Previous participants of the DukeEngage Detroit program assured me that I would be safe and that I would even grow a love for the city. Yet, the apprehension and prejudice I had towards an environment I had never known persisted once I arrived. I even brought a second fake wallet to hand over in the case that I get mugged (which in hindsight, is a bit over the top).
But in the first week, I experienced quite the contrary. After viewing the vibrant Downtown and beautiful artificial beach in Campus Martius next to my office building, picking the freshest of fruits from the Eastern Market, admiring the works of the Detroit Institute of Arts on a free weekend, and munching on a Greek Combo Platter bigger than my head in GreekTown, I experienced a side of Detroit I never expected. It was the side of Detroit that previous participants of the program raved about, the side of Detroit that has come to represent an entrepreneurial hub. But merely knowing this glamored side did not provide me the whole story.
My newfound understanding of Detroit emerged from an early morning bike ride. After parking my MoGo bike after a recreational ride around the neighborhood, I heard from behind me a distant “Hey, you kid!”. I turned to see who the command was directed from and saw a man pointing directly at me as he walked my way. With torn black shoes, ragged jeans, baggy coat, he was clearly homeless. But one piece of attire caught my eye: a black hat adorning a calligraphy “D”, a design I saw quite frequently amongst Detroit natives walking around DownTown. Was this encounter going to be the side of Detroit that I had stereotyped yet never experienced? Would it be best if I just ignored this homeless man? “Can you buy me some food?”he asked as he grew closer. Too late to back out of the situation, I agreed to his request and took him to the Tim Horton’s across the street.
He ordered his food and we stood there in silence for a brief moment simply waiting. But as we eventually engaged in conversation, I began to hear his story and how he came to be homeless. He told me that he had lived in Detroit his entire life and that he had succumbed to the use of drugs and alcohol, a familiar story for many impoverished and homeless. He portrayed his humility by describing the embarrassment of having to constantly beg for food, the shame of being judged and ignored because of people’s initial perception. But rather than idly accepting his fate, he told me he had quit his substance abuse. From dusk til dawn, he looks for odd jobs to complete just to get by, and he described his recent efforts to make himself look more presentable by finding a place to shower, wash his feet, find new clothes, all to ultimately find a job and make a living.
Homeless and dirty, his physical appearance embodied people’s initial perception of Detroit as a ruined city. Yet, it was not until I interacted with him where I realized his true Detroit spirit, a tenacity to get back on his feet and reach his potential despite how far he has fallen. Like this man, Detroit has experienced years of hardship and neglect from those who perceived it in such a manner. But through its determination, it is striving to morph its image and actively address its issues. And for that, I am grateful to have met such a man, and to begin experiencing the revitalization of a marvelous city.