Americans love to dump on Detroit. There’s really no use putting it eloquently. For decades, this once prosperous city – economically choked by job outsourcing, political corruption, racial tensions, and suburban migration – has been the equivalent of America’s whipping boy. In my hometown of Boston, when the subway is running late, you’ll often hear someone say, “Well, it could be worse: it’s not Detroit.” People will even ding Detroit in conversations that have nothing to do with urban infrastructure. When Girls showrunner, New Yorker contributor, and alleged “voice” of the Millennial generation Lena Dunham was interviewed by Howard Stern this past January, she (now infamously) quipped, “I’m not super thin, but I’m thin for, like, Detroit!”
What’s with the hate? Why do Americans harbor such disdain for the city that gave America cars, Motown, and Coney Island chili dogs? What does this say about Detroit, and ourselves?
I came here to find answers. For the past three days, I’ve been walking against the subarctic winds of the Motor City, talking with local Millennials (of which there are many), and in general, having all my preconceived notions of Detroit ripped out like Kudzu weeds. Tomorrow – far too soon, if you ask me – I fly back to Boston. And it’s taken me until this final evening to understand what makes Detroit such a special place at this moment in American history.
The worst has already happened here.
Make no mistake, the economic collapse of Detroit was rough. Property values plummeted, underfunded public services like city buses and fire departments became notoriously unreliable, and yes, crime went through roof. (Arson remains a serious problem in certain areas, such as the Heidelberg Project.) This, the dark stuff, constitutes 99% of what the outside world hears from Detroit.
What we don’t hear about are the young people – both natives and transplants – who are trying to rebuild Detroit in a way that’s positive for families, business owners, and travelers of all income brackets. This week, I met three of them. Take Bradford Frost, for instance. After moving here from Virginia in 2005, Bradford joined the Detroit Institute of Arts as a revitalization fellow and spearheaded ambitious projects that would lend the institute a more socioeconomically inclusive vibe than most art museums tend to offer. Just a few minutes away in downtown Detroit, there’s Justin Vaiciunas. This well-seasoned executive chef is the food and beverage director for Jefferson House: a gourmet gastro pub that strives to keep the menus and decor elegant but also affordable for greater Detroit. Most recently, I spent a lively hour chatting with the exuberant Justin Jacobs, who moved here after college and began organizing intramural sports leagues to tempt suburbanites back to the city. He’s now the president and founder of Come Play Detroit, the most popular intramural athletics provider you’ll find here.
What I find extraordinary – and quite moving – about these Millennials is their ambitious vision and lived compassion for the city they call home. Their work seems to embody many of the interests I routinely heard other Millennials allude to when I was on the road this past summer: interests like entrepreneurial spirit, community engagement, and making the most of local resources. These young passionate thinkers are moving beyond thinking and are now doing great work that’s squarely aimed at improving the quality of life for Detroiters. That is a story worth telling.
Still, I’m not sure how the non-Detroiters whom I know will react when I share these stories with them. (To read the full written account, you’ll have to buy Drive All Night when it’s published.) Somehow, I’m guessing the average response will be reside somewhere between a hushed “Wow!” and an eye-rolling “Well, that city’s still screwed.” Most of the cynical comments will be made by people who’ve never set foot in Detroit. And that, to me explains the disdain.
Detroit will not be the last American city to experience economic disaster. The ongoing waves of job depletion, federal debt, and revenue reductions all but guarantee this. It’s easier for outsiders to think of Detroit as a sad anomaly rather than a glimpse of what could happen elsewhere. (And let me repeat, it absolutely could.) But if we can look beyond the ruins, Detroit does not have to be a premonition of doom. Instead of arrogantly reducing this city to insult fodder, or painting it like some irredeemable hell hole, Americans should be paying attention to the civic endeavors of the local Millennial population and taking notes.
I know I am.