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In memory of Bradford Frost: It's time to rekindle our romance with the Detroit idea

Bradford Frost

Bradford Frost passed away of cancer this week. In his memory, Model D is republishing this essay he wrote from 2015.

My Detroit story started, of course, with a drive. As I rode east down Jefferson and crossed Alter Road—America's starkest opportunity divide—I knew instantly why I was here.

I had just graduated college, and relocated from the D.C. area on a one-year fellowship. A white kid—with roots from Connecticut of all places—I came to contribute what I could to Detroit's inclusive revitalization despite knowing little more about the city than tidbits of Americana and a seemingly endless barrage of negative headlines.

That was ten years ago this June.

I remember vividly the raw sentiments I carried then about 'Detroit'how it represented all that was wrong in America with its pervasive crime, blight, and disinvestment.

But as time unfolded, it became very evident to me that it didn't matter much to Detroiters that I was white. Or an outsider. Or new.

It only mattered that I was here.

That first year revealed an entirely different Detroit narrative. Instead of a barren city of hopelessness, I found a palpable energy and enthusiasm for the Detroit rising story, as well as a hustle to prove everyone wrong. That this city could indeed rise again as an epicenter of opportunity for all who chose to stay and everyone who dared to come made me hungry to latch on for the ride.

I was welcomed as part of the solution.

This was the Detroit idea refreshed: an authentic place rooted in the mythology of America—a place that inspired as much as it provoked and challenged our most cherished national ideals that one's dreams are equal to one's grit and tenacity, not predestined by a home address.

At first, Detroit filled me with anxiety. Despite my passion to work on equal opportunity, race relations, and community development (and knowing there was no better place to learn the ropes than Detroit), I was gripped by fear. I chose to live here mostly because I wanted to avoid becoming some ivory-tower-fraud, and knew it was my responsibility alone to fully integrate my whole self into this town.

Indeed, over time, if I was to have the audacity to recast myself as 'from Detroit' in any real and authentic way, then it required me to confront my fears, my racism, and my profound privilege.

What strikes me, 10 years later, is how immune I've become—I'm in less shock every day by the blight and confounding injustices we're all engulfed by in Detroit. A dysfunctional city of denigrated opportunity for the majority of the population, it's more amazing to me that Detroit's promise still saturates deeply into the hearts of those who persist.

No doubt, extraordinary changes have transpired in this town over the last ten years despite the colossal effects of the recession, continued population loss, and the city's bankruptcy. Yet, despite all of it, Detroit seems more torn by its modest demographic changes than the profound disparities it continues to endure. As a result, somewhere along the way, the narrative shifted, and suddenly people who looked like me were suspect: the white kids were coming to somehow 'take Detroit.' We’re part of the problem.

So, I'm staying.

Equal parts ambition and curiosity, I'm betting on Detroit because I still believe it can transform into the city of opportunity—for all—it is capable of being.

I don't know what will come of it, but I'm yearning to show this city that people like me are neither the solution nor the problem—neither saviors nor foes. We're just neighbors, yearning to take part in the one true story left in American life: the elusive, enriching and intoxicating story of deep, lasting, and real community change in Detroit.

This possibility—the Detroit idea—is why we're here.

The great challenge of community development is discerning what's "real." It's why we default to bricks and mortar, because we can at least see those changes, feel them, and measure the units created and dollars leveraged. We do these things because they prove tangible change is possible. And while extremely necessary and important, these changes are insufficient for Detroit.

Insufficient because we know in our hearts what the economic data reveal—it's not enough. Detroit is such a curious place: while it inspires us with its raw potential, it equallyif not disproportionatelydisappoints, frustrates, and denies so many even the most basic shot at a better life.

It's true: Detroit's revitalization is working for me. I own two homes. I'm gainfully employed. My wife and I take full advantage of Detroit's resurgent batch economy. Couple it all with the sense that I'm part of a mighty team with a shared mission to measure ourselves not merely by what we gain, but truly by what we contribute to this city, and it makes for an incredible life in Detroit.

If stories like mine inspire others to come to Detroit to build their dreams here, that's great. If it confirms others suspicions that Detroit's comeback isn't for them, then far more unity and much greater urgency is required to ensure the city supports the aspirations of all of its residents.

I came to Detroit bright eyed and in awe of how its streets told the American story; a story of promise, imbued with entrepreneurial zeal—of builders, doers, and artists infected by the Detroit badge of honor. An honor, in part, that bestowed a toughness, authenticity, and resolve into all of us merely by our presence in the city and the choice to call it our own.

10 years on, the embers of cynicism and fatigue have crept into my bones.

I often forget how basic the changes we need in Detroit really are: lights, land, localism, liquidity. But the mightiest change in Detroit has nothing to do with city services.

It has to do with us as a people—as a community.

Will we ever realize the vision of a city that fuels opportunity for all who are born here, choose to stay or return? Or will we be seduced into thinking that with just the right branding, capital investment, development project, dynamic leader, civic program, or talent pool that Detroit's revitalization will finally stick? If we succumb to those piecemeal changes alone, we'll forgo the shot at a much greater Detroit transformation.

The truth is that we must build trusting relationships and a strong community ethos together.

It demands Detroiters—all of us—to go deeper, be vulnerable, and lift up everyone here in order to retain the part of 'Detroit' that can't be commoditized, but rests deeply within us to build bridges together and realize that the ability to grow Detroit inclusively is our once-in-a-generation opportunity.

When I first came to Detroit 10 years ago, a glow of hope, camaraderie and, yes, community attached itself to virtually every encounter in this city. We were here, witness and participant in the profound mission and endeavor that is 'Detroit.' It was the closest thing to 'real' I'd ever encountered in this country. It felt like an epic youthful romance.

Perhaps, like all great romances, we need to rekindle this spirit. Rather than fuss endlessly about "New Detroit vs. Old Detroit," we need to re-romance ourselves with the Detroit idea. It's the idea that we can each achieve our personal dreams here, but it will only be worthwhile if we work collectively to uplift all of Detroit's people.

Less grandiosely stated than before, perhaps the Detroit idea is simply this: keep it real.

This essay is a part of "10 Years of Change," a series celebrating Model D's decade of publishing in Detroit and the transformations that have occurred in the city over that period. Read other stories in the series here.
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