Though it may require swallowing our pride, sometimes coming home is the best feeling in the world. Just ask LeBron James about his return to Cleveland. As a native of Cleveland’s suburbs myself, I’ve forgiven LeBron’s mistakes and embraced his homecoming - truly a homecoming for the ages. Speaking about coming home, the beauty of home is that it is unique to every person. For me, it means a collection of little things, including hearing the sound of my mother cooking dinner and and the laughter of my little sister. For LeBron, it may mean hearing the supportive chants of millions of basketball fans.
Like LeBron, Nick Prys also knows about staying true to his home. A 2014 Duke graduate and native Detroiter, Nick Prys submitted a winning video for Challenge Detroit – a yearlong program that enables participants to tackle some of the city’s toughest challenges, from restoring abandoned buildings to improving the public school system. Along with some friends, he’s working on a startup called Clove, a grocery vending service that will cut out supermarkets as the middleman and improve food consumption efficiency.
When I revisited the Detroit News link, I realized that this was the same Nick that I had met last Friday at a local entrepreneurial mixer at TechTown. Rocking a plaid shirt and cleanly cropped facial hair, Nick spoke to me with a slow, measured voice about his experiences growing up in the city. He told me about how he had taken his friends to see the abandoned Packard Plant, and how he’d be willing to take me there before I leave. He’s one of those rare individuals that I could be real with from the start.
In the video, Nick Prys explains his deep roots to Detroit and why he's willing to stay and work in his hometown after graduation. His video reminds me of the line in the song Pompeii by Bastille, which goes, "Oh, where do we begin? The rumble or our sins?" In other words, what should changemakers focus on to revitalize Detroit- the physical ruins of abandoned structures, or the systemic corruption and failed policies of the last five decades? Beautiful montages of the city, featuring highlights such as Downtown street art and the vibrant restaurants of Greektown and Corktown, are spliced with shots of Nick riding his bike through barren lots and storefronts. Set to a nostalgic rock ballad, he almost convinces me to stay in Detroit. Almost.
Similar to the LeBron Situation, I both applaud his loyalty and wonder why he would choose to stay in Detroit. Just one glance at current media coverage can repel the bravest tourists from traversing the treacherous paths of Gratiot Street and 8 Mile Road – the same 8 Mile of Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers infamy. And as Nick mentions himself, why would people choose to live in Detroit, a city that provokes pity and apathy rather than awe, over LA, New York, or Boston? Sure, there is innovation and creative energy. Sure, there’s hope and a collective sense of ownership among the city’s people. Whether we see this energy and community drive sustainable change is entirely another question.
The first time I watched Nick Prys’ video (shout out to Kiran for sharing it with us), I was inspired. The second time, I did a slow clap in my head. The third time, I felt a mixture of disbelief and respect. When I watched the video a fourth time a few minutes ago, my response was more measured and critical – Nick made a video of the highlights of the city, like how Facebook shows the highlights of our lives, while it brushes past some of the city’s more serious issues – broken infrastructure, blight, poverty, and violent crime, to name a few.
Detroit, from its heyday in the 1950s to its present state, can be summarized with this line from Pompeii: "Many days fell away with nothing to show, and the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love." As more and more people fled to city for the outlying suburbs, Detroit became a vestige of its former self. So as Bastille later sings, and I echo, "How am I going to be an optimist about this?" Nick largely relies on emotion rather than reason to make his points, which may be an effective way to make an inspiring video, but not enough to persuade policymakers and dangerous in the long run. For every Edison District and Cass Creative Corridor, there are dozens of broken houses, broken homes, and homes being broken into. Such problems cannot not fixed by only young entrepreneurs, and require support from local government and the black majority population.
Will Detroit remain in the ashes or will it soar like the legend of the phoenix? Every end has a beginning, and only time will tell if Detroit gets lucky. So as I travel to the Packard Plant with Nick later this week, I’ll have to remind myself that he considers all of Detroit, including its forgotten rubble, to be part of his home, and that is a beautiful thing indeed.