There are many subjects in this world I know little about, and Detroit is one. Remarkably, this becomes an asset when editors at Transmission inform me they’re looking for an outsider’s perspective of the Motor City. I present my lack of credentials, and am deemed suitably ignorant.
Before my flight there, a friend from Michigan encourages me to write out a list of things I know, or think I know, about the city. There are words like “blight” and “ruin porn” and “bankrupt” on it, but also phrases like “new tech scene” and “JPMorgan investment” and “Renaissance?”
“Which stereotypes will be confirmed and which dismissed?” I ask.
“Yes,” my friend replies. “If you do it right.”
From the airplane window, the first thing I learn about Detroit is: it’s large! At least Metro Detroit is. (Sub)urban sprawl certainly isn’t just a southeast Michigan-phenomenon, but knowing that doesn’t lessen the effect of everlasting community development on new eyes. Only the vast water tundra of Lake Erie proves capable of ending it. I try to picture the land the French explorer Cadillac saw in the dawn of the eighteenth century, leafy and humid and a good place to trade furs.
It’s hard. There’s a lot of buildings now.
I’d been told—warned?—that many locals feel passionately about the topic of their home. Not in the way that everyone feels connected or reflective about where they come from, but something else. Something deeper, more protective. Perhaps even suspicious of intent. Much ink hath been spilled on the subject of Detroit by writers both in the know and out, and it feels inevitable that identifying myself as a journalist covering the city from a position of total ignorance will stir something emotive in its citizens. My first encounter with this comes in the form of George Bennett, a burly, bearded man sitting next to me on the airplane. Bennett has worked in an auto plant for “many years,” and is now management and nearing retirement.
“Which one?” I ask, meaning which automaker. I pull out my pen and notepad.
“Why the hell would that matter?” The tenor in his voice has changed. The appearance of a pen and notepad can do this sometimes, though usually the subject matter is a bit more edged.
“It doesn’t,” I say, putting away the pen and notepad. Maybe it’s just the air pressure popping my ears, but the space between our seats suddenly relaxes. We discuss which bars and restaurants I should go to until the plane taxis.
It’s an early November morning and rainy-cold instead of snowy-cold, and the sky is a wide, gray canvas. It will remain that way for the entirety of my visit. The rental car lot is a chrome sea of Chryslers, Fords, and General Motors; a lone Toyota compact sits in a far corner, lonely as a lost pet. None of the rental car people know how it got there, though it bears Michigan plates. I feel bad for it, which is a stupid thing to feel for a car. I drive my sedan off the lot and into the day. It’s a Chevy, I note, feeling part of a proud tribe. No one here will know I’m a stranger in a strange land, as long as I keep my mouth shut.
On the way to my downtown hotel, I drive by a big-ass tire on the side of the highway. That’s pretty rad, I think. I’m not sure how it fits in with the whole postindustrial, post-auto thing going on, but it’s not like Detroit’s gone cold turkey on cars, either. Wikipedia will later inform that the monument in question is the Uniroyal Giant Tire and it once functioned as a ferris wheel, but in the Chevy, I just think about the various Buy American movements that’ve popped up in my lifetime, and before it.
Ways downtown Detroit is described to me on social media, e-mail and in person, by people in the know, in preparation for this assignment: “Safe inner circumference,” “the genesis of the turnaround,” “Dan Gilbert’s very own Monopoly board,” “really coming around,” “the Green Zone,” “super nice, but also super white,” “sort of lame but probably where you should start exploring.”
I do that, walking around downtown for a few hours to get my bearings. I quickly learn that few people walk around downtown Detroit, at least on cold November weekdays. I learn other things, too, like that the city’s public transportation is called The People Mover, a clean, straightforward name for a clean, straightforward mover of people. The General Motors headquarters—officially “The Renaissance Center,” which I find both charming and Orwellian newspeak—looms over the riverfront as a shiny black citadel.
It’s a few blocks away from the shiny black citadel that I strike up a conversation with Corey Graham. Graham is a community college student collecting signatures for an urban activism class. The signatures “aren’t for anything in particular, just to show we can get out in the community.” I barter my John Hancock for a few minutes of conversation.
Born and raised on Detroit’s east side, Graham says the complexities of his hometown begin with its demographics. “It’s not a racist city,” Graham says. “But it’s definitely a racial city. A lot of that is from history—the  riot, especially. But a lot is now, too. There’s this Detroit.” He looks around and takes in the downtown scene. “Then there’s that Detroit.”
Graham plans on leaving both soon. He’s applying to Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, DC. If he leaves to earn his bachelor’s degree, will he come back to be a part of his hometown’s resurgence?
“Umm, maybe.” He laughs. “I should probably tell a reporter yeah, for sure. But man, I don’t know. Where I come from—if you get out, you stay gone.”
The conversation turns to Detroiters’ propensity for talking about their city. Graham suggests that won’t be the case in every neighborhood I visit.
“You’re a white guy from out-of-town,” he says. “No offense.”
“How could I take offense?” I say, perhaps too bashfully. “That’s exactly what I am.”
“Yeah,” Graham says. “But still.”
Two subjects come up continuously during my time in the Motor City: education and Dan Gilbert. One example is the informal community meeting I join on Election Day.
Macro-setting: The quiet, brick-housed northwest neighborhood of Grandmont Rosedale.
Micro-setting: The coffee shop Always Brewing Detroit, a “pop-up” business built on the remnants of an abandoned neighborhood city hall.
Time: 10:30 a.m. Though I’m a little late.
Purpose: To tap into the consciousness of THE PEOPLE. Or something.
The players: A group of friends and acquaintances gather here every Tuesday morning to talk politics, gossip, and all things Detroit. Most are retirement-age or nearing it; all are white. Most have children in their twenties and thirties; nearly all of these children live somewhere else. They are generally left-leaning in their politics, albeit more center-left than pinko-progressive. Most describe themselves as young idealists when the ’67 riots broke out. Unlike many of their middle-class brethren who fled to the ‘burbs, they stayed.
My Grandmont Rosedale spirit guide is John Porth, a friend’s father who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1973 with his wife Marilyn, who recently retired after a career as a nurse at a children’s hospital. John’s owned a small business, worked for General Motors, and taught English in middle school over the years. He is friendly and forthright and a bit of a rogue; between his crisp blue eyes, gold earring, and white beard, it’s hard not to envision an old pirate, especially when he starts needling his compatriots so “you can get some good quotes out of us.”
I get many good quotes out of them, particularly from Porth himself. To wit:
“We’re a gangster city! Let’s just own it.”
“No good deed in Detroit goes unpunished.”
“My greatest moment in teaching was when I rewrote Shakespeare and improved the damn thing.”
“Our kids are different than kids who grew up in the suburbs. They’re not afraid of people different.”
But back to education and Dan Gilbert.
The latter comes up first. “Some here think he’s a savior,” Porth says, though even Gilbert’s most ardent supporter here couches her support with “Well, he is from Southfield …”
The center of the debate—as I can tell, anyhow, the layers to the group’s onion dynamic are vast and conversant—is Gilbert’s intent. Rather famously, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans has purchased nearly a billion dollars’ worth of downtown real estate and devoted a lot of time and resources to revamping the city’s urban core. The area even has its own private security firm “augmenting” the Detroit PD. What does this mean for the rest of the city?
“I’ve seen this cycle three or four times over the years,” Porth contends. “The neighborhoods rarely benefit from it, and when they do, it’s almost by accident. I know I sound cynical, but I’ve read this story before.”
He doesn’t sound cynical so much as skeptical—and he still hopes he’s wrong. Porth’s allies in Always Brewing include a community activist who works in the city’s housing services—“I’ve seen too many razed buildings to believe in this renaissance stuff”—and a retired Detroit Free Press sports editor. His sparring partners comprise a small business owner and a retired high school biology teacher. Question del Gilbert reaches its fever pitch when Porth calls Gilbert “a SOB” for his role in the late-aughts’ mortgage collapse.
“So what?” cuts in the retired biology teacher. “What’s the alternative?”
Much shouting ensues.
The education question is less sensational, but just as urgent. Many in the group originally met as parents at Detroit Open School in the 1980s, a neighborhood magnet school that they remember fondly, both for the learning environment it provided and for the sense of community it helped cultivate. Open School was part of a “Schools of Choice” movement, just another educational initiative swallowed up by time and bureaucracy. When a couple key leaders at Open School moved on or retired, everyone in the community knew what awaited. They’d seen it happen with dozens of previous community schools. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Open School shuttered its doors in 2009; it’s now a vacant property.
That’s just one example from the past—what of the current state of Detroit education? The great Charter debate engulfing education circles nationwide is particularly searing in Detroit where the socio-economic divide is pronounced and deeply felt. Someone mentions a 2014 report put out by Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition devoted to assessing the effectiveness of local schools. In the report, 85 of 177 schools assessed received “Ds” or “Fs.” Schools with “C+s” or above are deemed adequate by ESD, something only achieved by a quarter of schools in 2013, with a small uptick in passing schools in 2014.
“How did things get to this point?” I ask. Porth points to the institution of busing (and its unintended contribution to the “White Flight”) as a historical factor; the 1999 takeover of the school system by the Michigan legislature seems to have only further mangled the bureaucracy rather than streamlining it. And in the midst of the new century’s urban resurgence come new education dilemmas that bare resemblance to past ones: according to the Always Brewing crew, their sons and daughters who stayed in Detroit have found “dream homes” in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Woodbridge, near downtown. But now those young couples are having kids, and the schools in those neighborhoods aren’t yet up-and-coming.
“Leave for better schools or stay in spite of them,” one proud new grandmother says. “Same decision we had to make in the ‘70s.”
Maybe Dan Gilbert’s master plan doesn’t stray from downtown and midtown, but the money and focus of smaller, younger entrepreneurs has. In the past, places like Always Brewing didn’t open in outlying neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale; yet this wave of renewal has yielded just that, something even John Porth cheerfully acknowledges.
“So progress, maybe!” he shouts into the din of the coffee shop.
A year-and-a-half old, Always Brewing is owned and operated by twenty-nine-year-old (and aptly surnamed) Amanda Brewington, part of the “pop-up” scene that’s emerged in and around Detroit over the past decade. Like many in the American millennial generation, I am beholden to my rent and student loan payments, and look at terms like “Social Security” and “401K” with dark, frothing bemusement. But in Detroit, many people in my age group are running thriving small businesses.
It’s a young entrepreneurial army Brewington is proud to be part of.
“I was working in music licensing and radio before this, in Lansing,” she says. “I always wanted to own my own business, and realized if I didn’t do it now, it might not happen. So I went for it. I was reading what was happening here, and wanted to be part of the city’s rebirth.”
After learning how to write a business plan at a small business development center, she decided on a coffee shop because she “wanted a place where the community could come together, for music, open mic nights, a full art scene.” The back of the shop has a photo montage to the heady early days when everything was trial-and-error, from figuring out the right forms for the city; to figuring out which furniture from an abandoned church to requisition; to realizing they needed to stock marshmallows, both the big and little ones.
Now Always Brewing is generating 5% growth with every new month and has doubled its revenue since 2013. Brewington still waits tables a couple nights a week at a downtown restaurant to help pay off her business loans, but can see a time in the near-future when that won’t be necessary. And while she is more than aware of Detroit’s high property taxes and insurance costs—sometimes twice as high as the US averages, something that has caused the city to become a poster child for the Laffer curve effect—it’s all part of the challenge. Besides, she’s not in react mode—there are plans developing with other local entrepreneurs and business institutes to bring in subject matter experts during tax season, for tips and lessons learned. Hosted at Always Brewing, of course.
Further, Brewington’s business has set a trend in Grandmont Rosedale—it’s not just liquor stores and fast food joints anymore. A yoga studio and a retail-clothing store opened up down the block recently, and she anticipates more to come.
“In five, ten years, I see restaurants and wine bars on this strip,” she says, mentioning a second business idea for the area she already has in mind. “Corktown [an Irish-American neighborhood near downtown] provides a great model for what we can be. We have the neighborhood already—lots of good people who care.”
That’s not pandering to her customer base, either. Brewington recently purchased a 1936 Colonial in the neighborhood. She says the house was appraised for much more than the buying cost, something that’ll help alleviate the aforementioned high taxes and various hidden costs, like neighborhood association dues that go toward things like hiring contractors to snowplow the streets in the winter.
“These kids are putting down roots,” Porth says to me, as I gather my things. “And they’re paying it forward. Maybe there’s something to this renewal talk after all.”
Outside, the Detroit fall air snaps like a rubber band. Despite the three layers under my coat, my bones ache for more. Nothing brings out my soft side more than the cold. Still, I linger on Grand River Avenue for a few minutes. Curls of smoke drift up in the distance from outlying auto plants, and I narrow my eyes until the block falls out of focus and I see Brewington’s vision for it.
It’s there. It’s fuzzy. But it’s there.
Then I get into my rental and crank the heat because fuck the cold.
That night I go to Wayne State University in midtown Detroit for a panel event entitled “Buccaneers, Robots, Yetis and Other Agents of Social Change.” It’s hosted by Dave Eggers, who’s as close to being a rock star as writers get in twenty-first century America.
There are two hundred or so of us in the auditorium, a healthy mix of young and middle-aged, college students and community, black and white. Eggers gives a keynote about his 826 Valencia nonprofit organization, which is devoted to helping young people develop writing skills. Their “local” chapter, 826 Michigan, is located in Ann Arbor, 40 miles and a world away, Detroit’s antithesis in almost every way. Regardless, there are hopes in the crowd that the rumored Detroit expansion is nearing, given the organization’s success in inner city locales like DC and Chicago.
Good Gen X writer that he is, Eggers’ speech blends hyper-earnestness with dizzying impertinence. He’s given this talk before, about the original 826 Valencia site in San Francisco having to sell pirate supplies to meet a zoning retail obligation, but he tells it well and makes it sound fresh.
After the keynote, Eggers switches hats to panel moderator, and is joined onstage by three community leaders—Sharnita Johnson, a program officer of a large philanthropic foundation; Julia Putnam, the principal of a local charter elementary school that’s teamed up with 826 Valencia; and Amy Peterson, a lawyer for the Detroit Tigers who’s opened a jewelry company that provides business training and employment for low-income women.
The panel discussion takes on the scaffolding of a best practices seminar: this worked for us, this didn’t. The tone is cautiously upbeat—the time when Detroiters needed outright pep talks from their leaders has passed, but it’s not quite forgotten. Eggers asks Julia Putnam how she’s going to take her charter school success “to scale.” She laughs and says they’re focused on the here and now, mostly, because her students deserve it.
She’s right, of course. But I still think of what happened to Open School, the magnet-turned-memory for the Grandmont Rosedale crew.
The Q and A gets weird, because Q and As are always weird. Personal stories and/or comments shoot out of people’s mouths like marbles. One lady asks what can be done to turn Detroit into a bicycling community. Eggers, who suddenly looks ready for a very stiff drink, declares himself an avid supporter of bicycles.
Gracefully, the next question directed at the panelists lands on-topic. “What makes you most optimistic about the future of Detroit?”
Amy Peterson, the lawyer and jewelry company owner, points to the pop-up businesses and tech start-ups inhabiting the city. Julia Putnam cites the recent successes of a local poet, Jamaal May. Both are good answers. But it’s Sharnita Johnson, the foundation program officer, who sends us all home with a warm glow on the inside.
“The opportunity to invest in my home,” she says. “There’s such an energy here now, as we collectively reestablish the things we lost—and establish some new things, too, that are all our own.”
That’s a good line, I think, before remembering to write it down in my notepad. The audience claps loud and long.
The night walk from the midtown university to the downtown hotel is eerie enough that the only thing I think of to compare it to is Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
It’s not that I ever feel unsafe—it’s more that I never feel safe. It’s not the sulfur steaming out of the manholes, it’s that sulfur steams out of every manhole. It’s not because of the lack of streetlights or the lack of foot traffic—it’s more the lack of anything. It’s not the expected boarded-up buildings or the beat-up car with one headlight driving by slowly—it’s the enduring stillness left in the car’s wake after it passes.
This is Detroit’s wasteland, a space between. Much of it has been bought up by the owner of the Detroit Red Wings, pizza baron Mike Ilitch. In a few years, a state-of-the-art hockey arena will open in midtown, moving the Red Wings from their current downtown home and connecting the two areas via business interests. More than half of the arena cost will be footed through public funding, no small thing in a city without a firm tax base.
Ilitch has high ambitions for both the new arena and its surrounding district, complete with bars, clubs, condos, and more. The concept art I find online later of it impresses, though it’s kind of like staring at images from Mars—it’s vague and alien and only resembles the known and established in the barest of ways.
Not all the buildings are abandoned. There’s candlelight behind one window, then a moving shadow. Across the way I spy a cigarette being lit and hear laughter. I don’t think what’ll happen to this area technically counts as gentrification, but I don’t know what else to call it. Presumably the people living here now will move somewhere else when the time comes.
The new arena is currently set to be completed in late 2017. Until then, the district that’ll surround it continues to rot away.
The bright, happy lights of the Fox Theatre mark my entry back to downtown. My muscles relax as I pass it; I don’t need to be on my guard so much anymore. Nearing my hotel, I see two pseudo-cops standing in pseudo-cop poses in front of a vehicle with a “Rock Security” tag on its side. Though my feet are barking and my bones cold-aching again, I stop to talk. I’ve heard a lot about these bros.
Rock is responsible for Dan Gilbert’s business assets downtown, as well as those of General Motors, Ilitch Holdings, Compuware, and a few others. Though they work in conjunction with the Detroit Police Department, I saw too many acts of disconnect overseas with defense contractors like Blackwater to believe the relationship between Rock Security and the Detroit PD is as cozy as the press releases make it out to be.
The two Rock guards are friendly enough, considering they had their quiet interrupted by a journalist appearing out of the dark waving his notepad like a deluded magician. They deflect my questions about the role of private security in an American metropolis, saying I need to go through their public affairs people if I want anything on the record. I have no interest in doing that, both because I consider public affairs people soulless, horned beasts, and because I only have a day-ish left in Detroit.
Seeking a way to jumpstart the conversation, I mention that I’m an Iraq vet. That piques the curiosity of one of them, who served in Afghanistan. He mentions some names of people I might know, and I pretend to be familiar with one of them. Maybe I actually am, I don’t know. It’s been a few years.
He tells me some basic things about his job—yes, they’re only responsible for certain buildings and areas, but of course they’d intervene if something were happening across the street. He joined Rock because like a lot of vets, finding work at home was tough, and there aren’t a lot of positions aging grunts are qualified for. He bristles when I make the comparison to defense contractors.
“Come on, man,” he says. “It’s not like that. That was war. This is a job. Besides—” he points back the way I came, toward midtown—“wouldn’t you have felt better had you seen us parked at one of those corners?’
I would have, but I don’t share that. “Not sure,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “You guys packin’ or what?”
With nary a word exchanged between them, my new friends decide they don’t want to talk anymore and get into their car. They look warm in it. I speak through the car window and thank them for their time and walk away, chewing over Janet Malcolm’s famous quote about journalism being morally indefensible.
I mostly wish they’d answered my question about being armed.
There’s only one thing to do when a man hits the unholy trinity of cold, tired, and embarrassed. So I head to Jacoby’s, a downtown institution that opened in 1904 and bills itself as “Detroit’s Oldest Saloon.” (This is a point of contention with at least one other area watering hole.) There, rejuvenated by Guinness and sausage soup, I meet Rachel, the bartender, and Lou, a product manager for a tech company that a Dan Gilbert-led venture capital firm has backed. Both are ready and willing to talk all things Detroit, though they tend not to agree on much.
Lou thinks the comeback is real, though cautions a lot of work still needs to be done, like getting the half of the city that still doesn’t have working streetlights working streetlights. Rachel thinks the talk about a Detroit renaissance is a lot of sizzle and no steak, and only caters to a certain demographic. “Fortune called us the new Brooklyn. Fuck that, why would we want to be the new Brooklyn? Keep that hipster, bougie bullshit out of here,” she says.
That makes Lou laugh but he points out hipster, bougie bullshit usually comes with money for the local economy.
Both lament the squeezing out of the creative class being caused by the rising real estate costs— this is still the city that produced The White Stripes, after all. I recall Brewington and her coffee shop and the art scene that’s developing there, and the property taxes and insurance costs she’s going to be facing, both for her business and home. Then I order more beer and take a lot of background notes, only some of which are legible the next morning.
Lou tells me I should visit the Downtown Boxing Gym on the east side. He volunteers as a tutor there, and uses it as an example of how this wave of renewal is different. Change is reaching the community, he believes, and Downtown Boxing Gym is proof.
“One hundred percent high school grads from there,” he says. “Ninety-six percent college acceptance. Those are incredible numbers anywhere, but especially here.”
We talk about the places I have to see on my last day in Detroit. A group behind us is getting rowdy and loud, and is far more interested in talking about who’s fucking who than the hockey game on the TV. I envy them for their youth and their revelry. Lou follows my old man-glare and laughs.
“See,” he says. “They’re what, 23, 24? Probably law students and tech workers. A couple years ago, people that age got out of Detroit as quick as possible. Now, some of them are staying.”
It’s only one group of young people, but Lou does couch his optimism with the word “some.” And, if nothing else, I’m here for anecdotal observations.
“Fine!” I yell at the group’s backs. “You’ll make the story, you goddamn happy bastards!”
Most don’t hear me or pretend not to, but a nice-looking kid wearing a button-up turns and nods at me pleasantly, in a way that suggests he’s just making sure I’m not holding a knife. Lou laughs and laughs. I swing back around my stool and ask Lou and Rachel to clarify the order of mayors again; I forgot where Dave Bing sequenced in.
I see and do a lot of touristy things on my last day in Detroit. The old train station. The abandoned Hewlett Packard plant. Slows Bar-B-Q. Henry Ford’s home. The Heidelberg Project. Et cetera.
I swing by the Downtown Boxing Gym, the place Lou from Jacoby’s tutors. The boxing coach there has given TED Talks and interviews with large national magazines, so he proves unimpressed with my lack of physical media credentials.
“No offense,” he says. “But you could be anyone. Like a stalker.”
I guess that’s a possibility, but I wonder how much of a market there is for boxing coach-stalking. This bit of smartassery earns a small smirk from the boxing coach but nothing else.
In fairness, he seems more interviewed-out than rude or aloof, but I also remember Corey Graham, the community college student collecting signatures, and how he thought some in the black community would respond to a white male journalist from out-of-town.
I drive out to the suburb of Dearborn to see the Ford Rouge Factory. Here, it’s easy to forget Detroit isn’t a monolith to the auto industry anymore, there are so many smokestacks and pallets and trailers and “big factory shit,” as I eloquently scribble in my notepad. It’s a town unto itself, and a vibrant one, at least during the work hours of a weekday. Even though I’m processing all of it in the moment, I can feel my mind reshaping the place into black-and-white snapshots. The whole scene just feels like a postcard from a bygone time and place, different from the rest of Detroit I’ve touched down upon.
Then it’s time to go to the airport for my flight home.
I’ve been in Detroit for four days and three nights. Just long enough to realize how much else there is to see and do and feel and experience. Past security, I wonder what the hell I’m going to write about. All I have is a collection of jagged, disparate pieces. Before coming, I’d thought I’d be writing about the binary Detroits —then and now, there and here, the Haves and the Have-Nots.
Sure, that’s all there, I think. The Motor City and the aftermath. Downtown and the east side. Dan Gilbert and everyone else. But it all comes together. I can’t write a tale of two cities. I need to write about the one.