This is an excerpt from the Daily’s 2014 Orientation Issue. To read the rest of the issue, click here.
One of the most common responses I received when I told out-of-state friends or family that I was attending the University of Michigan in the fall was: “Isn’t that right next to Detroit?” This was often followed by a shudder or a raised eyebrow.
As someone who had never visited Detroit before coming to the University, this response made a strong impression on me. Shamefully, all I knew about Detroit was that it was dangerous and bankrupt.
This isn’t a unique perception of the city. Detroit is only 40 minutes outside of Ann Arbor, but students don’t visit the city as they would if they lived the same distance to Chicago or New York. The city’s reputation and lack of access has shied many away.
It is true; Detroit does have high rates of crime, poverty and abandoned buildings. But Detroit is complex and shouldn’t be simplified to such stereotypes, it shouldn’t be lamented as a once-great city and it shouldn’t be idealized as a new future. Ann Arbor is a great college town that you will come to love, but your education at the University will not be complete if you do not take the time to get to know the city just next door.
Start your relationship with Detroit by volunteering. Participate in DP Day, an annual event hosted by the Detroit Partnership, where over a thousand University students work alongside Detroit citizens to volunteer at locations throughout metro Detroit. Through this experience, you will start to get to know Detroit. Use it as an opportunity to reflect about your engagement with the community.
But your relationship with Detroit shouldn’t be a one-time “been there, done that” experience — continue to engage. The Detroit Partnership organizes volunteer opportunities throughout the entire year in an effort to unite Ann Arbor and Detroit. Volunteer at schools, urban gardens and soup kitchens and get to know the citizens and stories of the city.
Getting to the city without a car is no longer a challenge. This past fall, the University’s Detroit Center instituted the Detroit Connector shuttle, which takes students into the heart of downtown on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays for free. The shuttle has four different stops and runs all day, allowing students to spend an entire day in the city.
Start with the Detroit Institute of Arts: the shuttle brings students to its doors on Woodward Avenue. Let Diego Rivera’s famous mural depicting Ford autoworkers take your breath away in the afternoon sun. Or try the Museum of Contemporary Art and experience a taste of Detroit’s up-and-coming art scene. Visit the polka-dotted sidewalks of the Heidelberg Project to see what abandonment can be transformed into.
Walk downtown, see Joe Louis’ giant bronze fist, eat a Coney dog at Lafayette Coney and reflect upon Detroit’s history and future. Go to Corktown and drink coffee at Astro or indulge in barbeque at Slows and see the famous abandoned Michigan Central Station, often encapsulated through ruin porn photography.
Buy fresh fruits and vegetables from Eastern Market on a Saturday morning or drive to Belle Isle for an afternoon excursion. Visit a bakery in Mexicantown or try authentic Middle Eastern food in nearby suburban Dearborn, which has the largest Arab American population in the Western Hemisphere. The city has endless opportunities to explore and engage with those who live there.
Once you’ve gotten to know Detroit firsthand, you’ll grow fond. You may even want to stay. Spend spring and summer in the city through the University’s Semester in Detroit program. The program allows students to stay at Wayne State University residences and learn about the city both in the classroom and through an internship of your choice in the Detroit community.
Detroit is not just bankruptcy, crime, the Big Three and abandoned buildings. It is more than Motown, techno, urban gardening and hockey. It is a city whose citizens are filled with pride and resilience. Learn from them and their stories.
Go to Detroit with respect and understanding. Let it teach you and what you learn there can be more valuable that anything taught in a classroom.