Confessions Of An Urban-Exploring, Ruin-Fetishizing, White Non-Detroiter

The room where my complicated, naïve love-affair with Detroit began. The building was demolished in 2006. Credit: Michael Fitzgerald

I have been pretending to know Detroit for most of my adult life.

It’s a common affliction among youngish white journalists in Michigan who’ve never lived in the city. Even the fact that I talk about “knowing” the city is probably a giveaway that I’m not a Detroiter. My friends who are Detroiters, and Detroiters who comment on my stories, seem pretty tired of the discussion about what Detroit is or isn’t, what it represents or doesn’t and what the rest of us think about any of it. They’ve moved on.

But I can’t seem to stop myself from writing about Detroit as if I know what I’m talking about. I’ve even attacked other non-Detroiters for their lack of understanding (most people who read that rant believed it was written by a Detroiter, which only embarrasses me more).

Like most white, non-Detroiters, my fascination with the city started in my early 20s. And it involved urban exploring.

I was an intern in the (partner station!) Michigan Radio news room when I did my first story about urban exploring. A year later, as Detroit was on a demolition binge to get ready to host the Super Bowl, I produced a story about an amazing find inside the long-abandoned Motown headquarters. (No, not that one. This one.)

You can listen to it here: [powerpress]

The story behind the record I found inside the Motown Building is still a mystery to me. And there were many more treasures inside that building. When the building was demolished, old papers signed by Smokey Robinson and others blew down Woodward Avenue.

Maybe that’s why I felt a bit of a twinge of sadness this morning when I heard that the long-abandoned, dangerous and unsightly Packard Plant will finally be demolished as well. Maybe that’s why I still can’t get enough of documentaries that feature Detroit’s “ruin porn” (even if I make fun of them).

Or maybe I feel that way because I’m a privileged white person who’s never had to live next to one of these buildings. I’ve never watched my property value plummet because of it. I’ve never felt what it’s like to have non-Detroiters go on and on about these things as if it’s the only thing to talk about when you talk about Detroit.

But I actually think not being a Detroiter is the reason I care about these things so much.

Detroiters are allowed to feel sick of the discussion. They’ve probably got better things to do. But I live in Grand Rapids, Mich., where plenty of people wrote off Detroit long ago. I know people who still believe that driving into Detroit is roughly equivalent to driving into Palestine. So, yeah, maybe I’m a little jumpy when an innocent blogger uses mildly negative language when talking about Detroit.

But here’s the thing: Just because I don’t live in Detroit doesn’t mean I have no stake in its future. If you live anywhere in the industrial Midwest, Detroit represents you in some way. It is a symbol of our region, fair or not. If you live in Michigan, or northwest Ohio, your economic future is directly tied to Detroit’s.

I may not really know Detroit. I may be stupid and unhelpful if I look at an abandoned building and say it’s beautiful. But stupid or not, I do know enough to say that Detroit is a great city, an important city – for Michigan, for the Midwest and for the nation.

And I’m damn sure not going to stop saying that.

7 Replies to “Confessions Of An Urban-Exploring, Ruin-Fetishizing, White Non-Detroiter”

  1. I am a native of metro-detroit.  I too am fascinated by all of the fallen beauty.  The old Grand Central Station amazes me.  It’s like you are looking inside the sunken titanic!   The photos of decaying Detroit at the 2010 ArtPrize in GR was my favorite entry.  It touched me at a deep emotional level.  My mother often shared stories of shopping on Woodward Avenue in the 1940’s and early 50’s… before the riots and the ‘white flight’ that followed.  It was before the leadership of Mayor Coleman Young… and the greater divide he created between blacks and whites.  I’ll never forget the live T.V. interview Mayor Young did in the 1970’s.  He stated he was going to push all of the crime out of Detroit and north of 8 Mile. (In other words into the suburbs) Other leaders have  tried to make a difference… Dennis Archer, Dave Bing but it won’t be easy. That said,  I agree Detroit has a lot of potential.  If everyone can (city and suburbs)work together and come up with a united vision, maybe, one day, Detroit can once again be thought of as the Paris of the West. 

  2. Thanks for catching that Stevewarns! It should be fixed. 

    And thanks Lauren! I wrote this, in part, because of the guilt I felt when everyone (justifiably) assumed that last piece was written by a Detroiter. I needed to confess my sin.

  3. I really appreciate your passion for Detroit. I feel the same way about Austin and would be a little irked if someone was making fun of my adopted city (depending how accurate it was or not ;). I love cities and wherever I move I adopt a real sense of pride.  I’d probably feel the same way if I moved to Detroit. I’m from a Rust Belt town in Upstate NY and though I’ve never been to Detroit, I feel as though I can relate to some of the unfortunate events that have befallen over the city in recent years. Though I would never move back to my hometown due to its poverty and lack of employment, there is so much to be said for the men and women who worked hard and made those towns in the Rust Belt what they were at one point. It makes me sad to think how opportunity was just yanked from that area and for so many people. My family is still there and times are often dismal. It’s exciting that Detroit appears to have opportunity and growth right around the bend.

  4. I believe it’s safe to finally tell my tale, the tale of a young man who grew up in one of the most profitable, loving, and deadly crews in downtown Detroit’s Irish mob. I have seen first hand many people live and die on the streets I played on as a child, and later ruled with an iron fist under the wing of my uncle, Donnie O. Over the years the old gangsters I once knew have died off,one       by one. I fear no retribution now and am looking for someone to help me tell my story.

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