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Detroit, by no other name


People, please: lay down your keyboards and rest your wagging tongues. Let Facebook devolve without you, at least for part of one day, and enjoy the view from on top of the world. OK, if not at the top than from an enviable place and time in history: That'd be Detroit, 2011, a mini-epoch so active and creative the head spins just trying to keep up with it all.

We are in a blur of extended discovery. The collective imagination is reaching critical mass. The foundation -- to quote Ray Davies of the Kinks -- of "something better beginning" is finding real support. The project inspiring so much poetry and desire? Detroit. Clearly. Detroit. And is it led by local and imported dreamers who see inspiration in the present but are not averse to the hard work it takes to build some kind of future here, however quirky that future might be? Right again.       

It's disquieting then, in the midst of such crazy-good momentum, that a mere column by Toby Barlow in the Huffington Post expressing what at worst was a piece of cheeky urban chauvinism (Quote: "Seriously, nothing good ever came out of suburbia. Come be a part of what is happening here now. It is an exciting time to be in Detroit."), and at best a crystal clear (more on that in a second) observation that "you can't have a region without a center" can rage across social networks like an electrical storm.

It brought this defense of ancestral Detroit, "I'm a Detroiter, too", written from a suburban perspective. The author, Rabbi Jason Miller, says his parents were among many middle class whites who were "forced ... to flee the city" after the race riots of the 1960s and -- he adds this coda -- were kept away by a polarizing mayor, Coleman Young. A familiar lament around these parts for anyone who's been paying attention for the past 30 years (or more). But what's striking is what a misfire it is in the context of Detroit today. That conversation simply doesn't exist. It is an odd factoid to bring up as way of competing against Barlow's admittedly thorny words.

This is what he missed, good enough to re-print here and keep thinking about long into the night:

But you can't have a region without a center. If you're from Detroit, you've got to know it and be a part of it, embracing all of its opportunities, its troubles and its beauty. It is not just some idealistic dream, it's an economic necessity: The reason this is so fundamentally important is because -- get this -- it's the straightest path to getting your property values back. It's that simple. You may be from Berkley or Dearborn Heights or Beverly Hills or even Ypsilanti -- it doesn't really matter how far out you go -- but if you're in Southeast Michigan, you're from Detroit. It's your brand. So deal with it. When companies are thinking of relocating to the region, bringing jobs here, the perception of Motown is the biggest thing that matters. And when companies start thinking of relocating away from the region, the health and reputation of Detroit has a certain undeniable weight. Those companies aren't going to listen when you say "Come on! We're different! We're Troy!" They may have fallen for that in the past but now they know the truth. Detroit is right here, front and center, our inescapable fact.      

That's the framework for the conversation we're having. Now let's not stray too far from the message and get on with it.

Walter Wasacz is managing editor of Model D and an unrepentant resident of Hamtramck, where his grandparents met in a bar in 1912 and married the same year.  

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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