Alexis Farmer: Through the looking glass

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - 4:25pm

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I anxiously sat on a large, mildly heated tour bus that was driving around Detroit for the course History and Future of Detroit. My anxiety stemmed from sitting on the bus, pretending to be a tourist in the land I call home. I’m a native Detroiter, born and raised in the place popularly known as Motor City, the birthplace of Motown, the Murder Capital, post-apocalyptic and, most recently, post-bankruptcy. Detroit is often associated with negative attributes, yet recent efforts to revitalize the city is constantly challenging this narrative. Because few people know the historical landscape of Detroit, and often formulate their judgements around personal or second-hand experiences with the city, their judgments about the city's current standing are often ill-informed. 

I’m a defensive Detroiter, because I always feel the city is being scrutinized for its every action. I feel a duty to be prepared to counteract any negative critique or generalized stereotype of the city. Detroit is constantly being watched so closely, so precisely, that Detroit's name appears in national headlines on a regular basis.

Though I acknowledge that there is a lot that cities can learn from Detroit, I feel uncomfortable being observed as an ongoing case study. By taking the course, I was able to see Detroit through the lens of these academics and journalists who were curious about the city's decline, and how it would manage to climb out of what seems like a rabbit hole.

A tour of Detroit was the central component of the course. I took the class to continue learning about the history and contemporary conditions of Detroit. I also had ulterior motives to see what history, or whose history, of Detroit was actually presented.

The class visited several neighborhoods and landmarks in the city and suburbs of Detroit, 95 percent of which I had visited before and was familiar with. Whenever students were let off the bus, people quickly whipped out their digital devices to collect their own primary documentation of their exposure to Detroit. I couldn’t help but feel like a bystander, one who was anxious to know people’s perceptions of the images their cell phones captured. I wanted to know what questions I could clarify, or what misjudgments I could rectify with information.

Despite being a life-long resident of the city, I’m no expert on Detroit. From taking the course, and even from taking the tour, I have learned a great deal of historical details. Yet, there were points in lecture and on the tour when I felt obligated to speak. While I couldn’t recite historical dates or cite specific policies that have led to the systematic, institutional and political demise of the city, I could talk about what citizens were doing to transform their own communities. I could touch on the intricacies of illusioned but somewhat accurate bureaucracy of the Detroit city government, bound by both external (lost sovereignty to an emergency financial manager for the city and the school district) and internal mechanisms (Detroit’s City Charter).

I hesitated to speak for fear of being labeled the know-it-all. Inserting myself into the space of my professor’s authority and offering commentary felt intrusive. I felt as if I actually didn’t belong with my classmates on this tour; I belonged on the streets, with the other people going about their day.

This is sometimes the complete opposite of how I have felt in classrooms, where I have been singled out to speak on first-hand accounts of living in Detroit, as if students from Detroit were either the witnesses or defense attorneys against the prosecuting evidence of Detroit’s demise. There never seems to be a comfortable place to situate my identity as a Detroiter at the University — I’m either a tourist or a representative, a student or a teacher. While these identities can co-exist, they often come with internal tension.

I’m curious to know if this tension exists for residents of other metropolitan areas. I recently visited Boston. Being the independent adventurer I am, I mapped out a plan to visit Boston’s historic sites. I contemplated taking a trolley tour to give me a history of Boston and visit its historic relics, but the tour of the Freedom Trail that outlined landmarks of the Revolutionary War didn’t include places that encompassed Boston’s Black history. There was a separate Black Freedom Trail (because, of course, in our society, cultural histories are not a part of U.S. history, just a diversion from the main narrative) that I chose to explore in combination with the Freedom Trail.

I felt my identity as a tourist exposed entering into museums and other obvious tourist destinations. Though walking throughout the streets of Boston, I wondered how often residents of a city get to know their own history, their neighborhoods and their people. Do residents travel to different areas of the city? How frequently do residents visit their own museums and cultural centers? How often are we confined to our immediate boundaries that we never seek to know every part of a place that we tie our identities to?  

College students are easily susceptible to being confined in their immediate space known as the college bubble. Students come from all across the world to expand their education, though they sparingly capitalize on supplementing their education with becoming familiar with the area our institutions are rooted in.

As residents of Ann Arbor, how much do students know about Ann Arbor history? How many people know Michigan Stadium is the largest stadium in the country, and the third-largest stadium in the world? Or that President Lyndon B. Johnson revealed his plan of the Great Society at the University in May of 1964? That Ann Arbor was the birthplace of the White Panther Party, which is an anti-racist political organization? That in 1975, Albert H. Wheeler was Ann Arbor’s first African-American mayor? Or how Ann Arbor’s historic train depot was transformed into a renowned restaurant called the Gandy Dancer? Do students know that the Office of Academic and Multicultural Initiatives was created as a result of the first Black Action Movement? Is our interaction with cities transactional? Are students merely tourists of the city that supports their educational grounding?

Cities are transformational landscapes, most profoundly for the lives of its inhabitants. It’s imperative that residents have a grounding in the history and landscape of the city in its entirety, which is why initiatives such as place-based education are vital to educating future generations. Being a well-informed citizen doesn’t just mean attaining a certain educational level, but also knowing about the community that one inhabits.

Understanding your community is a part of understanding your identity. I encourage everyone to expand their knowledge and identity by continuously engaging with their communities through events and community forums, visiting historic sites or learning the unconventional community spaces that designate the unique atmosphere of each city. Only through understanding our history, and thereby understanding ourselves, can we build livable, inclusive and sustainable cities for generations to come.

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.