Hey Mitch: Detroit Primed to Play More Than Defense

For much of the region and the state, I'm fairly certain, Mitch Albom's recent dramatic presentation in Sports Illustrated ("The Courage of Detroit" on Jan. 7) elicited the desired response -- a fist-clenching, back-slapping, no-one-can-fight-like-us-when-the-world-is-crumbling group hug. Yet, he might be surprised by the reaction from some in my peer group. Heck, he might be surprised that my peer group even exists. You see, not everyone who lives in the city proper is yanking out a vinyl mattress at the end of every day and sacking out on a church floor.

Who are my peers? The folks who live and play here every day and enjoy it to no end. From 22 to 72 year olds. All ethnicities. Students to middle class to upper class. (Does anyone in the media talk about the black upper and middle class in Detroit? If you didn't know any better, you'd think every single black person is either in a homeless shelter or Southfield.) People with kids. Gay people. Gay people with kids. People with the means to live wherever they want, but who choose to live in Detroit. I know, that's a pretty wide range, but that's kind of the point.

Look, I'm not going to fight the data or even the fact that our former mayor is dressed head-to-toe in orange as I type this. And, I'll be the first to raise my hand in recognition that even though the rest of the country is in economic trouble and public schools can’t seem to educate urban and disenfranchised populations in any city -- the issues always seem amplified in Detroit. I do, however, take issue with a sort of self-imposed martyrdom that helps us reinforce this identity of being tough fighters. It seems that in order for us to be tough, Detroit has to suck. And for Detroit to suck, it has to float stagnant in time as a sort of static snow globe with gray, floating lead paint. No matter how many times the people who live, eat and go sledding here scream it out, that version doesn't jibe with what we see.

Truth of the matter is, Detroit 2009 doesn't exactly resemble Detroit 1999, which doesn't resemble Detroit 1979, any more than any of them will resemble Detroit 2019.

Still the questions remain the same, even from people who live in the region. I find it strange that Mitch laments that people continuously ask him why he lives in Detroit, and then goes on to reinforce all the perceptions that made them ask the question in the first place. We live among ghosts? Boo! He speaks of demolished Hudson's and then moves on to his next "isn't-it-tragic" story, all before mentioning that right down the street Compuware has built their world headquarters and Campus Martius Park hosts thousands and thousands of people for concerts, outdoor movies and ice skating every year – including me and my three kids (white people, with kids, in Detroit?).

A woe-is-me tale of lost Tiger Stadium goes unchecked, never mentioning that the neighborhood where it stood is as vibrant as ever. Quirky 19th and early 20th century homes with real working, breathing completely contented people. Two book stores: Ladel's and John King. One of the hottest restaurants around – Slows Bar BQ – and the pink-floored Mercury Coffee Bar. All right there. Albom also mentions that the Packard plant is closed!? Oh no, when did that happen? Oh wait, that was in 1957.

Yes, yes, I did read the whole article. There are mentions of the Fox Theatre, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Whitney. I love those places and the great things they're doing. It's hard, however, to appreciate Mitch's few, scattered half-hearted efforts to enumerate Detroit's great things, especially since I was beaten down before I ever got there. And that goes without mentioning that I could have read about those specific places in the 1999 narrative of Detroit. Or the 1979 version. Heck the 1899 version.

In reality Detroit isn't that static. How about the $1.75 billion – with a "b" -- investment since 2000 making Midtown, one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in the country? What about the new Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit? Trendy Angelina Bistro in Grand Circus Park, Wolfgang Puck and Saltwater in the MGM Grand, and Roast in the Book Cadillac? The El Barzon restaurant (Italian and Mexican?) at Michigan and Junction? The Friday-and-Saturday-night-only hipster haven Cafe D'Mongo's? And the hundreds of other restaurants, bars, cultural attractions and businesses that have opened and enriched the city since the last time a decent pro football game was played in Detroit. (Not the Lions, of course. Super Bowl XL in 2006.)

And yet …

And yet the story from the local guy that runs in a national publication reinforces all of Detroit's old stereotypes by opening in a homeless shelter, then offering an inventory of the negative and ignoring what I see every day in Detroit. I can't help but feeling like one of those creatures in Horton Hears a Who! shouting: "We are here! We are here! We are here!" We're not stuck or for that matter necessarily tough. We just like going to neighborhood bars like The Bronx, a rogue art show or two, and running into 50 percent of our friends in one trip to Avalon International Breads. We like living surrounded by the Great Lakes and across the river from Canada. We like being surrounded by some of the most creative people, musicians and artists anywhere.

Right before the holidays, a friend from college came into town for business. He grew up in Birmingham, went to Michigan State, and then moved to Chicago, where he still lives. I picked him up at his hotel and zipped over to Corktown for dinner. Even though it was Wednesday, the wait at Slows was over an hour. So I decided to take him over to the Motor City Brewing Works in Midtown, where the adjacent parking lot for Traffic Jam was full. Nearby, Bureau of Urban Living was buzzing with holiday shoppers. Motor City was having its weekly art show, and we ordered some of their flat-bread pizza, talking to no less than a dozen friends who stopped by our corner of the bar to chat. My friend seemed stunned when confronted with a Detroit experience that he frankly never knew existed. A populated, vibrant, quality urban experience. Here … in Detroit. My fear is he read too many Mitch Albom articles before ever giving it a chance.

Jim Boyle is a Thumb-native and vice president of integrated marketing with Detroit-based Lovio George. He could live anywhere ... and yet ... he's chosen Detroit's West Village neighborhood on the East Side. Find more on The Villages here. Send feedback on this story here.


A favorite hipster hangout, Cafe D'Mongo's

Summer in the city

Freshly baked goodness at Avalon Bakery

Lunchtime in Campus Martius

Slows Bar BQ at dusk

Scarlet Oaks, helping make Detroit a better place one note at a time

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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