhere else because this city is so unique, so wild, so open to interpretation, so full of history, so ripe for problem-solving. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Phil Cooleys trying to make their mark here. You reporters ought to talk to them sometime.

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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