First published at 365gay.com on March 25, 2011
I’ve been in Mexico for the last few weeks. I’ve met people from all over North America, who occasionally ask me where I’m from. In the past, such conversations have often gone like this:
Me: “I’m from Detroit.”
Stranger: “No, really, where are you from?”
Stranger: “Yeah, but what suburb? Ferndale? Royal Oak?”
Me: “DETROIT. I live in the City of Detroit.”
Stranger: “Oooh, I’m sorry.”
If the “I’m sorry” is offered scornfully, I will sometimes retort: “Don’t be. At least people there aren’t rude, the way you just were.” To express pity about a stranger’s home without any sense of the stranger’s perspective is condescending and insulting.
But something interesting has happened on this trip. Of the dozen or so people I’ve discussed Detroit with, not a single one has expressed contempt. Some have even been enthusiastic.
The closest thing to a negative reaction was one person’s asking “Um, and how do you feel about that?” It was offered in a cautious tone, much as one would use when asking an unintentionally pregnant woman how she feels about motherhood.
This past Tuesday the U.S. Census revealed that Detroit has lost 25% of its population in the last decade, nearly a quarter of a million residents. The New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23detroit.html?_r=1&hp] and other media outlets seized upon the story, painting a bleak picture of the city and its prospects.
As I reflected on these headlines, I was reminded of an old pain-reliever commercial. After touting various statistics about the product’s effectiveness, the spokesman says, “But I don’t care about charts and graphs. I care about my headache going away.”
I feel much the same way about Detroit. I don’t care (at least not in a direct way) about the numbers. I care about people’s lives. And some of those Detroit lives—including mine—are going quite well, thank you.
Since I write my weekly column for a gay publication, let me give this a gay angle for just a brief moment.
Gay people tend to get worked up over how large a minority we are, often insisting that we’re 10% of the population despite substantial evidence that we’re closer to half that (maybe less). My worth as a person doesn’t depend on how many other gay people there are. But there’s clout and comfort in numbers. People feel validated by them.
And so I understand that Detroit’s dropping below one million in 2000 was a psychological blow, and that its dropping to 713,777 now is another. Moreover, the blows aren’t merely psychological: lower numbers mean less federal and state funding, less political clout, and so on—not to mention a dwindling tax base (which is no news to anyone).
But Detroit isn’t numbers. It is a collection of people and neighborhoods and networks. And I can tell you firsthand that some of those are really thriving. Indeed, parts of the city (especially downtown) look much better than when I arrived thirteen years ago, and I wouldn’t trade my Detroit friends for anyone.
“Detroit” is also an equivocal moniker. It can refer to the city proper (as it does in these census reports), or it can refer to the metropolitan region. That region contains four- or five- million people, depending on how you draw its boundaries. Most of us who live in “Detroit” tend to spend time in both city and suburbs.
Admittedly, some of us move between them more seamlessly than others do. I live and work in Detroit proper, but my house is a half-mile from 8 Mile Road (Detroit’s northern border) and I do a lot of my shopping and eating out in the inner-ring suburbs. Most of my suburban-dwelling friends head to downtown Detroit regularly for restaurants, sports and entertainment.
Yet I’ve met people who seldom (if ever) venture south of 8 Mile Road, and some who feel like they’re “slumming it” if they venture much south of 14 Mile.
All of which is to say that, in reporting that many of us are flourishing in Detroit, I don’t mean to sugarcoat its problems. The region is still one of the most racially segregated in the country, and there are vast portions of the city proper that are pretty much abandoned. The pictures of blight that you see are real.
But they are scarcely the whole picture.
The City of Detroit has a rich architectural legacy, major cultural resources, proximity to beautiful natural resources (such as the Great Lakes), an international border, first-rate sports teams, a thriving music culture, ease of travel (Detroit Metro Airport is a major international hub), and some of the most creative, spirited, and friendly people I’ve met anywhere.
Like most places, Detroit is largely what one makes of it. I’m proud to make it my home.