Detroit does not allow you to make this mistake. Every block of this city defies essentialism, daring you to remember who and what and why it became itself. Somehow, it maintains a distinct spirit from the flashy streets and casinos of Greektown to the abandoned blocks of the Heidelberg Project; which is to say, though it is home to visible neighborhoods split by culture and ethnicity, its people are united in their drive to live their lives on their own terms, in their own way, in their own city. I can feel it in the way that “Damn." echoes through the coffee shops and the way that murals wrap themselves around brick buildings across Detroit.
In most ways, the city isn’t surprising at all. If you can understand and observe that the American Tobacco Campus exists just a few minutes from Walltown, then it shouldn’t be shocking that Campus Martius, the trendy park downtown surrounded by glass skyscrapers, lies just blocks from boarded-up buildings around empty factories. Explaining Detroit is like trying to explain that a liberal, co-op-loving, bike-friendly, crunchy-granola town like mine exists in the middle of the South. Some people just don’t get it until they go there.
Despite my poison ivy (long story), this week has been full of excitement and exploration as I’ve gotten to know the area and my colleagues at TechTown. What I’ve learned more than anything is that Detroit doesn’t need my help “rising from the ashes.” It operates on its own terms, and I am here to learn from its strategies and objectives. It feels fully and inexplicably alive, buzzing with hipsters and microbreweries and restaurants and fashion. The obstacles facing Detroit, particularly in the form of gentrification, equitable economic growth, and establishing public infrastructures, are the same problems facing almost all American cities, but magnified because of the demographics, location, and size of the city. So, if anything, instead of avoiding Detroit, we should all be taking notes.