Negative press seems to follow Detroit like a relentless rain cloud. Last week, another blow to the city’s already fragile image came when U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said that the streets of Baghdad were just as safe as those of Detroit. No matter how he actually intended the comment to sound, the fact that so many people found the comparison plausible is testament to Detroit’s inhospitable reputation.
Let’s face it, given the choice, you’d have to be crazy to live in Detroit. But it is precisely that kind of crazy that makes Detroiters unlike any other city’s residents in the country. In the face of economic retreat, a dysfunctional city government and unfair public perception, the revival of Detroit is coming not at the hands of major financiers and investment bankers but through grassroots development projects dependent on city residents themselves.
The people who are rebuilding Detroit are doing it with their own blood, sweat and personal finances. If you live and do business in this city, you do it only because you care. For being the most racially and economically segregated city in the country, Detroiters constantly talk about community. Detroit is not a user-friendly city to be sure, but its people are infinitely so.
Take for example bar owner Jerry Belanger, who was highlighted in a recent feature in the online magazine Model D. Belanger, a man in his late 40s, just spent $1.6 million of his own money to open The Park Bar inside a two-story Albert Khan building near Grand Circus Park.
Why did Belanger drain his funds and suffer several broken bones to personally restore the ’20s-era building? Because of his neighbors. As he is quoted in the feature, “I frickin’ love the people who inhabit this city. I have traveled all over the country and I have never been to a city where I love the people as much as I love those who live in Detroit.”
Largely ignored by the rest of the county, Detroit is happy to forge its own way. This is why Belanger, after virtually cleaning out his entire bank account, was able to open his place with liquor borrowed from a neighboring jazz bar. This is also why Belanger hired all Detroit-based artisans to execute the detailing of his building and why he only stocks Detroit-brewed beer and plays only Detroit-based music.
Detroit is a city in waiting. It is a city pleading for change and has been for years. This sense of urgency affects everything – it is a palpable cultural construct, an overwhelming and engulfing feeling that reminds us everyday of something lost and a long-held promise of getting it back.
Whether it’s over a power lunch in Oakland County or numerous PBRs in midtown, the topic of Detroit’s revitalization is something of an obsession for Metro Detroiters. It dominates conversations and energizes southeastern Michiganians while baffling and annoying out-of-towners.
Proof of this cultural obsession can be seen in the recent Shrinking Cities exhibit at the new Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Where else would contemporary art and wonkish urban planning collide and, more surprisingly, cater to the same kind of clientele? Where else would abstract expressionist collages be displayed next to academic papers explaining urban free-trade zones?
Detroit is the only city where underground subculture, spiked with the edge of rebellion, is also imbued with a tremendous amount of civic pride. Where else will young subversives explain the city’s quirks to newcomers as if they were members of a welcoming committee?
The way hipsters in New York City discuss music, Detroit hipsters discuss urban renewal – to the same tunes and without the pretension. City boosterism shows up in the editor’s notes of alternative arts magazines like Inflame, belted by DJs in nightspots like the Corktown Tavern and is sold by independent clothiers like Spy on Second Avenue.
However, we have to be careful not to romanticize Detroit’s condition. The city has many problems, and people contributing to its revival should be realistic about its many shortcomings. Let this be a warning to all those intrepidly crossing 8 Mile to “save” Detroit – you can’t. Detroit doesn’t need saviors; it needs good neighbors.
We all know of Detroit’s reputation for being unsavory, but nothing could be further from the truth. Detroit is the Rodney Dangerfield of American metropolises. It’s this lack of respect makes its residents wholly unapologetic.
Detroit is not a city of hostility, but merely defiance. You think its people are crazy? That’s fine by them. You think they can’t change things? Well, just watch.
Sam Butler can be reached at email@example.com.