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Public Kinship in the Motor City: A Reflection

We are very happy to offer this guest Public Kinship blogpost from our friend and collaborator Dr. June Klees of Bay de Noc College in Escanaba, Michigan. Dr. Klees is also the co-founder of Compassionate America.

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 a test, images of random acts of violence in homes, streets, and back alleys spun through my movie-like-thinking brain. At 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 I 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 common 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 the positive messages about community, cooperation, and love I saw on shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. 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 undergoing a revitalization. Now an adult and a Michigander of nearly 25 years, I was educated and had seen more of the world. I understood that times certainly had changed. But 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 stayed in a red-brick building (c. 1910) called The Aurora in the fascinating Brush Park Historic District. The downtown skyline filled our dining room window. Cranes and other building equipment 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 up a conversation with most anyone in the spirit of understanding their lived experience and its 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 me and my husband. Understanding us as tourists, he struck up a nearly 20-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 Detroit as a “model city” and a “blueprint” for urban centers around the globe. As Peter Scher wrote in Fortune in 2019, “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 highlights “the Detroit Effect,” meaning how peoples’ lives have changed as a result of living in the city. In just one visit, I am already 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 is possible when individuals, neighborhoods, and cities embrace the spirit of Public Kinship for themselves and the future.

*Additionally, I recommend “Detroit, Again?”, an episode of Michigan Public Television's "Under the Radar Michigan" series.

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