Detroit, Michigan
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Politics and Activism

Detroit, Michigan

Cautionary Tale or Comeback Kid?

Detroit, Michigan
Alex S. MacLean

As my plane lands on the tarmac, I can’t help but wonder what I am getting myself into. Coming from the West Coast, the only opinions about Detroit, MI are that it is extremely dangerous and, oh yea, extremely dangerous. In fact, all I have been hearing for weeks before this trip are condolences for my future murder. Despite all the warnings and scare tactics, I needed to see this place for myself. So, here I am in Detroit Rock City, the place that put the rest of us on wheels, set the standard for the American dream, and taught us a thing or two about economic death sentences. If I can’t learn something here, there’s no hope for me anyway.

I see the first few abandoned buildings as I drive down the 94 Freeway. It’s not something I am surprised to see, and yet, the sheer volume of them leaves me speechless. Although some neighborhoods managed to weather the proverbial storm better than others, there is no street, no block, no corner that avoided the hit altogether. Seven bedroom mansions with driveways that wrap around fountains sit disheveled and empty. It feels like one-third of every neighborhood is abandoned houses, another third is empty lots, and the rest is being lived in and looked after by who? Who lives here? What kind of person stays in a city while the rest of its inhabitants run for the hills? While I will admit that I have never seen un-mowed lawns look so eerie and post-apocalyptic, I am not yet murdered nor have I almost been murdered and I haven’t seen anyone else murdered. So, I am going to confidently debunk the title of “Murder City” for Detroit. Yes, there is crime here, but it is most certainly not aimed at tourists and, generally, not at anyone minding their own business. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you about the “real” Detroit through the eyes of its people.

I see J jogging past on a beautiful sunny morning. He stops to check on MUFI (The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative), the local urban farm that has taken residence on a few of the empty lots in the area. He must be one of those heavily involved, community activist types, I’m thinking. I’d find out later that Detroit natives just have that inquisitive, community-oriented air about them. They really do care about each other and help each other out on a scale I haven’t before witnessed. J and I strike up a conversation and, before I know it, we’ve been passionately discussing the city of Detroit on a street corner for two and a half hours. It turns out that J works for the Detroit Fire Department on Engine 17. Talk about a great source for this writer! The first thing I ask him about is why so many of the abandoned houses are half-burnt. He explains that arson, while a part of every big city’s history, is still a pretty prevalent part of Detroit. Apparently, abandoned buildings come with a lot of extras. Negligent squatters, revenge fires, and even neighbors being sick of the crime magnet on their street are all common reasons for arson in Detroit. J tells me it is getting better, but I can tell his job is anything but slow. With such high numbers of fires the city has to deal with, you’d think the DFD would be prioritized when delegating tax money and amenities. The truth is, with such a lack of money coming in, the city is making cuts seemingly (to this onlooker) without rhyme or reason. Firemen used to have jobs on the side as a luxury, but now it has become a necessity. On top of working multiple jobs to make a living, Detroit firefighters are only just now being sent out on medical calls too. This can practically double the workload for some and no pay raises or incentives come with that extra responsibility. You might think that evening the playing field for emergency responders across the country is a good thing (fire departments in other major cities have been doing medical runs for quite some time now), but the statistics on arson are so high for Detroit, it would be unjust to ignore the difference. Along with much of Detroit’s citizens, these tireless responders are stuck considering whether or not they want to stay close to the metro area or move farther away. The option to stay isn’t just for loyalty’s sake. Staying means more freedom and opportunity for work outside of their 24-hour shifts for the city. Even if some choose to transfer to outer suburban areas, there’s no judgment nor is there a lack of fires where they are headed.

After my eye-opening run-in with J, I decide to check out downtown. This is a metropolitan city after all. I stroll the shiny, new river walk and start to get parched thanks to the perfect summer day. Ok, I’ve done the obligatory downtown loop, right? Can I play vacation and catch a buzz at too early an hour now? I plop down at MIX, the first bar I see that looks like I can afford its wares. I order a perfectly unpretentious well cocktail and listen to the bartender vivaciously discuss her superiority with the three or four customers at the bar and it is clear none of us are there to disagree. B, one of said customers, is an aquaponics engineer, a club promoter, and I suspect, much more. His hair is perfectly twisted and his smile sincere. He introduces himself to me and we quickly end up knee deep in racially charged conversation, something that I imagine happens often here. Detroit is one of the blackest cities in America and it has a long history of black culture. With gentrification on everyone's mind these days, I couldn’t wait to ask B what he thought of all the semi-recent white influence in Detroit. He shed some light on the segregation that, unfortunately, is still a huge problem in the city. In certain parts of town, you can even see what looks like a white neighborhood on one side of the street and a black neighborhood on the other, as if the road is a minefield between them. Metaphor, anyone? My impression so far is that, in an effort to make the city seem safer and more inviting to investors, Detroit’s marketing team is trying to make it look “less black” (as if THAT’S the problem). More advertised issues plaguing the area are things like water quality and police brutality. Even still, coming from the West Coast, I had little to contribute to the conversation when I realized the most solid information I had was something regurgitated from news coverage about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I read an article or watched a news segment on Detroit without having to actively search for it. There is a lot about Detroit that the rest of the country needs to know more about and 90% of that is race related. B laughs and announces to the rest of the bar that I got THE official black history lesson. Whatever it was I got, I certainly walked away feeling more educated, humbled and maybe even a little pissed off at white people.

I meet S while she is enjoying her morning coffee and cigarette on her front stoop. Mr. Johnny Cash is enthusiastically flipping me off from her T-shirt and she’s laughing a hearty laugh that makes you instantly want to be her friend. She shows me around her permaculture haven and we get to discussing urban farms in Detroit. If you don’t know already, Detroit has a huge culture of urban farming that is currently unlike any other city in the country. The cheap land and the massive amount of availability has given urban farmers the opportunity to grow food within city limits like the rest of us only dream about. S owns her house and farms on the lot next door. She also farms on the lot next to that and the lot next to that... Even though she’s enjoying some success from her endeavor, her hands are legally tied if she ever wants to up her profits. The real story, she says, is the politics behind the land she’s using. Despite availability and affordable prices, the city won’t let her purchase all of the land she wants and is able to buy. Not only does the city give priority to big-buck investors (usually from out of state), they make it incredibly difficult for community members to even make an offer. Land banks own most of the available plots around town and it’s a delicate dance for whoever wants to tango with them. They give homeowners ‘first dibs’ on properties that are adjacent to their own lot, but they are limited to how much square footage they can buy. As a farmer, this poses as a huge obstacle if they ever want to size up from backyard garden scale farming. So, in true Detroit fashion, these urban farmers are going guerrilla. The city leaves them alone so long as they don’t bring too much attention to themselves, but they have to make themselves known just enough to 1) be successful as a business and 2) be considered as a viable land-buyer that takes good care of their properties. Even still, they might have to attend an auction to purchase anything with a buy-in price of $5000, which is an astronomical number considering a city lot can cost only a couple hundred dollars. Learning about all of this makes the back of my neck hot, but S still has a smile on her face and fire in her heart. She’s not giving up any time soon and I, for one, am thankful for that.

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness leaving here. Am I jaded now or does every other city in the country feel somehow snooty and entitled in comparison to Detroit? There’s something about gritty cities (that have endured massive struggle!) that bring out the best in its people. Those people are what keep Detroit going and, my god, do they have heart. The collective consciousness in this city is more aware, passionate, loyal, and active than any other city I have been to and they have the power to do whatever they want. Detroit Hustles Harder than youand it is making a comeback for the history books.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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