Lately I've been nostalgic for the hip-hop of my teenage years. If you weren't around Detroit around, say, the late '90s into the early 2000s, you really missed out. It was back in those days when a 15-year-old couldn't turn on WJLB or WCHB without hearing local favorites like Eastside Chedda Boyz, Blade Icewood, and Drunken Master alongside the likes of DMX and Ja Rule. And all the low-power and public-access channels -- notably good ol' Channel 68 -- had a near-endless stream of local videos with instantly recognizable landmarks.
It seemed like back in the day, every Detroit rapper had to have this one phrase in their bars: "Belle Isle to 7 Mile." Or maybe vice versa. It's so easy to rhyme, and so representative of the city that it became such a catch-all back then. Nowadays, such a phrase would make a politically correct cartographer weep, but you might catch me dropping a "Belle Isle to 7 Mile" in conversation every now and then. Why? Because it's an easy way of encompassing Detroit without the implied borders.
You don't hear "Belle Isle to 7 Mile" anymore because now, more than ever, Detroit is separating. It's one thing to rep your neighborhood (or, as so often the case in Detroit is, your cross streets). It's another to separate your neighborhood from the city completely.
I've been seeing this phrase a lot lately: "The neighborhoods." It usually falls into this context: When talking development or re-development in Detroit, it's always something like "Downtown and Midtown...and then there are the neighborhoods." Or worse, when visitors ask where to go in Detroit. "You'll like Corktown, but stay away from the neighborhoods."
Everyone uses it. It's been said by politicians, repeated by journalists, enforced by community organizers. I'm guilty of using it myself. But what do we mean by saying "the neighborhoods"? If we were to be completely honest and look at the context it's used in the most, white people say "the neighborhoods" when they're uplifting Downtown, Midtown and Corktown; black people say "the neighborhoods" when they're downplaying Downtown, Midtown and Corktown.
Controversial to divide along those lines? Of course. But when can you ever have a conversation about Detroit without attempting to untangle some racial wires? Maybe by putting it out there, we can get to the root of why we say these things.
First, it baffles me how "the neighborhoods" entered the Detroit lexicon and how the neighborhoods of the city's 7.2 square mile core -- Downtown, Corktown and Midtown -- got separated from the rest of the city. Is Corktown, with its string of larcenies from parked cars, more of a neighborhood than, say, Palmer Woods with its three-car garages and paid security patrols? Is Midtown not a neighborhood? Do people not occupy residences in Midtown next to other residents, thus making said residents neighbors? And doesn't a mass occupation of neighbors make a neighborhood?
I don't mean to get all technical, nor do I want to take a swipe at one 'hood over another, but what irks me the most is that when we bounce around other terms like "one Detroit," you'll hear "the neighborhoods" in the same breath. And getting back to observing on who uses it the most, we all do it.
If longtime residents, of which there's an 80% chance that they are black, would recall that old "Belle Isle to 7 Mile" mindset that reinstated pride in the city no matter what side of town you were on, there wouldn't be a need to constantly reinforce the credibility that comes with living outside of the 7.2 square mile core because it's already there.
The cultural currency that comes with being a Detroiter is unmatched and irreplaceable; people around the world should be envious of the history in this city and the people that have made it. Tell us your cross streets, sure, but take care of how you use them.
Similarly, for Downtown, Midtown and Corktown residents who insist upon separation -- and the politicians and journalists that echo them -- you do realize you're painting with a pretty broad brush, right? I mean, does every neighborhood have to look exactly like Midtown and Corktown?
I think everyone in Detroit wants the same things: Lights on, no crime, blight eradicated. But when I hear that tinge of tsk-tsk-tsk in people's voices when they talk or tweet about the neighborhoods -- it's like, what are you doing? What are you saying? Are you saying that you're immune to the problems elsewhere in Detroit because of your address? (You're not.) Are you saying that you're somehow better off because of your address? (You're not! You still live in Detroit, one of the most troubled cities in the world.)
Maybe it's a petty thing to worry about because we're at this intersection of so many good things going on in Detroit while other outstanding issues have yet to be solved. But I'm a guy who gets stuck on linguistics and terminology. I like to study words and what they mean when we say them. And when we say "the neighborhoods," we add weight to that term. So if we're serious about getting close to "one Detroit," or "Belle Isle to 7 Mile" Detroit, then we have to let this term go.
Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based freelance writer.