Why would you go there?
The question nagged me as I prepared for the University of Michigan’s “Semester in Detroit Program” – where 25 of us would travel to Detroit, immersing ourselves in hands-on urban studies classes and community internships over the summer.
And ever since I completed my two-month term in the city, I’m still being asked the same question.
From my hair stylist who, when she found out what I had done for those two months, nearly dropped the brush and exclaimed “Weren’t you scared? I bet you were counting down the days to get out!” to a man I met at the gym near my parent’s home in Northern Michigan who let out an exasperated sigh and called Detroit a “whole other world.”
But it was similar reactions before the program even started that made me feel not only uneasy, but made me start to question my own reasons for taking this assignment.
In fact, I grew frustrated at myself for not vieing for that top journalism internship in New York City or Washington DC as so many of my fellow editors at the Michigan Daily had.
I questioned my decision. What was I doing here? Had I made a huge mistake?
Now, after the fact, this is one of those moments that I look back on and give my past-self a slap from my future-self.
As one who so ardently defended the city even as an “outsider” I grew mad at myself for becoming discouraged and doubting what I would get from my time in Detroit. After all, this was the city my great-grandparents emigrated to – laying their roots and raising their families.
This is the place that each story at a family party starts with a “remember when” and gets traced back somewhere between 8 mile and Michigan Ave.
My great grandparents on both sides emigrated to Detroit – one couple coming from England and Ireland (by way of Canada) and the other Italy. They built their lives and grew their families here and saw their kids (my grandparents) do the same. Both of my grandfathers worked in the auto industry – one for GM and the other for Ford.
While my Dad’s parents eventually moved to the suburbs my mom’s parents stayed put on the Northwest side. In fact, my Uncle John George is committed to Detroit and revitalizing it through the organization he found, Motor City Blight Busters (Uncle John was awarded the “Points of Light” award by President Clinton for his outstanding volunteer work).
Yet despite these colorful Detroit connections, my parents eventually settled in the suburbs and I was brought into the world viewing the city from afar.
My experience, before this summer, had been one of a suburbanite – going in and coming out – family trips to the DIA, The Fox Theatre, dinner in Greektown. As I grew up – so close, yet so far away from the city, I swam in the perspectives of others – the reputation that this city had with its many faults and fractures.
Why would I come here? I know it’s been said before, but I know how important it is for it to be said again, and again, and again.
Because, here, I see a place of true hope and possibility.
Where I’m not scared of the vacancy, but excited by it.
Where I feel like small efforts at the community level can make immediate and enduring change.
It was a place I had heard so much about in the form of second hand tales, but never had my own to share. Yes, my original connection was born out of curiosity about the place so many of my relatives called home.
But I don’t want to dwell on the past of what used to be and get stuck in yellow-fringed photographs and golden patchy home movies.
I want to embrace the current, and most important, future Detroit, one steeped in revitalization and hope.
Detroit casts its long shadow in a million shades of grey. I’m not weighed down by them, and neither should Detroit. And yes, I might be a tad bit idealistic and tragically hopeful in a place that continues to inflict self-harm, but I don’t think it’s worth abandoning.
I still can’t call myself a “Detroiter.” I’ve only spent 2 months here, so I haven’t earned the title yet. But I would like to be given the opportunity for a name change in the near future.
To Hope, my hair dresser, no, I’m not glad I “got out of there.”
In fact, I can’t wait to go back.