Is Anybody Happy in Detroit?

Don't smile for the camera, Detroit, the world is watching. If you know and love this grubby, gritty, funky, uncompromising and infectiously resilient place where an anything-goes-future of possibilities is its greatest asset like I do, then that cheeky introduction should warrant a smirk and a nod of approval.

You may have heard, c'mon, of course you have, even if you could care less, that Forbes Magazine earlier this year dubbed Detroit the most miserable big city in America. You are well aware of daily reports of micro-melodramatic unrest in city hall, corporate disinvestment and job loss, the demolition of beloved Tiger Stadium and the complications of this region's politics of race. Is it reality check time? You betcha. To fully engage in the breaking Detroit story you must become an historian of the present, alert and ready to take it all in, the century-long rewards of manufacturing dominance and the detritus left in its post-industrial wake. In my world, and you're welcome to it, I see fertile ground uncovered, seeds to plant and sow, new social and cultural foundations to build, a place to be made over - this time even better. Turning a blind eye to the real problems of these changing times? Nope. Choosing to adventure into the unknown like an abstract expressionist painter in front of a blank canvas? That's a different kind of tension, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks - a tough and lovely British band that rose out of the ashes of famously de-industrialized Manchester in the late 1970s - once wrote. Pause and think about that for a moment and you'll get a better idea of where I'm coming from.        

You may have read Washington Post reporter Ellen McCarthy's response to the Forbes piece, a mission of mercy in which the writer went out hunting for happiness in Detroit. She spent two days looking for it and found it, if only in the fleeting shadows of night, in the beauty of our downtown skyline, in a juiced up crowd at North Corktown's Nancy Whiskey's, in the landscape architectural brilliance of Belle Isle, and in some sweet quotes from Esther Gordy Edwards at the Motown Historical Museum, who encouraged, no scolded (that's Detroit!), visitors to put their hands together to the tune of "Dancing in the Streets."

But she also found kids at the Majestic who told her the music there sucked, drove through Hamtramck and said there was nothing worth stopping to see (how could she?), and concluded in the end that there was an "undeniable misery gurgling through the metropolis." Oh, Ellen. We're looking for beautiful friendships, we really are, scruffy postmodern street urchins that we are, not wordplay that conjures up images from Hellboy II: the Golden Army.  

Detroit identity

But we come to neither praise nor bury the Washington Post for its efforts (nor to speak ill of the heroic and chivalrous Hellboy, for that matter). The story is really quite good, sparkles with crispy writing and (however unintentional) is instructive as a primer for what we do right here and as well as what we don't.

It started me thinking about how visitors are likely to see Detroit. It jogged memories of my impressions of other places I have been, and what locals there had said about their cities (including a visit to London in 1977, when some boy in the Roxy, one of the best punk clubs of its day, told me the music there was "rubbish" and said to go back to America to listen to "really good bands, like the Eagles" – ha!). It brought me to some interesting conclusions on perception, reality and Detroit identity.

The way people view the city and the way we actually live in it day to day have been the subject of many stories in all sorts of local media. Not to diminish their value, for they are at the intersection of much of the traffic flowing through Model D, but I am most interested in the identity question at the moment: who are you, Detroit? I'm not referring to the city vs. suburbs thing, by the way, but deeper queries. And while we're at it: What are you?   
Is Detroit not a constellation of villages, as Stephen Vogel, dean of the University of Detroit Mercy's School of Architecture suggested during a panel discussion at the Shrinking Cities exhibit in 2007, more than it is a city? Think about it: we're old – our next centennial will celebrate 400 years of legal charter qualification as a city, but did we ever have the urban glue that made places like Prague or Krakow functional social engines of everyday life for a millennium?   

Maybe Vogel is right. West Side, East Side, Rosedale Park, Boston-Edison, Corktown, Midtown, Southwest, Mexicantown, Woodbridge, Palmer Park-University District, you name it, and it's not easy get there from here. Downtown is a destination, not a neighborhood. In dire need of mass transit, Detroit is in even more desperate need of real community life, and that, dearest and faithful Model D reader, is what I believe Forbes (morbid statistics aside) and Ellen McCarthy were unable to find here.

People who need people

Those of you still with me on your iPhones, MacBook Airs and other personal communication hardware know a thing or two about getting and staying connected. Facebook and MySpace communities might provide you access to hundreds or even thousands of virtual friends. (Speaking of which, you can find both Model D and FilterD groups there. Sorry for the bit of self-promotion.) But they in fact mimic what we crave in even the most mundane hours of our daily lives, when we need to reach out to other people for contact and conversation (not to mention a loaf of bread and some fresh fruit, some batteries to keep our computers and other devices going). And we want this taken-for-granted banality in our own neighborhoods, dense enough with commercial and residential amenities to sustain the most basic living standards. We want to walk to the store, in other words, or bump into people we'd like to spend time with on the street.  

The Post's response to our "miserable city" is actually rather appreciated. It gives us a mirror to look into, a way to check for unwanted blemishes, as well as to restore and renew all that is great about this friggin' place.

It should also make us productively angry enough to execute whatever is necessary make that restoration happen. And how's that? By doing whatever you want, that's how. Take ownership of this place, create a business, produce music, make art, grow crops, raise livestock (one of the most interesting couples I've ever met came to Detroit from Berlin in 2004 scouting locations to start a bee farm... but that's a wonderful story for another time, perhaps), participate in a thriving Midtown cultural scene that now includes a bundle of institutional activity at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Max Fisher Music Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University; or develop your own personal Detroit madness and share it with like-minded musical innovators around the world, like the people behind the UFO Factory and Bohemian National Home – not to ignore the countless techno, house, hip hop, soul, funk, jazz and garage rock kids - have done.

If you detect a contentious and challenging tone in these words you are getting the message, loud and clear. We are Detroit. We are doers and producers. There is hard work to get done, and those of us who are doing it probably wouldn't be happy doing anything else. Jump in anytime, folks, the more the better. Roll up your sleeves and change the texture of the world, one little urban piece at a time.

The results might make history, something mighty real to smile about on a summer night after all.

Walter Wasacz is editor of FilterD. He believes in the healing power of Detroit's global vibe. Reach him here.


Beach goers on Belle Isle

From tasteful to tacky...kitschy to wacky, Mantra - Chinatown-Detroit

Joseph F. Ford Sculpture Garden, on the campus of CCS

Campus Martius

Great spot to start your day, Avalon Bakery

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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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