While we have been here, we have enjoyed a tour of several fantastically designed downtown buildings, lunch in the lively Campus Martius Park, and excursions within our quite livable midtown neighborhoods. This being said, please forgive me if this post is a bit negative. I just feel as though this blog could use a bit of devil’s advocacy, even though I have really come to love living here in Detroit.
This weekend I got out of the city, which I think is perhaps paradoxically one of the best ways one can reflect on the degree to which they’ve truly been immersed in a place. While on the 7-hour train ride to Chicago, I read a book called ___________. In it, a reporter immerses himself in the city for a year and writes about his experiences. He finds that Detroit has shown some positive signs of growth in recent years, but that these positive signs are at risk of creating a sort of gilded age here, where one may point to the success of the Downtown/Midtown corridor in order to overlook the pervasive problems of “the neighborhoods”. More on this book later.
Ironically, one need only attempt to get from one end of this corridor to the next in order to see that Detroit’s problems have not gone away. Each morning, Shashi and I ride the bus from Midtown to Downtown, and each evening, back the other way. I should note that I have attempted throughout writing this posting to check my privilege as often as possible, and to keep in mind that all too often words are misconstrued as meaning something the author never intended.
That in mind, here goes. My experience on this bus is this—over the course of the whole summer, I could count the amount of white people I have encountered on it on one hand. This may not seem entirely shocking in a city that is 80% black, but even still, one would think that riding the city’s ONLY means of public transportation between its most livable residential neighborhood to its prosperous downtown during morning and evening rush-hour would at the very least show more diversity than the shockingly little I have seen. Further, anecdotal observations during our tour of Quicken Loans and the rest of downtown reveal that much of the downtown core workforce is significantly whiter than the rest of the city.
This disparity might seem confusing were it not for our understanding that Detroit and Metro-Detroit especially has been for decades and remains the most segregated in the country. On one hand, the suburbs look like they might have been picked up from Metro-Boston or D.C. and dropped in woodsy Michigan. And on the other lies a city that is still ranked America’s most dangerous, where 911 response times for fatal emergencies hover near an hour or more, and where thousands of residents have had their water shut off during the summer.
Great things are happening here, to be sure. Organizations have to varying degrees of success marketed Detroit as a burgeoning technology hub of the Midwest, artists have flocked to its abandoned warehouses and hipster vibe, and nonprofits have reached out to provide the neighborhoods with greater stability. Detroiters are proud of where they are headed and fiercely loyal to their brand. Yet we must be careful not to confuse pride and positivity with a continuous exercise in privilege, by which we overlook problems plaguing a place simply because we are not of the same cultural or socioeconomic background.
That is not to say that those Detroiters driving or promoting change hide or overlook the problems of the neighborhoods, but instead meant simply as a frame of thinking about just how inclusive we must be to effect real and lasting progress. A particularly poignant example from _____’s book illustrates this point quite well, I think: a lone black woman sits at a discussion forum filled with wealthy white artists, lawyers, and thinkers, who talk about innovative ways to help drive change in the city. When one person says to thunderous applause it is time for Detroiters to “take the city back” (it should be noted here that context makes it quite clear this person says this in no way as a sort of racial rallying cry or with any degree of malice—he is railing against a culture of corruption and ineptitude within city government by members of all parties, races, and groups), the woman stands and looks around the room and asks—who, to be clear, is the “we” you are talking about?