First, I want to establish that I am a middle-class white woman. I grew up in the north suburbs and made the trek down I-75 to help at the family business, a 60-year-old floral shop on the east side of Detroit. I grew up with a different picture of Detroit than my suburban comrades.
I spent this past spring semester living, learning and working in the city and earning my Urban Studies minor through Semester in Detroit. The time I spent in Detroit was a breath of fresh air. The people of Detroit — the 700,000 people who remain in the city after Tigers games — have created a strong community. Grassroots organizations have filled gaps the government left: They patrol their own neighborhoods nightly, grow their own fresh produce and found community-based schools.
Detroit has an unexplainable, honest charm. Walking down the street, people say hello and make eye contact with you. That simple daily reminder that I exist in the greater world compelled me to rethink my values and lifestyle. I saw a brighter, more sustainable and healthier future in Detroit. It gave me hope and excitement for my own future.
I began this school year with a new outlook, incorporating the lessons Detroit taught me into my existence in Ann Arbor. On campus, I have noticed an influx of Detroit initiatives. From volunteers to groups that focus on nightlife, everyone wants a piece of Detroit. I’m sure they all have the best intentions. But please, all who take interest in Detroit — please enter the community respectfully.
Detroit is a city, not a playground. It’s not a place to get drunk and leave only broken bottles behind when the weekend’s over. Detroit is not a blank slate and doesn’t need designer tampon boutiques or gourmet dog-food restaurants. To my peers sporting “Detroit isn’t scary, guys!” t-shirts purchased in mid-Corktown: this is not the way to do it.
There are many people who call Detroit their home, who stuck with it through white flight, economic recession and many Devil’s Nights. If you’re lucky enough to enter Detroit, here are a few things you should consider:
1. Take a moment to check your privilege. Examine your different social identities like race, class and gender. Think about how the power your identities give you affects the way you view the world and your values. Be honest with yourself about your own shortcomings. Enter Detroit with humility.
2. Realize that people have a wide range of life experiences, privileges and belief systems. Forget all the things you think you know. Your college education doesn’t make you more intelligent than others. Enter Detroit with an open mind, ready to listen.
3. Now forget how awkward you feel. Just like the city, you’re not without error and never will be. Recognize your discomfort but allow your curiosity and desire to learn guide you. Enter Detroit with confidence.
4. Start looking at the bigger picture. Is your student initiative listening to and honoring the desires of Detroiters? Is your presence worthwhile? Enter Detroit with genuine intentions.
5. Use your brain. Detroit has danger, but danger exists everywhere, including Ann Arbor. Be aware and trust your gut. Enter Detroit carefully.
6. Your experience in Detroit is what you make of it. Be patient and put yourself out there. You’re lucky to have this opportunity. Enter Detroit with a smile on your face.
I am a middle-class white girl, and a one-time citizen of Detroit — even if just for a bit. I invite you to prove me right or wrong by having your own experience through Semester in Detroit, the MDetroit Center Connector or independently. But please remember, Detroit is someone’s home, and you’re representing your fellow Wolverines. Treat Detroit with respect.
Willa Adamo is an LSA junior.