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Detroit Is the Only Place That Matters

There is so much Detroit (138.8 square miles) that the spokes of the city streets may as well stretch into infinity. But journalists still need to treat this place respectfully and offer real engagement, not voyeurism.
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When people ask me to tell them about myself, the first thing I say is that I'm from Detroit. I'm not just making polite conversation; I've learned to carry Detroit as a badge of honor, something to invoke rather than defend. I brag, "I'm from Detroit -- the city, not the suburbs," qualifying my answer even before the clarifying question can come.

I like to say Detroit is the only place that matters -- a claim that is sure to draw a sneer at worst, and at best a few follow-up questions.

But I believe that statement. Detroit has seen it all and seen it all first, and this city's seen things we hope others will never have to see. If living here doesn't make you hard, it does make you a little more hard to shock.

I once toured an abandoned factory here with a friend who said the devastation made him want to cry. I shrugged. My car window has been smashed and my battery and catalytic converter have been stolen. I've run into packs of semi-wild dogs while riding my bike in Boston Edison late at night. I've picnicked in the abandoned lots in North Corktown and worried about toxins seeping into my skin from a swim at the (rarely tested) beaches of Belle Isle.

It's difficult to say whether Detroit simply displays our nation's problems in microcosm, or whether post-Great Recession, the rest of the country has become Detroit writ large. Detroit has unemployment, ill-used land, a staggering municipal deficit, stuck politicians, a continued legacy of racial segregation, and, of course, those inklings of redevelopment and gentrification. The "Imported from Detroit" tagline to Chrysler's infamous Super Bowl ads hints that the city is like the third world. And maybe it is; maybe in some ways it's worse. In others it's better.

The point is that Detroit is not any other place. It's not the new Brooklyn, it's not the new Pittsburgh, it's not the new Berlin. It's just Detroit, built upon layers and layers of older Detroits. Recognizing those layers and the city's history is key, I think, to responsible journalism about this place. Even more key is accepting the fact that Detroit is almost overwhelmingly complicated, messy and above all difficult. The phoenix implied by Detroit's motto, "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus," is still too young to rise again. But we do hope for better things.

There was a time when I was a city booster. I stubbornly refused to apologize for Detroit. If anything, I reasoned, everyone else owed Detroit an apology for all the mean things they've said over the years. I lauded the cheap bars and the cheap rent. I encouraged everyone I met to move here, or at least visit. "Anything is possible in Detroit!" I would say.

But the idea that Detroit is all good is just as detrimental as the idea that Detroit is all bad. The glowing reports on the city's burgeoning art scene are in some ways just as exasperating as the endless harping about the city's murder rate. A story about a 101-year-old woman being evicted from her home is true. It's also true that Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander won this year's American League Cy Young Award. It's not hard to find a story about Detroit that's true. What's hard is to find a story about Detroit that's complete.

Sensationalism has never been difficult -- that's why we pretend not to respect it (while still clicking with awe through the "ruin porn" slideshows of abandoned houses and crumbling factories). Whether we buy into it is another question.

There is so much Detroit (138.8 square miles) that the spokes of the city streets may as well stretch into infinity. But journalists still need to treat this place respectfully and offer real engagement, not voyeurism. We need to develop an extended relationship with the city, its history, its institutions and its people. We must dive into the ignored stories and remember to blink at the spectacles. We must understand that any extended metaphor for this place is insufficient, yet still strive to be thorough.

Detroit is difficult, but that is the point. There's plenty Detroit that I have little experience with -- so much that intending to be a good journalist here proves daunting. But I wouldn't want to live anywhere or write about anything else. Detroit may not be the only place that matters, but it is the place that matters most to me.