Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking for the "real" Detroit

Lately I've been struck by the almost schizophrenic portrayal of Detroit in the national media.  The story we hear most often is that of the dying auto town. Detroit is cast as poor, segregated, abandoned and doomed. Inevitably, photos of the Packard Plant and Michigan Central Station figure prominently. Then there's the quieter but insistent counter-narrative. Detroit is called a hot-bed of creativity; an urban frontier; a city of urban gardens and resilient neighborhoods.

The two story lines are so different it's jarring. In Toby Barlow's world, Detroit is a city of unparalleled potential. Artists are snapping up $100 houses; entrepreneurs are biking to work and banding together to open new businesses. In Shika Dalmia's world, Detroit is terminally ill. The government is a farce, jobs are scarce, and the city is unlivable for "most ordinary folks with families, children and regular jobs" who'd rather not live with "rats, fires, garbage, druggists, prostitutes and weirdos."

So who has it right? Both, to some degree. Like any big city, Detroit is a completely different place for different people. At Third and Peterboro, a desperate crowd of drug addicts and the long term homeless gather on Detroit's skid row to collect aid. Just a few blocks up the street, the neighborhood is being transformed. Just this fall, four new businesses catering to the young and creative have opened in Midtown: Good Girls Go to Paris, Leopold's Books, the Burton Theatre, and City Bird. Both groups occupy the same Cass Corridor, but for all effective purposes, they are in different worlds.

I personally find Detroit inspiring and sobering at once. The hardship the city faces is raw and undeniable: 27% unemployment, 70,000+ vacant lots, $100 homes. Yet the sense of community is palpable, and the struggle to revitalize the city goes on, whether that means drawing young people to Midtown or planting community gardens on the East Side. To be clear, Detroit is emphatically not a "blank canvas" or a lawless frontier. As the Let's Save Michigan blog emphasizes, Detroit is better than that. It is a deeply troubled city but also one with unique assets, a rich history and culture, and, for those willing and able to see Detroit anew, incredible opportunities.

Thus the schizophrenic news coverege. Detroit can't be reduced to a single narrative. It's a messy, complicated, fascinating place, at once depressing and inspiring, and that's why I continue to write about it, whether the wider media can figure out its story or not.


motz said...

I think your summary is pretty accurate. That article by Dalmia annoys me because I can bet you she didn't live in Detroit proper. So her experiences with Detroit were probably "I'm going to a concert at the State Theatre" or "I'm going to the Fox", neither of which sum up the city. There are lots of horrible areas, but there are also tons of gems within the city. I just hope those who wait it out can transform Detroit into something that has a beautiful, unique image.

Cooper said...

Dalmia is biased and wrong on a lot of points. To begin with, she's ignorant of history. She says Mayor Archer was the first person to try to revitalize the city. What does she think everyone else was doing since the 1960s? Hoping the city would die?

Then she imitates a mistake Toby Barlow makes by conflating the actions of a small group of people with the broader movement to turn the city around. Barlow writes about a limited crowd of artists and entrepreneurs -- the people behind Le Petit Zinc, the Powerhouse, etc -- people who are doing good work but are only the latest iteration of a decades-long movement. She gloats in the small scale of their efforts, completely unaware that anyone else has achieved anything in Detroit.

Someone should send her to Earthworks or Southwest Solutions or Focus: HOPE or Transportation Riders United or MOCAD or Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice or Gleaners or Greening for Detroit or on and on and on. A handful of artists and entrepreneurs might not save the city, but a few thousand dedicated people might!

Rad-aholic said...

I agree that there are endless possibilities for downtown Detroit. Hopefully all the young people that live there now stay if and when they decide to start families.