Detroit in 2012: The Rebirth Story That’s For Real
I’ve been dithering over my task of writing a year-end piece for Xconomy. Partly because I’m not a huge fan of them, and partly because, when it comes to my thoughts about the future of Detroit, there is just so darn much to contemplate.
Since I started this job in July, I have had the pleasure of talking to many people like Jerry Paffendorf, Anthony Holt, Veronika Scott, and Ida Byrd-Hill—people who aren’t content to let other people figure out how to make the city a better place.
Overwhelmingly, what I hear from the people I interview is that they genuinely feel the city has turned a corner. Optimism is surging among the maker/doer class, and the feeling that pervades is that this time, Detroit’s rebirth might just be for real.
I see it all the time in my Midtown neighborhood. I know I’ve said it in this space before, but after living in Lansing, where I had to drive everywhere, I’m so impressed by the fact that I can walk to everything: my bank, my hair salon, my chiropractor, my acupuncturist, a natural foods store, a great afrocentric bookstore, several boutiques that I can actually afford, my bakery, my dive bar, and my yoga studio. (I just realized that list reads like highlights from “Stuff White People Like,” but I suppose that’s a conversation for another day.)
My corner of the city is a bit of an oasis. The fact remains that great swaths of Detroit are still wrecked, wracked with devastating poverty, and populated with people for whom daily survival is an act of triumph. If Detroit is ever going to return to world-class status, we can’t revitalize a tiny portion of the city and leave everybody else in the wilderness. Those of us who have a platform from which to speak or money or a good job or an education have a responsibility to make sure that the coming prosperity trickles down, and that we engage the members of the community who dream of better things if only they knew where to start.
A city’s diversity and vibrancy is what attracts us to it. Let’s be vigilant, 10 years from now when Midtown’s population is expected to be double what it is today, that we’re mindful about gentrification and opportunity, and make sure that everyone who lives here gets a shot at taking part in it.
Of course, there are still those who look at things like the recent light-rail debacle and declare that Detroit is a lost cause. I will concede right here in print that, in my opinion, the biggest thing holding Detroit back is the abject failure of its institutions.
Something that I’ve heard people across the spectrum of race and class agree on is that, whether you’re talking about police response times, the lack of working street lights, the city council’s attempts to thwart the much-needed reform of districts, squabbling and inaction inside the mayor’s administration, the schools being run like for-profit endeavors by those entrusted to educate our most important resource, or the precarious power grid, there is simply no excuse for the level of dysfunction that infects every city institution.
I’m no longer worried about surrendering our power to an emergency financial manager, even at the behest of someone as craven and opportunistic as state treasurer Andy Dillon. If an emergency financial manager means I’ll no longer have to go down to the post office and plead with the clerk to go in the back and see if my paycheck is there because, inexplicably, my mail started getting routed to something called the “A to Z file”—despite a change-of-address form and two subsequent forms to correct a mistake I never made—then I think I’m all for it. In my opinion, the solvency ship sailed a long time ago, and the condition of our municipal infrastructure could not possibly be degraded any further than it already is.
What I’d like to leave you with is a quote from my favorite local writer, John Carlisle, otherwise known as Detroitblogger John, who has a unique gift for capturing the stories of Detroit. It’s from his excellent collection called “313: Life in the Motor City,” and it sums up perfectly why our city is worthy of all the hand-wringing, the mythologizing, and the fascination:
“There’s no place like Detroit. This city is wild and raw and unpredictable and eccentric. In Detroit, you can grow a farm in your front yard, or keep goats and chickens out back, or throw a blues concert in the field next door, or buy a historic church for $100 and make it a museum. You can even operate a strip club in your living room. In an unexpected way, Detroit in its decline has become the land of opportunity. You can do all sorts of things here that you can’t do elsewhere. … There’s a certain resilient hope among many Detroiters, a sense that you really can create your own world here, that things will get better because they can’t get much worse. And from that idea comes a feeling of freedom to do what you wish with your life here. Because in Detroit, you can be just about anything you want.”
Now that sounds like a place worth protecting, doesn’t it? So in 2012, let’s do what Detroit does best: Roll up our sleeves and get to work.