Publisher's notebook: Unlocking the City

In my last column, I warned of the danger of the single story. Now, I will ask you to beware of false binaries. 

Often in Detroit we speak about two worlds, separate and divided. Sometimes that’s city vs. suburb. Sometimes that’s downtown vs. the neighborhoods. Other times it’s government and business, or natives and newcomers, or black and white.

I’ve done it myself. It’s not hard to do.

But cities are places of multiplicity, not duality. Detroit is a diversity of people and ideas, cultures and neighborhoods, economies and generations. It’s a city of skyscrapers and storefronts, factories and farms, public places and private sanctuaries. 

When we reduce ourselves to "this or that," we miss what makes our city -- or any city, really -- great. 

Can we think about Detroit, as the wise Matthew Naimi once said, as an "and" proposition, not an "or?" Can we be seekers of a common destiny in which we all play different but valuable parts?

This is my New Year’s resolution, to beware of false binaries. This, I believe, is the key to unlocking the great possibility of our city. 

A Tale of Three Cities

In his 1948 book, "Here is New York," E.B. White talked about not two, but three New Yorks:

"There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter -- the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something…

Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity…settlers give it passion.

And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company."

If E.B. White had written this about Detroit today, he would have been promptly run out of town. Natives and commuters would cry out defensively, "Hey, we have passion, too!"

If you do, good for you! Whether you’ve been here for five years or five decades, if you have that "intense excitement of first love," you’re a special human. I know you’re out there, because I’ve met you.

But let’s be real: Fresh eyes fade with time and experience. This is the natural order of things. By Mr. White’s definition, I am a settler – but I have also been around long enough to know some heartbreak. My passion has been tempered with pragmatism. I believe I’m richer for that, but I also believe the city is richer for a steady stream of fresh eyes.

This is why I love watching others awake to the possibility of the city. This could be a young student, or a foreign-born entrepreneur, or a granddaughter of the Great Migration. Anyone can be "in quest of something" -- it’s a state of mind, not a point of origin.

As natives, commuters and settlers, we ALL have value. Whether we’re bringing continuity and solidity, or new curiosity and ambition, we all have a part in shaping Detroit’s future. 

But make no mistake: Cities always need the spirit of the settler -- and that spirit lives within all of us. The city is not static; it’s a dynamic, evolving place. If your awareness of Detroit stops in 1967 or 2007, or ends at Woodward or 8 Mile, the city invites you to go deeper. Tap into your sense of wonder. Go beyond your comfort zone.

Claim Your Key

Speaking of wonder, a few weeks ago a mysterious video started circulating the interwebs. It was a trailer for a new film called Keys to Detroit -- an adventure story featuring young children and historic city landmarks. A little investigative work led us to the filmmaker, who shared the next steps for the project: "This very moment, keys to the city are being cut. If you are at the right place and the right time, you have the opportunity to begin your journey of discovering Detroit like you never have before. Between now and New Years Eve, the first sets will be handed out at random days and times. Stay updated to find out where and when the keys are going next."

We’re told that these keys -- pressed by students at the College for Creative Studies -- are available at the Detroit Historical Museum and other cultural institutions. These keys will start to unlock treasures in January. Follow the website and Facebook for clues.

This holiday – and every day – allow yourself to see the city as what it really is: many layers of history, and many stories still yet to be written. It’s not an easy read, and it has millions of authors – including you.

As Alan Moore once said, "Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science fiction cowboy detective novel."

Enjoy the complexity.
Claire Nelson is publisher of Model D and a key to making our world go round and round each week. 
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Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.