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I’m from the Detroit “Area”: From the Suburbs “With Love”

priyu

I lived in Chicago for 4.5 years. As a city of 11 million people, you can tack on about 3 million transient visitors – students, artists, aspiring professionals and the like. The people you meet at bars and parties in some of the more populous neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Wrigleyville, or even Logan Square nowadays are more often than not non-Chicago natives. Don’t get me wrong, the outsiders are still widely outnumbered, and Chicago has a strong local contingent, but it also has a luxurious mass appeal as a well-planned, efficient American metropolis with aspects of Midwestern hospitality. You can’t be surprised if someone asks you “Where are you from?” Being from the Metro Detroit area, you’re left with a choice between two alternatives – simplify your answer and say you’re from Detroit, hoping that they’ll assume you mean the suburbs, or give them the name of some small wealthy enclave that they’ve never heard of and specify that it’s 40 minutes north of the world’s most popular fallen empire. When I first started living there I was probably lazier and less conscientious about throwing out the “I’m from Detroit” bit just to get across the general vicinity, but doing that has unseen implications:

1) People believe you, which is embarrassing because you weren’t one of the brave handful that stayed and fought to improve the area, nor were you one of the brave thousands economically confined to the city.

2) You’re proliferating the myth of the so-called Detroit attitude that you have only partial claim to. Actually being from Detroit is a loaded honor, and one that no visitor from the suburbs, and especially elsewhere, has any entitlements toward. 

The new influx that has been coming into the city more often than not lacks the humility to acknowledge that they’re just passing through.  More often than not they feel they’re a part of a larger revival, when in reality they’re just looking for a place to party without getting caught. I was looking at a documentary about the city’s demise and underneath one gentleman commented, “Most of the newcomers don’t care about what they can do for Detroit, they only care about what Detroit can do for them.” Anytime I see an old friend of mine from the warehouse scene in Chicago transplant there in a D hat, that quote comes to mind. They belong in Detroit no better than they belong in any famous commuter metropolis. It’s a good thing that there’s renewed interest in the city, but some people need a reality check on context.  I’m not speaking as a resident of Detroit, I’m speaking as someone who grew up in southeast Michigan, and has seen an evolution in attitudes toward moving back to the city for better and for worse.

The first thing to understand is that the white flight of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s didn’t just take jobs to the suburbs, it took culture as well. While the Grande Ballroom downtown lit up weekends and weeknights with the likes of the MC5, The Stooges, Death, and others, the vast majority of attendees had relocated elsewhere with their families. Memories of racial tensions and burning works of art deco and Roman revival architecture still permeated the local consciousness, and in this climate of violence, set against the much larger looming threat of the draft for Vietnam and Nixon’s corrupt political machine, rock n’ roll could possess no better Mecca than the abandoned kingdom of Detroit.  But the pilgrimage, at least amongst fans, usually started elsewhere.

Metro Detroit is like one giant city in a way; in spite of all the racial and socioeconomic divisions, everything from as south as Allen Park and Ecorse to as north as Rochester, and as west as Farmington is efficiently networked into what we can affectionately call the “Metro Detroit” area.  The glue that holds us all together is the auto industry. Like the wheel was the advent of man’s foray into technology, the car was the fruits of his labor. So it makes sense that we’ve created a culture here that, like the Japanese, is so traditional that it’s modern. It’s a culture where even the largest paychecks can be wiped out overnight, and one wrong foot can ruin you forever. As big of an emphasis as we put on innovation, we revere productivity and precision. We’re about both quantity and quality, it’s a machine that makes no apologies and doesn’t understand compromise.

Consequently, there aren’t very many jobs here that are disconnected from some form of automotive work; my generation’s parents put their hearts and souls into it, and the structural forces that be in this area provided them no alternative. A community with such a tight bond can make a bad reputation go a long way to seeing you through. As a result, it makes sense that a farm boy like Iggy winds up on stage cutting his chest open, and it becomes a metaphor for what generations of southeast Michiganians all feel growing up here: a lot of pressure to be on our best behavior, responsible, well-educated, and successful. Everyone has to know their place, and play it to perfection. It’s ritual and progressiveness combined.

When I first made friends in Chicago, none of them had the same quality of secondary education, the same puritanical weight of responsibility, or any understanding of efficient living. It was a relief from the perfectionist ideals we set for ourselves growing up. A perfectionist ideal and an angry restlessness I sense we share in common with the actual city of Detroit – it’s no wonder since the businesses and parents who shaped our lives were more or less from there – yet our plights have manifested quite differently and that makes our claim in the suburbs to the same identity practically illegitimate. Maybe in the ‘70s things were closer together because the suburbs and the city shared a memory, but 30 years on we were raised to look at the city as a sort of foreign place.

I spent my summers as a kid in the ‘90s with a family friend in Allen Park, a suburban extension that you might as well consider a neighborhood in the south of Detroit. It’s a middle of middle class neighborhood, mostly factory workers for Ford or GM, a predominantly white, well-maintained borough that saw some influx of African-Americans in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My friend’s father was a foreman at one of the plants. He’d come home drunk or whatever, and never lock the door. When my parents would chastise him for it the next morning, he’d say, “This isn’t Detroit.” Therein lies the realization that even in spite of geography, the locale we refer to as Detroit is largely defined by implications of poverty and crime, and former neighborhoods of the city itself were keen on disowning their affinity when it came to those issues.  It’s a spirit that I associate with being home – the individualist ability to sever ties with anyone or any idea based on undesired principles and reputations. 

This individualism has historically made southeast Michigan, and Detroit itself at times, unconcerned with the general American urban phenomenon of being ‘hip’. No one in this area has ever had to be ‘hip’, because they’ve always been cool. But now that the insecurities with attempting to be ‘hip’ are setting in with the alleged winds of change and cracks in the cultural infrastructure created by online escapism, people are far less cool here than I remember them being. Whether it’s The Stooges, MC 5, Funkadelic, the advent of techno, or J Dilla, these things are all steeped in a certain classical understanding of high art, and when it comes to their attitude, they’d take soul over a pretty painting any day. None of these artists are the kind that will represent something false just to be in with the times.  They’ll bide their time, because primitivism comes from their understanding of life’s cyclical nature, that one minute you’re on the curb of success and the next you’re in the shambles of doom.  Consequently, the idea of “Detroit” as a cultural commodity is kind of a happy accident.  You either have it in you, or you don’t.  And if you don’t grow up in Southeast Michigan, you don’t get it, and if you weren’t raised in the city you don’t have an irrefutable claim to it.

I’m not against new ideas seeping into the culture here. New blood is a good thing for a region that is notoriously hostile and unwelcoming to it. That being said, new blood should be good blood, not the kind of desperate pandering that I’ve been taking note of. I went to the Hamtramck Blowout this past April, and I realized that our general fetish with being stubbornly behind the times is still present, but while before it was connected to a general comfort with being yourself, and the kind of temperamental rage that demands respect, it’s now infected by a self-conscious vulnerability and cutesiness that I found so abhorrently disgusting about Chicago. I might’ve seen about 20 surf rock bands.  On the one hand, the appeal is evident; it’s connected to the two-three chord simplicity of punk and has the image of ‘60s garage bands, but it’s not sexy at all. There’s no sleaze or animal energy, no return to the cradle of funky things, no base desire to fuck. It’s dimunitive Betty Draper shit from passive-aggressive people who consider themselves rebels but are nothing more than submissive cogs.

I went to an after party, saw this one band that’s getting national acclaim hanging out there – I won’t mention them by name – and all the girls in the band were just sitting on the sofa in their faux fur coats smoking their cigarettes looking jaded like a Warhol video for “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or something. It’s as if one Nico wasn’t enough of a sad sack, so you had to have four of them. Even Nico had more soul than these twits; they were just waiting for some guys to come up and hit on them, and they were cute so why wouldn’t they? But you could see right through them, and you knew it was all peripheral attention. They had nothing to say, and nothing to do. We shat on these kids in high school, and had a good reason for doing so, and now their vapid, self-effacing ways are on stage for the world to see.

Everyone at that party had this attitude about them, like they were going to carry this elephant in the room of racial tension and unemployment out of the city’s consciousness for good. But what Detroit needs isn’t another place to party and veil its misery. It’s not even a new set of clothes, it’s real infrastructural investment. Culture is a start for getting people interested, but not if it’s pure narcissism. The culture that relocated Lester Bangs from San Fran to Detroit in the ‘70s had a philosophy, it had intention and verve, it said and sang stuff ‘cause it needed to, and that lent itself a bold promise to an angry young generation of men and women. J Dilla’s death in 2006 resurrected the phenomena of Detroit music culture, but it did so through its revitalization of Motown engineering in a contemporary, forward-looking setting. The common motto here being inventiveness is key, but the truth is timeless. When you sell self-absorption, you get self-absorbed people, and these people do nothing for the economy. They don’t have a product worth selling, or any gauge on the larger condition of people living in the area or the ideologies that they possess.

I’m anti-factory party and I’m anti-multimillionaire exploitation as well. There needs to be some common ground between the two. Maybe instead of evicting a successful DIY space, there needs to be thought given into legitimizing it somehow by converting it into an official gallery or bar or venue. If these people are really the great philanthropists that they are, they’ll find a way to gain legitimacy and accept this proposition for survival. Nevertheless, as an entrepreneur you need to have a finger on the pulse of things, and entertainment isn’t going to be enough to get the heart started.  It may provide the tools through attractions, but it won’t provide the surgical cure. The real incisions need to be made with a tax base that can protect and improve social services. It’s a capital that isn’t going to come from a hipster influx from out-of-state, but from a trickling down of job seekers from the suburbs. That means that companies need to consider moving jobs back to where the young people are in order to convince them to stay well beyond their partying years.

Young people already there need to view living there as a positive, and not find themselves aspiring to work hard just to get out. In order to incentivize it for businesses, the government needs to clean house of its corruption, and revitalize its police tactics, trying to repair a reputation they have soiled in the most dangerous neighborhoods over the past 40-50 years. Public transportation will be a thorn in the auto industry’s side, but they’re losing clout anyway since the public’s trust in them and their culture is at an all-time low. There are opportunities to increase access in other ways though, most notably through education reform and market diversification. If they can find ways to bring domestic textile jobs and various IT work that isn’t being outsourced, that can only widen the scope of employment. 

The bottom line is this: if you’re a young twentysomething living in Detroit or planning to move to the area, have the humility to acknowledge that you’re not from there, and that there are issues at hand far more entrenched in life essentials than your ho-hum ideals and aspirations for personal stardom could ever reach. If you grew up in the suburbs like me, you probably have opinions on the subject, but you still don’t lay claim to being from there, because the people who have lived there, held it up from its haunches, and fought to make it better are a figure of muscle neither you or your fight-and-flight parents partook in. Until you become a teacher, a tutor, a social worker, a volunteer, a liaison, an entrepreneur, or some other aid to the long-term health of the city, you’re entitled to no pride. You can get drunk anywhere, so go anywhere but there. I doubt you frequent the places that most need your help anyway. There needs to be a respect for the history of the place, and the culture of the region in general, and this elusive mentality of finding the next big thing needs to die hard. They never reinvented the wheel in Detroit, they just made a damn good one. And I anticipate that the way forward for the city is to continue to do so. Because, as Dave Chappelle once said, “The truth is eternal, everything else falls by the wayside.”