My very first memories of the city involve summer days in strollers, staring at the sun glancing off of the river from the shores of Belle Isle. I was lucky enough to live in a tall brick house nestled between trees that were almost as old as the small neighborhood itself. Indian Village, one of the city’s many historic gems, was home to many firsts: I learned to walk holding on to my old bullmastiff for support, played in leaf piles in the shade with small yellow plastic tools and followed my older sister around in hopes that maybe one day I could be just like her. Throughout the entirety of what I consider to be a beautiful childhood, I remained ignorant to the deterioration that surrounded my few square blocks of bliss. It wasn’t until later, after I had been plucked from the heart of the city, placed into public school in a metro Detroit suburb and my childhood had become a distant memory that I began to recognize the stigma that surrounded the city I held so dear — a stigma that told me that Detroit isn’t perfect. A stigma that told me Detroit was scary, dangerous, a giant black sinkhole that was a blemish to our state and our reputation and is talked negatively of or — better yet — not talked of at all.
After finishing up freshman year, I clung to Ann Arbor like a life preserver and opted to take spring classes, looking for any excuse to remain in a city that seemed to be a happy, blissful bubble. I took English 223 and spent spring semester reading and writing poetry with a group of students who had their own reasons for staying at school. One day, we read “Thirty Years Rising,” a poem by Olena Kalytiak Davis about returning to her native city of Detroit after leaving to live her life elsewhere. I was struck by the beauty and rawness of her words as my teacher read them aloud; about how her brother had arrived at the “heavy black X of destination on the inside of his forehead,” and how she had escaped the city and given it up for so many others that never felt like home. And finally, how Detroit had become a part of her, just by being the place that she grew up in.
“It’s in my bones. My sternum
runs like Woodward Avenue,
it’s pinnated, parked on, full
of dirt, holding women in wigs and cigarettes, bars
lit from the outside in, it’s overflowing
with pooltables and ashtrays. My ribs
are holding up factories and breweries, two-bedroom
houses and multi-storied lives, this strip,
this city, these sidestreets,
a bony feather.”
So I started asking around Ann Arbor to see what other people thought of Detroit, and discovered something extremely strange — the great majority of people, whether they were from the East Coast or from another metro Detroit suburb, hadn’t ever visited. A reputation permeated by Eminem’s “8 Mile” and news stories of murders and robberies, of bodies rolling up on the shore of the Detroit River or being found in abandoned buildings, was all that had reached most students at the University. Any word of beautiful summer days on Belle Isle, of family-owned coffee shops and bakeries, of good food and good people, had somehow been lost along the 45-minute drive down I-94.
It certainly isn’t my place to tell you how to feel about Detroit, and I would never expect you to take my word for it. But before you embrace the city’s bad rep, hop in your car and spend a day exploring Detroit. Learn about Detroit’s bootlegging role in prohibition, eat a gyro in Greektown, wander around botanical gardens, grab a cup of coffee at a hole in the wall café, eat a pastry from Avalon, sunbathe on the shore of the river, stop and listen to bucket drummers on a street corner, hear the roar of Comerica Park, visit the Heidelberg, see the art spray-painted on the walls or inside the Detroit Institute of Arts, buy fresh produce at Eastern Market, ride the People Mover until you’ve memorized the city’s skyline, take a picture with the Spirit and discover the beauty in urban decay. Give the city a chance and I know it will surprise you, because for me, home is where the heart is, and my heart is and always has been in Detroit.
Paige Pfleger can be reached at email@example.com.