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.