Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Detroit. I road-tripped my way down to perform in the Detroit Improv Festival, so I knew I'd have an exhilarating time but I left with more than expected.
Admittedly, upon arrival I was nervous. “You're staying in Detroit proper,” broached a friend who'd heard where I was housing. His words echoed our fear-peddling media, stirring reminders of our political temperatures and peaking my habitual flow as a caffeinated squirrel.
Detroit didn't look like anything I've known. It'd been years since I'd visited our southern neighbours anywhere outside of NY and LA. I felt navigationally clueless. If Maslow had asked me to identify my level of fear, I'd've barfed on his whole hierarchy.
Active buildings were sparse and nearly as downtrodden as the half-burnt buildings beside them, making it hard to distinguish any difference, like a desert of rotten teeth that could fool even the dentist on the hunt for the tooth worth the root canal.
What little of the city that did offer a semblance of proclaimed ownership appeared not to be calculated into westernized value — an ideology I've become used to thanks to Toronto's high turnover of resto-stops an hustler-hubs — and the Ikea-smothered belly of my Airbnb aired as much of a disguise as would a pair of Groucho glasses on a ghost — ill fitted.
The paucity of city bustle hit me with unease but digging deeper serves better than believing in valid first impressions. So I gave myself a second reason to be in the city: I'd ask as many locals as possible what they liked about Detroit.
“Oh, you're asking the wrong guy for that,” said the uber driver so bona fide he compelled me to start thumbing quotes onto my iPhone in his back seat. Let's call him Tom. Tom suggested I see the murals in the market before quickly steering the conversation back toward his dislikes about his native city. “It's shit now. I loved it when the recession was on. There was no one in the city but artists and musicians and the weed growers, you know?”
I asked Tom when he last remembered it being that way. “Oh, 2009, 2010. 'Round 2012, 2013's when it changed.” Bars were his mental markers for the city's downturn. “The first thing to come in is bars. Bars is the first thing to get a mother fucker downtown,” he said with a dryness that exposed one man's attempt at economic resurgence as another man's despondency to see local spirits replaced.
The same resurrectional attempt was evident in the top three floors of my Airbnb, a sizeable house aside a driveway slabbed with broken concrete. Inside, the fresh coats of paint and the Huck Finn paperbacks died out before finding their way into the dark, dank basement, contrasting starkly the structure's old and its new.
Tom zeroed in on the trend, alluding to the residential disturbance that has wedged over a million people out of the city since the 1950's. “Suburban cats with money would kick 'em out of their homes and rent [the houses] out.” Before he became an uber driver, he says, his dwellings were on the fourth floor of a decrepit building with no running water; “talk about Uncle Sam fuckin' bleedin' you dry.”
Within our ten minute roll over to the after-party that would have me dancing with comedians 'til the morning's tiny hours, Tom made it clear that the recession hit his city from all angles. “[The government's] squeezin' 'em for healthcare. Even a tube of toothpaste is six bucks. I don't think that's capitalism. I'm all for some healthy capitalism. I just think that's price jacking.” It's extortion.
“I'm part Mohawk,” he continues, adding first-hand recounts of the city's old and new. “[Government officials] can shoot ya here and nothin' will happen 'cause it's all federal property,” he utters with a sarcasm that sounds like it's bled through the same words enough to now ring dry. “It's funny how crystal meth still finds its way onto the reserve, you know — it's not us brining it there.”
Every snippet he offers makes me more sure our ride's too short and even more sure I'd be left with more questions than answers. When I tell him where I'm from, Tom says he's always been envious of Canadians, adding, “but I really do believe that shit will come to a heed in America.” And I think he's well on his way to being right.
From the gut griping landscape of a ruptured economy, to the vibrant museums that unify the chaotic bricolage of human experience, to the characters driving tales wrapped in aversion and pitted with hope, I was offered a glimpse of a resilient city — a place full of people who know things you don't, nodding you along your travels in a way that suggests each adventure leads back towards your own core; miles of spirits who'll open their doors, turn on the music, and dance with you 'til dawn.
While it was all too brief, I left with a new piece of heart only someone who's visited Detroit proper could come to recognize, and I wouldn't have been able to had I not left my fear at the threshold. Clutching to fear invites assumption and always involves risk of missing out on beauty. It's dangerous to fear the unknown and it's funny how you find yourself on the other side. I'm lucky to have traveled those miles.
I won't pretend my tired bod isn't thankful to be climbing back into the mountain of duvets atop my Canadian queen mattress, thumbing through my New York Times' Weekend Briefing, but I'm more thankful to know there will forever exist another chance to transcend this world of madness and stumble our way into the beauty of our cities' unknown, if we'd only allow ourselves to drive down those roads and peer up at those murals from artists who've come before.