When I was in 6th grade, my geography teacher made the entire class gasp! “If you want to get murdered, go to Detroit,” he said glibly, pointing to a map of Michigan with his finger firmly planted over the dot that marked the city. A room full of small, white faces looked around at each other, mouths wide open, with some quietly echoing back the word “murdered?” As Mr. M. rattled off the death statistics that we had to memorize for the test, images of random acts of violence in homes, streets, and back allies spun through my movie-like-thinking brain. Around the dinner table that night, I asked my parents “Why is Detroit like that?” I don’t recall their answer, but I know it added to the chills experienced every time I heard the word “Detroit.”
The nightly news didn’t help either. I grew up in the 1970s-80s in a tough, somewhat impoverished region, culturally and geographically sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia. Graphic reports of racial unrest and “urban decay and violence” were commonplace on local, regional, and national news. The images of businesses and homes broken and burning and people screaming out in anger, pain, or fear served to educate my young mind that, though violence was violence worldwide, in the United States, white uniformed faces regularly clashed with brown ones, old and young. None of it seemed fair or logical to my naïve and privileged mind.
Despite being a victim of childhood violence and abuse, I didn’t associate the stories on TV with my experiences - unless other kids were involved, which then led me to wonder why adults refused to fix their behaviors for those whom they labeled as “the future.” Weren’t they the ones in charge? Didn’t they “know better?” Indeed, angry adults seemed so commonplace that I figured adulthood meant being angry toward people, things, and circumstances. To me, it was the nation’s cities, especially ones like Detroit that housed and festered adult problems and anger the most, despite positive messages about community, cooperation, and love “As Seen on TV” via shows like Sesame Street and the Electric Company.
Dialing 40+ years into the future, in June 2021, I found myself with a husband partially raised in and a daughter soon attending college in … you guessed it … Detroit, Michigan. As we walked the streets, it was evident that the city was revitalizing. Now an adult and a Michigander of nearly 25 years, I was educated, seen more of the world, and understood that times certainly had changed. Yet, it took this trip - my first to the city – to weed out the deeply-rooted visualizations of hate and discord planted by Mr. M. so long ago.
We affordably stayed in a red-brick building (c. 1910), called the “Aurora” in the fascinating Historic Brush District. The skyline of downtown filled our dining room window, along with cranes and other building equipment that dotted the landscape. Evidence abounded of the community’s intentional and strategic attempt to invest in itself. From the restoration of old buildings, to environmentally-conscious new living spaces, to community parks and gardens and recently-opened small businesses, enthusiasm for the future was in the air. Messages of hope, pride, and encouragement called out to passersby from banners hung on buildings and signs tucked in the windows of businesses and private residences.
However, the best examples of these sentiments came from the residents themselves. Despite years of managing social anxiety, talking to strangers doesn’t typically scare me, especially when traveling. I’ll strike a conversation with most anyone in the spirit understanding their lived experience and context. I spoke with those working in construction, restaurants, businesses, and museums. Nearly all disclosed an optimistic view about how they and their neighbors were coming together to engage with governments, reformers, and investors to define their collective future.
The conversation that reflected this dynamic the most was not one I initiated. While on a walk from Midtown to Downtown, a middle-aged man who worked in stadium security, approached my husband and me. Understanding us as tourists, he struck up a nearly twenty-minute conversation about the city, pointing out attractions and emphasizing the growth and development he’d seen in his lifetime. “We – the residents - are Detroit, what we make of this place is up to us,” he said, “Good changes are happening.” Despite lingering challenges, in his lifetime the city had become more than what seemed possible in his youth. It was a city of growing kinship and restoration - one that could serve as an inspiration to others.
Indeed, the world has noticed. Writers have identified it as a “model city” and “blueprint” for urban centers around the globe. As an article by Peter Scher says, “One can see progress toward the goal of creating ‘20-minute neighborhoods’ or ‘areas where residents are a 20-minute walk or a short bike ride away from basic needs and services, including grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools, parks, and public transit … [to enhance] … convenience and quality of life for residents and [create] the conditions for which people at all income levels can and want to live.’”*
In contrast to the images painted by Mr. M. all those years ago, Detroit offered us the warmest welcomes – and I lived to tell! An exhibit at the Detroit History Museum’s highlights “the Detroit Effect,” meaning how peoples’ lives changed as a result of living in the city. In just one visit, I already am grateful for its gifts, and I look forward to what my daughter’s journey as a Detroiter will bring into her life. As I reflect on my time there, I also have a wish for today’s 6th-grade geography students: may their teachers hold up Detroit as a role model of what’s possible when individuals, neighborhoods, and cities embrace the spirit of public kinship for themselves and the future.
I hope everyone is well and thriving this summer and that you enjoyed my modest reflection. 🙂 I have taken seriously Bobby's charge that I not think about you all too much during summer break, but as a new semester fast approaches my mind returns to the folks at PKI, and I look forward to seeing your smiling faces again sometime this fall. Please remain healthy!
All the best,
Hi, all! I hope August is treating you well. 😊
As a follow up to this post, I'd like to recommend an episode from Michigan Public Television's "Under the Radar Michigan." It will give you a "flavor" (pun intended) of what I mentioned in my post. https://utrmichigan.com/season-9/episode-904/ Enjoy!