What am I but a sponge to the earth here? I spin over the totality of each day in the rock tumbler of my mind, trying to smooth and shine every new data set in an attempt to make what I have been told by people more qualified to speak on Detroit into something an outsider might be able to hold in the palm of their hand without cutting themselves on the rough edges. I haven’t written nearly enough over the past few months, and I know there is an expectation that I should. After all, I won a house for my writing in a city steeped in a long and fraught history. Often in the past few months I have been asked some variation of “so what do you think of Detroit?” My short answer is that I love it here, that the people are so much friendlier than back East where I’ve spent the majority of my life. My shorter and more honest answer is that I hate that question, although I don’t say that aloud very often.
Truthfully, I do love it here but my feelings about living here, about what it means to be given housing in a city with so many unemployed and struggling, are exceptionally complex. I struggle with speaking about certain things because I have no interest in playing into the depictions of Detroit as the premier destination for blight porn. Yes, there is blight. Yes, there is poverty. Yes, the population density isn’t what it once was. But on some level, my question to those who want an inside perspective on Detroit is: so what? What intrigues you so much about economic disaster? Are arson and poverty exciting to you? Are you sadistic?
I find the outside fascination with Detroit to be inherently voyeuristic. Often, non-Detroiters already have a pre-conceived notion of what the city is like, and what it represents. Before I moved here, I only knew what I had been told by people who had lived here, or spent a good amount of time. Often, these were young, college-educated people who savored the sense of lawlessness and opportunity in cheap housing, or squatting. Prior to being granted the current opportunity I have through Write A House, Detroit was a place I wanted to see more of, but not a place I wanted to move on my own for fear of becoming a kind of long-stay tourist, or a reasonably maligned gentrifier. In some ways I still hold that I may very well be both. It doesn’t matter that I am black, that I have been working class my entire life, or that I have enough sociological and historical training to “understand” what Detroit has been and what it is now. The reality is that I have a graduate degree, I know when espresso shots are pulled poorly, and I have the luxury of being identified as “poet and historian.” I have enough cultural capital to alienate me from a large number of people with whom I share identity-markers. One thing I am not, however, is beholden to any one narrative of my new home.
There is a camp of people that believe the city to be so dangerous it is virtually uninhabitable. They range from high school friends of mine who said, “I’d be happy for you getting a house, but it’s in Detroit,” to one particular (white, male, suburb-dwelling) sub-contractor who was working in my basement who was certain that my (black, male, Detroiter) neighbors were going to steal his work van. There is also a camp that, particularly as the city has worked its way out of bankruptcy, sees this as a time of “re-birth” for Detroit. This portrayal is equally tricky for me because it smacks of urban renewal, displacement, gentrification, and a Columbus-like propensity for seeing much of the landscape as abandoned. Despite my own inclination for skepticism and critical thinking, I maintain a kind of optimism, too. However, I cannot claim Detroit is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the old Packard plant. I’m guilty of using phrases like “regeneration” when describing Detroit. In plenty of interviews, I pointed to some form of this narrative in order to steer interviewers and their audiences away from the Detroit-as-the-death-of-America spin. That was before I got here. Now that I live here, my feelings are much more ambiguous.
Earlier in the year, I attended Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. One of the two poetry workshop leaders, Vievee Francis, a Detroiter herself, said something to me that has been reverberating in my mind often in my process of settling in to this new landscape. She found that the voice in my writing was so sure of itself, so certain of facts and answers. This arrival in Detroit, this learning process, has upended that impulse. I can’t be sure of anything here, and I have so very many questions. There is no way for me to be an expert, or really anything aside from some brand new interloper trying to absorb my immediate surroundings at a rapid pace. In this process, I have felt overwhelmed by the number of distractions: unpacking, cleaning, re-arranging, contractors clanking about in my house when I set down to write, friends and family with whom I will spend hours on the phone, lesson planning, the news, interpretations of the news on social media. Beyond these time-consuming realities, there is one thing that stands out as an essential non-distraction: experiencing the city itself. I have to meet people and go places and listen intently before I can interpret any of it.
Among the list of things I have done so far: seen the Heidelberg Project and signed the Yellow House; had a few quick driving tours of Belle Isle; walked the Dequindre Cut; driven the Grand River Creative Corridor; read at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; gotten a tour of Palmer Woods; visited John K. King Books; attempted to visit the Shrine of the Black Madonna; took a photo of the Hotel Yorba; eaten at Buddy’s Pizza, Armando’s, Honest John’s. I’ve seen and spoken to a broad range of Detroiters, but by no means have I seen even half of what this vast city holds.
Everywhere I have traveled in the city, there are two consistent things: decay and art. When I say art, what I mean is creativity that values human life over money or property. Turning water back on after the water department has shut it off, graffiti of all stripes, dangerous electricity poaching—all of these are art to me, innovations in survival. And when I say decay I don’t exclusively mean collapsed roofs or charred buildings: I mean a decline in the investment in certain aspects of the city. For example, I find nothing more heartbreaking than when the middle and high school students I teach creative writing to express a sense that in order to be successful, they have to leave Detroit. Perhaps this is a typical teenage sense of wanting to leave one’s hometown and see the world, but it is evident that this is combined with a much deeper sense of the necessity of flight. To me, this is indicative of a sense of futility in trying to love a place that seems to care very little about your well-being.
The one thing I can say with certainty about Detroit is that the school system has been disinvested from beyond belief. To wit, this is not the fault of one person, the administration, the teachers, or the students. This is a systemic issue. I’ve heard stories from friends who taught second grade classrooms with 47 students in them, and in the high school where I teach, there are roughly 40 students per class. No one can be expected to learn adequately in this climate, and teaching in it can make one feel like Sisyphus. The disconnect for me is that despite what state and federal grading and testing metrics might tell you about Detroit Public Schools, the students are incredible. Bright, funny, and on the good days, willing to engage. That could be said of students anywhere. The difference is that when compared to the suburbs, or greater Michigan, or the country as a whole, Detroit’s public school students are treated as unworthy by a system that packs them into classrooms like wheat into a combine. The data from a 2013 Detroit Free Press series on charter schools in Michigan shows that many of Detroit’s public high schools are under-performing on state exams and the ACTs, though privately funded charter schools in the city don’t fare much better. In the media, Detroit’s schools are often pointed to as an illustration of Detroit’s beleaguered atmosphere. For instance, Matthew Dolan of the Wall Street Journal closed his December 9th, 2014 article with an obligatory nod to the underperforming schools in an article that was otherwise about the end of the city’s bankruptcy and Kevyn Orr’s resignation as city emergency manager.
In order for the narratives about Detroit’s regeneration to hold true, a huge focus needs to be placed on public education instead of treating it as an aside, or an unsolvable quagmire. A hundred new coffee shops could spring up around “Midtown” and downtown, and it would make no difference. If and when twenty-something migrants, to whom these coffee shops would ostensibly appeal, begin to have children here they won’t stay in the city if the schools (both public and charter) remain in this current state. Moreover, the students who are here now deserve better. While politicians on both sides of the aisle pay plenty of lip service to the importance of education, and it is nearly universally agreed upon that “the children are our future,” the point often missed is that the children are our present. They are the fabric of what a place is—and what it can and will become.
The myriad visual artists in Detroit make it culturally interesting to outsiders, but the city’s youth are what should make it important to everyone. I keep using the word “outsider” because there is a very real sense I get from a number of Detroiters that we inhabit a city unlike any other, a city versus other places—the suburbs, other cities, and so on. On numerous occasions, people have spoken to me of The Rebellion of 1967 as if it happened last week. In some sense, the idea of the outsider is a part of that history. In Boston, where I lived for a number of years, in the state where I have resided the vast majority of my life, the busing riots are a historical plot point in narratives about the city’s racial segregation. In Detroit, the rebellion feels like living history—something the wall between the city and Grosse Point tangibly demonstrates. It’s as if the city has been burning, and rife with tension, for almost fifty years. This may be an incendiary notion, but so many conversations in Detroit, about Detroit, center on a fulcrum of what was and what’s coming next. It would be dishonest for me to act as if those who treat the city as uninhabitable are doing so outside of a highly racialized and classed context. The questions linger for me. Between today’s water shut-offs and tax evictions that impact poor and working class residents, who does this narrative of regeneration really serve? And who is the narrative of lawless, uninhabitable Detroit benefitting? Isn’t there room for dozens of other narratives if we are being responsible and honest with ourselves?
I don’t have the answers. I am only a sponge to this land. Some days I feel like the soil itself, soaking up the city’s sun, rain, and heavy cold snow. My strongest desire since I’ve moved here is to encourage growth, to do better for myself and those around me, and inspire others to do the same. My first impressions of Detroit in the nearly two months that I have lived here is that there are so many seeds planted, and the city is too tenacious to wilt. Only time will tell what is going to grow, what will fruit, and what will lie dormant. It is my sincere hope that whatever non-Detroiters might believe, however history might influence, however moneyed interests might steer the course, that Detroit becomes a place whose young people are more proud to be from than ashamed.