Just before Spring Break, I had the opportunity to see Detroit — a city I have been familiar with my entire life — from a fresh perspective. Born and raised on the west side of the state, for me, Detroit has consisted of trips to the Joe Louis Arena or Tigers games, and nothing more than a temporary destination. However, for the past year and a half my sister has been working for Teach for America, teaching 10th and 11th grades at a charter school in Midtown. The other weekend, I finally had the opportunity to head west and experience Detroit through the eyes of young teachers immersed in the growth of the city.

As I sat nestled under a heat lamp in the urban oasis that is Midtown’s 3rd Street Bar, my sister and her colleagues — many of whom had come from out of state — shared their experiences as postgraduates in an unlikely postgraduate destination. Making conversation, I asked their thoughts on the recent media coverage of James Robertson.

In mid-February, The Detroit Free Press published an article detailing the resiliency of Detroit native James Robertson. The piece explained how Robertson, now 56, has spent that last decade getting to and from his factory job 23 miles away in Rochester Hills. Since his 1988 Honda Accord quit on him 10 years ago, he has been taking a bus part way there and partway home. In total, Robertson walks about 5,000 miles per year, a sum equivalent to two trips around the Earth. Quite obviously, Robertson was revered for his remarkable mental and physical toughness, as well as his dedication to a perfect attendance record at work.

In the weeks following the piece’s publication, Robertson’s journey to work became predominant in the spotlight of Detroit media. A GoFundMe page was set up to help Robertson financially, eventually reaching around $360,000, and Suburban Ford in Sterling Heights donated a 2015 Ford Taurus to him after Robertson mentioned to the press he would like a Taurus because it’s like him: “Simple on the outside, strong on the inside.”

I remarked on this article to my sister and her colleagues, saying I thought Robertson provided a delightful representation of Detroit’s enduring spirit and how nice that a story like his was receiving so much media attention. To my immediate surprise, the table became a caucus of scoffs and exasperated laughs, my comments provoking each to take another lengthy sip of their drinks.

My naïveté was shattered as they begun sharing with me their insights: “This is the worst thing that ever happened to him;” “The coverage was far from representative;” “Did you see the other comments on the Go Fund Me page?” I gave Robertson’s story a second look.

The Detroit Free Press’s story, “Heart and sole: Detroiter walks 21 miles in work commute,” made mention of the larger underlying issues, but I would argue it failed to drive home (no pun intended) or fully elaborate on the broken systems that subjected Robertson to 10 years of an extraordinarily arduous commute. Similarly, what resonated with the numerous readers from the community who felt compelled to donate to Robertson were his individual journey and his personal triumphs — but Robertson is not an anomaly.

The GoFundMe site is now closed, but while the comments on the page were still visible there was a clear trend: about every other comment asked, “But what about me?” Between the comments commending Robertson’s spirit, there were just as many recounting their daily struggles, the ways in which the systemic insufficiencies of Detroit have inconvenienced them and the money from which they could benefit. In fact, after all of his media attention, everyone knew about Robertson and everybody wanted something from him. They had similar struggles and they wanted their cut. The neighborhood started showing up on his porch with requests, some threatening, and Robertson was forced to move to a private, undisclosed location in the suburbs.

The subsequent articles covering Robertson’s newfound wealth, happiness and Ford Taurus are uplifting, yet unfinished. Their coverage both features and inherently praises the skewed, misappropriated fix to one man’s problems, while essentially omitting mention of the larger systems that failed him (and continue to fail many citizens of Detroit) and excluding proposals for more expansive aid solutions.

Robertson made this trek for 10 years and, throughout the course of that decade, could not save enough to buy even any skeletal form of inexpensive transportation. Making approximately $2 above minimum wage at $10.55 an hour, Robertson clears no more than $320 a week. His previous landlord charged him $220 a week for a room, and auto insurance alone can top $5,000 a year in Detroit — some of the costliest in the United States. Despite his dedication to not only maintaining his factory job, but also excelling at it, Robertson could not even save enough for a car over the course of 10 years.

What’s more is that the broken metropolitan bus system not only fails middle-aged workers like Robertson, but they are also a disservice to Detroit’s youth. Many high schools do not even have bus systems for their students, so if their parents are unable to take them to school, they have to rely on the same broken bus system that could only complete a fraction of Robertson’s commute.

An article for The Detroit Free Press mentions that, “For low-income commuters like Robertson, getting creative about bus service could help. Detroit’s bus system recently signed on to the federally funded Job Access and Reverse Commute, which provides door-to-door transportation for low-income workers to their jobs.”

Why would we choose to “get creative” about the bus system instead of creating solutions? In the wake of Robertson’s good fortune, let’s not forget to address the underlying factors.
The entire Detroit community came together to aid one man and to rewrite his narrative — and they did so because, in the word’s of one young teacher, they are “taken with Detroit.” They know they live in a vibrant, rejuvenating city in which loyalty runs deep, and sheer grit runs deeper. So what if instead, that same generous community could broaden their impact and bind together to begin reworking the larger narrative of Detroit itself?

Lauren McCarthy can be reached at laurmc@umich.edu.

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