• Detroit is Not a Metaphor

    Last week I went home to Detroit to attend the funeral of a loved one. While it was tough to go back for the second home-going service of the summer, I was also grateful to have the opportunity to spend some time with my family. Whenever I’m in the city, my mom is always excited to show me what’s new. So after the repast she took us to the Detroit Mercantile shop and Eastern Markets’ Tuesday open market. It was fun to pick up t-shirts, Wild Detroit Honey and other knick-knacks while we wandered around downtown. It reminded me of all the Saturday mornings we used to spend at the Eastern Farmers Market when I was growing up, my sister and I running in and out of the vegetable and fruit stalls.


    After Eastern Market my mom would take us to the ballet studio on Livernois Ave for our weekly group lessons. Mrs. M the studio owner, was strict, but kind. For lunch we might stop at a local Coney Island, before we begrudgingly followed my mother on her weekly grocery and flower shopping trips.

    My mom lives in a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood, filled with historic old homes that have stood there for more than half a century. While her historic neighborhood isn’t indicative of every Detroit block, it’s by no means an exception. My mom, along with most of her neighbors, has lived there for more thirty-years now. They take pride in their neighborhood and are constantly keeping an eye out for one another and holding each other accountable.

    Yet, like many narratives about black urban cities, accounts of community accountability, beauty and joy are rarely found in broader discourses about Detroit. Instead, the city is consistently reduced to a metaphor for something that is downtrodden, dilapidated or diseased. Journalist after journalist asks “Is [fill in the blank city] the next Detroit”? The question has been asked about Chicago and New York on multiple occasions. Generally in relationship to an impeding financial crisis, but with another question lurking right behind it about the viability of urban center’s with large populations of color.

    Recently the Rumpus jumped into the mix with a piece likening Detroit to Ciudad Juarez. The author recounts his time in the city visiting dilapidated buildings, watching young people set playgrounds on fire and generally fearing for his safety. As poverty porn becomes increasingly more popular in photography circles, it seems that writer’s are succumbing to the same bad habits.

    Again, and again, Detroit is reduced to nothing but a burning emblem of all that is in ruin.

    It’s not that I am naïve, just like everyone else, I can see the businesses on seven mile that are burned out and empty. I’m aware of the house around the corner that sold for $500 at foreclosure. I know that the city’s financial status is dire. But what makes Detroiters formidable is that these are not the only things we see. We refuse to buy into narratives that would have us believe that Detroit is somehow the most scary, violent or bedraggled place on this side of the planet. When I walk through the city I don’t feel fear, I feel hope. I get excited every time another friend tells me they are moving back to Detroit, or I hear of another local business opening. I celebrate every year that passes with my mother’s adoption agency continuing to grow and thrive. I look with pride at Detroit artists of all kinds who are chasing dreams and making names for themselves.

    The city is so much bigger than the metaphors folks try and reduce it to. I hope that one day it will be given a real chance.

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