Detroit fascinates me.
There seems to be no consensus about this city. The stories, feelings and opinions shared with me made it tremendously intriguing for me. Who are you, Detroit?
I have heard of its grandeur of older days. Motown music is still prevalent in popular culture, even beyond the borders of the US of A. GMC, Ford and Chrysler vehicles still populate the streets of every continent. I have heard of a Detroit that led the world through steel, not only of the mills, but of the spirit and the mind. Tempered through harsh winters and a complex interplay of social factors, Motor City left its mark on the collective psyche. Walking through the halls of the Masonic Temple, in the heart of the city, I had the opportunity to experience a touch of its dated majesty. The venue came alive with the sounds of some of the most critically acclaimed musicians dominating our speakers today; just like it vibrated decades ago with Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and other legends.
I have also heard the stories of despair and fear. The first word that comes to my mind from those recounts is blight. “Entire factories abandoned, empty exposed-brick warehouse buildings, and boarded-up houses are what you will find in lonely Detroit”, some said. “Gang activity runs rampant and spreads through the desolate and forgotten city neighboring Windsor, Canada. Be very careful or avoid it altogether if possible.” It was the first city of that size and magnitude in the country to file for bankruptcy. At a point last summer, the local government considered selling off the masterpieces of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Racial unrest and White Flight also came up in conversation.
How could such a contradicting image be reconciled? I was puzzled, and even more intrigued with each story. As a young Mexican, I have experienced what it means to have your home become a caricature in news outlets; I know what it feels like when people characterize your city and country as a “lost case of violence, corruption and fear”. I have heard it all and more than once I bit my tongue when people tried to convince me that my home was lost and beyond redemption. Mexico is not the over-simplified story the media portrays; my country is not a two-dimensional problem.
In this sense, I knew there was something about Detroit that was lost on these opinions and perceptions I gathered from Western Michiganders and other Americans. I felt that Detroiters had a very different story to tell, and that there was much more to know and see.
I took a road trip to Motor City. I drove East and arrived at my destination; I felt energy run through me as I walked the streets of the Motor City in a clear-sky summer day. For us Michiganders (born or adopted), summer is lived like nowhere else, and Detroit welcomed me like a book unfolding itself, waiting to be read. I devoured it.
I had the pleasure of enjoying the city for less than 24 hours, but I saw in person what I had read in some of the most critical and deeper insights about Detroit: it is a social experiment like no other.
Abandoned houses are being demolished and transformed into urban gardens for entire neighborhoods. Old warehouses are being adapted into living quarters, maintaining the older feeling of their industrial past as their main selling point. Nonprofits are flourishing and offering social innovations that are breaking ground in education, infrastructure and community healing. The old coexists with the new. Rust and shine do not fight each other, but embrace the city hand-in-hand.
It is a great time for Detroit. It is not coming back; it has always been here. It was never lost; people didn’t understand its journey. Motor City is teaching us a lesson. Let us listen.