The foam nestled at the top of the green mug. It was my first time tasting Mexican hot chocolate, and I was told I must try it from this corner coffee shop in Southwest Detroit.
I sat inside the warm building as people passed by the large windows going about their business. Some were carrying briefcases, others, all their possessions.
Sitting at the wrought iron table and brushing the cold, rough surface with my elbows, I brought the mug to my mouth. The hint of cinnamon in the hot chocolate surprised me. I hadn’t expected to taste the extra spice in the drink I thought I knew so well. I wondered why I never thought of putting the two together before. I sipped on my drink and made sure to thank the owner before leaving.
“Come back anytime,” he told me, his Mexican accent floating on his words like the cinnamon on the chocolate.
I smiled, turned and walked out the door. The burst of cold immediately made my eyes water and my body long to go back into the coffee shop. The wind whipped at me, even through my down jacket. In the distance, I could see the bridge that leads east to Canada, and I knew 40 miles west, my friends and family were in Ann Arbor.
I was in the middle of those two places, standing on a street corner in Detroit.
It is a city of circumstance built by the Industrial Age and torn down by the media. It is a city that is, as some people say, past its heyday and devoid of potential.
It is a city of boarded windows and empty streets, where vacant lots serve as a constant reminder of what is said to be the substance of the city.
It is a city where Martin Luther King Jr.’s name is given to a street where homeless men and women wait in line at soup kitchens.
Like all cities, there is danger and war, pain and death.
But there are also the musical undertones, environmental activists, political thought and social change.
And in the midst of all of this are 19 University of Michigan students studying with the University’s Semester in Detroit Program.
They watch, from within, a city making strides toward improvement and reinventing itself.
What they see is a city that is unexpectedly welcoming and surprisingly unique.
Reaching out to the City
“Why do we have a student program in Washington D.C., but not Detroit? Why is it so difficult for students to meaningfully engage in Detroit?”
It was the fall of 2006 when LSA senior Rachael Tanner was sitting in Prof. Stephen Ward’s Urban and Community Studies course that she began asking these questions.
She had traveled to Washington, D.C. with the University’s Public Service Intern Program, she had been to Jamaica with the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates, and she studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain, but never to anywhere else inside the United States.
During her junior year she visited Detroit through two of her political science courses, but didn’t have an extended stay, which limited her opportunities for involvement in the Detroit community.
For her final project that semester, Tanner presented the idea of an academic exchange program in Detroit. She envisioned a program where students took classes and lived at Wayne State University, where students spent 16 hours each week working in the community, and where students began to interact with the city she was beginning to understand.
Three of Tanner’s classmates jumped at the opportunity to spearhead the program’s development. She was joined by LSA seniors Molly McCullagh and Jaime Nelson, with whom she had worked with on an alternative spring break trip and an anti-Proposal 2 campaign, respectively, and LSA junior Aditi Sagdeo, who Tanner knew from high school.
Tanner and her team’s desires came at a conveniently fortuitous time. The state had just passed Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that ended affirmative action, which meant the University had to look for a way to continue its commitment to racial diversity in what Ward called a “newly restrictive context.”
The University had also recently opened the Detroit Center on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, which would eventually provide the home base for the Semester in Detroit program headquarters.
The four students spent the winter 2007 semester in weekly meetings, and in May, Tanner, McCullagh and Nelson graduated knowing they would never be able to participate in the program they had spent their senior years creating. It was Sagdeo who assembled a new team to push for another year with the hope of launching the program during the winter 2009 semester.
On the final day of the Semester in Detroit program in 2009, Tanner returned to Detroit to sit in on the class in which students discussed the impact the city had on their lives and the changes they helped to bring about that term.
“I just remember being so happy,” Tanner said. “It wasn’t faculty-driven, it wasn’t administrative-driven, it was students saying, ‘We want to live and learn and work in Detroit’ … Just to see that actually happen made me so happy.”
Still in its infancy, the program has made its mark in Detroit — more than half of the graduates have returned to live and work in the city. And with the momentum the program has gained, it will be launching its first spring semester in Detroit this May.
We are not missionaries. We are not saviors. We aren’t fixing the city.
Semester in Detroit Program Director Craig Regester sits at his desk, leaning forward to make his point. He says it again. His brown-rimmed glasses lay atop the bridge of his nose and his dark brown hair carelessly tousled. He’s a younger man with a family. His wife and two young children smile at him constantly from a portrait pinned to the bulletin board behind his computer.
On the opposite wall stands his bookshelf lined with pieces of literature and novels. When he attended the University, he wanted to be a teacher. He applied to be a volunteer with Teach for America in New York City, but there was something about Detroit that was drawing him there.
In college, he organized the University’s first-ever Alternative Spring Break trip to Detroit where he and 12 other students worked within the city for one week. The more he realized how far Detroit felt from Ann Arbor, the less he wanted to travel the distance to New York.
Before inviting me into his office, I sat in a classroom with his 19 students. They were participating in one of their first seminars where they reflect upon their experiences within the city. It was one of Tanner’s demands when she came up with the idea for the program — that students have the opportunity to share their experiences.
I entered the room an hour into the meeting and was able to catch the tail end of the first day’s task. Regester had the students collaborate based on their internship’s mission statement and discuss how the internships could use each other as resources.
It seemed straightforward enough.
The next task became more involved. Their first assignment from the program was to ride a Detroit Public Transportation bus and reflect upon their experience.
A few girls had ridden the bus together and said they felt like fools for not knowing how to use their passes. They fumbled at the card reader until eventually the bus driver waved them through, and they didn’t have to pay. Another student in the program rode the bus at night by himself, and a few students looked impressed. The other young man in the program had met an interesting older individual and conversed with him the entire ride. Finally, another girl had seen Eminem on her bus ride.
“You have to spend some time in the city to really begin to understand it, as you would in any city,” Regester told me later when we were sitting in his office.
“I would argue that in Detroit, it’s a more complicated place to understand than most urban areas. It’s a city of extremes — of really high highs and really low lows, but lots in between. And that kind of experience, or identity of the city, lends itself to being caricatured in many inaccurate ways — overstating and romanticizing the heyday and overstating or romanticizing the low points,” Regester continued.
Detroit isn’t broken, and it doesn’t need fixing, Regester said. He saw the confusion in my face and heard the skepticism in my voice. And as per the professor in him, he jumped at the chance to teach me.
“This is not a program for people who are coming in here to save Detroit. We’re not saviors, we’re not missionaries,” he stated in a patient voice.
“Sometimes there’s this very romantic idea that we’re going to go in there and fix things. Now, clearly what we’re trying to do is to become part of solutions and contribute, it’s not like there isn’t a common project — helping Detroit to become a better place, but there’s a lot of assumptions behind that idea of fixing.”
Regester was not talking about his job. He was talking about the city he loves, and he was talking about his home. When he talks about the future of the city, he sees the future of his children — the two young children smiling back at him in the portrait.
Hey! Do you have a dollar?
On one of the first days that LSA senior Kit Solowy moved into her dormitory at Wayne State University she was walking down the street and talking on her cell phone to her mom when a homeless man approached her asking for spare change.
She laughed as she recalled how her mom “freaked out,” but maintains that she was simply concerned.
“Well, should she be?” I asked.
Solowy stops. She looked for the right words to say. It was one of the few times she pauses during the 30-minute interview.
“I guess you could get really scared if you let yourself,” she said quietly, but gained momentum with every sentence. “But ultimately, I think people are good and that they want to help you. People aren’t scary. And I think Detroit is an easy place to figure that out because it’s such an amazing community that engages with you as you walk down the street.”
Solowy is spending this semester working at the Matrix Theatre Company, a small 50-person theater in Southwest Detroit. The street is quiet and the two-story brick building neighbors two empty lots.
At the theater, her main projects are working with a community-involved story-telling group that will eventually write a play and creating a marshland security project that promotes the protection of natural spaces in Detroit. She explains that the city was once an ecologically-rich marshland, but with the amount of pollution and the empty lots that are being paved over, the city is losing the wildlife it once had.
Solowy went on to tell me about a fellow student who is interning with a state official who fought to have a handicapped man’s water turned back on after the state turned it off.
It was one of those “real change” moments, she said.
She was genuinely proud and happy for her classmate and for this man she didn’t know. I asked her about her “real change moment.”
She believes it will come when her marshland security project is completed. It will end with her and other community volunteers putting on a surprise performance, also known as guerrilla theater performances, dressed in frog masks to promote ecological awareness throughout the city.
“Frogs?” I asked, not sure I heard her correctly.
She led me out of the theater and up the narrow staircase to show me the molds she made for the frog masks. Four large lumps of newspaper sit wrapped in clear tape and saran wrap.
She explains each species — tree frog, bull frog — while pointing to each mask.
She told me that people have told her that the guerrilla theater performance is unrealistic. People believe there won’t be enough masks completed, there won’t be enough volunteers and the community won’t appreciate the message of the theater.
“Kind of like what you guys are doing in Detroit?” I asked. It’s a leading question, and she knows it.
She looks at me and smirks and explains that Detroit is different than everyone believes.
“(In Detroit) we’re all walking down the street, and we’re going to different places,” Solowy said as she plasters a piece of the local Spanish newspaper to the bullfrog mold. “But we’re all walking down the same street.”
Who are you? Why are you here?
A young boy in an oversized jacket leaned on the table in the middle of the room. He was the only one who said anything when I entered the building.
I introduced myself and asked him about himself.
His name is Daniel and he’s 13. After he left the room I asked LSA sophomore Riley Linebaugh if he’s actually 13.
As we began the interview, she quietly explained that he is malnourished.
After three days talking with the people in Detroit, I finally started to understand the shared learning that occurs between the interns and the communities.
In Ann Arbor, I sit at a desk learning from professors. In Detroit, Linebaugh learns from Daniel.
She walked me around the small brick building at Clark Park Recreation Center. The snow had settled on the adjacent football field and the grey goal posts jut up out of the snow, filling the empty space. A few people ambled across the park’s worn ice rink as a mother drops two girls off at the front door.
Linebaugh began to tell me about her first few days in the city. How, at first, she read all the safety handbooks and walked rigidly down the street, averting eye contact. But then she began smiling and interacting with people. She started to feel disconnected from Ann Arbor and now can’t even fathom that people are walking through the Diag as she is walking through the streets of Detroit.
Her father, a professor, was concerned that Linebaugh would be hurt by her time not spent in the library.
But it’s been outside of the classroom, through her involvement with Clark Park Recreation Center where Linebaugh has felt her voice develop. It holds more weight, she says.
Despite having spent the past seven years of her life in Ann Arbor, Linebaugh hadn’t spent much time in Detroit. She’d only been to the Detroit Institute of Art to view her favorite mural, Detroit Industry, painted by Diego Rivera.
Because of her experience in the city, that mural has come alive. Now she thinks constantly about the auto industry and about the economy of Detroit. She wonders how it will affect the city, how it’s going to affect Clark Park, how it’s going to affect Daniel.
“These are the people that I’m not learning about in my classrooms (in Ann Arbor),” Linebaugh said.
“We talk in a lot of my classes about negative space — what’s missing in the academic curriculum or what’s missing in the book you’re reading,” she said. “I think Detroit’s voice is what’s been missing in my personal curriculum. Coming here is not going to fill that negative space because it’s an enormous city, and I’m never going to be able to know all of it.
“But I’m going to start being able to fill in some of that negative space.”
For the 19 students who are now engaged in this experience, not one would trade places with a student studying in Europe or South America this semester. Ask them to explain why and their words wouldn’t do it justice. But ask them to describe an experience, and they each can speak of moments that have changed their lives and have seen that change in a city that has been written off by most.