Wednesday, August 31, 2011

First Impressions - In the D

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I live in the Metro Detroit area, which leads many people to assume that I live in the city of Detroit itself. Quite the contrary--I live in what's referred to as a "suburb of Detroit," or basically, a city that's part of the surrounding area in Southeast Michigan. We're at least a good half hour away from Detroit, and the way of life here is much different than that of the Motor City.

Regardless, before I moved up here, I had more than a few people scrunch their faces up at me when I told them where I was headed. I didn't even tell them which area of Michigan I was headed to; everyone just assumed it was all the same--dirty, crime-ridden, and barren like the formerly-great U.S. city. Since I had not yet visited the state, I didn't know whether to believe them or take their horror stories as exaggerations. Overall, though, I became a little angry at all the pessimism that was being thrown my way right as I was about to leave my old life behind and start a new chapter somewhere completely different.

I first visited the Metro Detroit area in June with Brad, who had previously visited as part of General Motors' EcoCar Challenge (his team won, by the way). We had just gotten married, and were looking for a new place to live for his upcoming job at GM. Other than the random chilly spell (it was a fluke 60 degrees and raining the whole weekend) and potholed roads ("there are two seasons in Michigan: winter and construction"), Michigan did not seem to be as bad as everyone had made it out to be. Except, of course, for the things I heard on the news.

I must have watched two straight hours of local news one morning, and was mesmerized by all of the horrible things I kept seeing. Murders, collapsing walkways, arson, break-ins, random daytime shootings, and a serial Dollar Store robber--the stories were so ridiculous, yet plentiful. And they all had one thing in common: Detroit.

I looked at Brad, said, "we're not going there," and continued to stare at all of the unbelievable stories about this forlorn city. How on earth could a place so well-known be so grief-stricken? And why, when there were so many surrounding counties, was there no news about any place other than Detroit? I had never really heard anything about Detroit, but this distress was apparently an ongoing thing. I'm still very much in the dark the city's history, but I continue to absorb bits and pieces here and there.


My first trip to Detroit was for a Lions game this past weekend with Brad and some fellow VT grads-turned-GM employees. In addition to the game traffic, I've gotta say that my first impression of the city was not the greatest. Upon entering Detroit, you see a small skyline, surrounded by miles of charred, brick buildings, windows broken and parking lots deserted. Residents stroll around the game day traffic, digging through casino trash cans and taking leaks on parking garage walls. Beggars sit on the ground with their cardboard signs and stare as though they've lost their minds, or berate you for ignoring them when they ask you for your money. Casino attire is nothing more than heels and a dress that's impossible to bend over in, and the 5 Guys burger joint, which is open until 2 a.m., has its own indoor security guard.


It's all just remains from a once powerful city. Detroit grew, car companies struggled, people lost jobs, people moved out. Crime got bad. Crime got worse. Two weeks ago, there were 11 murders within just a few days, and so many people seem to have lost any integrity that was left behind.

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Something that has intrigued me since I've been here, however, is a powerful, widespread mission to revamp the city. There are campaigns coming from every direction, from Believe in Detroit, to the Voices of Detroit Initiative, to the fact that there is a police department made specifically for the purpose of protecting public schools. Volunteers and organizations are doing what they can to help people who are down on their luck, all while fixing up the mess that past generations have left behind. Urban farming is all the rage, serving as a vital resource for Detroit residents who have nothing but gas stations nearby from which to buy food, and people from surrounding cities regularly spend their Saturdays boarding up abandoned buildings and picking up trash. In addition, several vendors and stores in the metro area sell apparel with the tagline, "Made in Detroit," an effort to coax natives back to their roots while restoring a sense of pride in their hometown. It's all so much to soak in--this city that was alive and booming, then demolished both literally and figuratively before so many people (me included) had a chance to understand its legacy.

Detroit Art In Action (Source)

Now, I am obviously still learning about Detroit. I've heard that it has its good areas and bad areas, and that there are certain places you can visit, while others are best to be left alone. I have heard that it is an artistic garden, filled with creativity that you could never imagine unless put in the situation that these people have been put in. Think sculptures made from trash, studios thriving in abandoned buildings, budding music artists--a whole new renaissance. If you are interested and haven't seen it yet, I strongly urge you to watch Planet Green's documentary, "Detroit in Overdrive." The TV special is a three-part mini-series that details even more of these stories, including those of a design student who creates insulated blanket-coats for homeless people and a soup restaurant that holds a regular open forum for fundraising and city improvement ideas. It's not short, but it's completely worth the watch. If you can't find the full episodes online, there are some clips here.

I know I've only touched the tip of the iceberg, but it's obvious that there's something exciting emerging from all of this. And while it's tragic and and intimidating and overwhelming in every sense of the word, I can't help but wonder about the stories that will emerge as Detroit builds itself up again. And that's my two cents for the time being.

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you guys got to go to Detroit! I've always been interested in taking rolls and rolls of photography there, so much history, everything there has a story to tell. Hope you all are doing well in Michigan, if Radford would quit being such a jerk we all could come up and visit!

    Sidney

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  2. Ah, Radford...how it loves to confine. But really, when you guys have a break, you should definitely come up! There's so much Detroit-themed/inspired art up here, it's crazy. Although, I really do want to find out the best places to take you before turning you loose.

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