Before moving to Los Angeles and scoring a hit Comedy Central show, “Key & Peele” with Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key spent a childhood in Detroit.
While the city is best known around the U.S. for its auto industry and Motown hits, its 673,000 residents also know it as a buzzing center for contemporary culture outside of the country’s main coastal metropolises, with a history spanning hundreds of years that continues to flavor each neighborhood and main thoroughfare.
Movies like “Detroit” and, years ago, “8 Mile” may have highlighted darker aspects of the city, which some may still know chiefly for landscapes of ruin. But Key would like to point out that, in 2017, Detroit might surprise a lot of would-be visitors. “It’s just not as dangerous as you think it is. It’s not the wild, wild West,” he told HuffPost. We spoke to the comedian about what it was like growing up in Detroit ahead of our reporting stop in the city, which you can learn more about here.
Read on for Key’s memories of his Detroit neighborhood, his rave review of the Detroit Institute of Arts and thoughts the city’s promisingly bright future.
What do you remember most about growing up in Detroit?
I would say the biggest thing I remember ― the most specific thing I remember ― is that there was a field at the end of our block [where] we would play football with the neighbor kids. As an adult, and I look back, I remember really living in a neighborhood. I live in New York City now most of the time, and Los Angeles, but I remember everyone having a lawn, and I also remember living in a very diverse neighborhood where kids played in the streets until the streetlights came on. I remember there being a real sense of community just on our street. And then there’d be block parties, you know, where they cut off the road, and people had to go down another road. They’d set up a volleyball net and people would play volleyball right in front of my house. It was just really, really fantastic. There was a tight-knit sense that kids could walk up and down the street and go visit the other kids.
Now, I also remember being a pre-teen and playing in that big field. I grew up on a street called Woodstock Drive that was just south of Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road, which you and every other American has heard of. I lived a block south of 8 Mile. I lived as far north of [downtown] Detroit as you could possibly live, and our major north-south thoroughfare was called Woodward Avenue. I also do remember inquiring to my mother when I was a young man, “Mommy, is that woman that man’s boyfriend?” And there was a girl in hot pants who was clearly a prostitute walking down our street. It was a very interesting dichotomy, because on 8 Mile and Woodward, there would be pros, and they would pick up johns, and sometimes they would come into our neighborhood, which was a well-manicured neighborhood with people who cared about their homes.
So I’ll never forget that dichotomy, having all that fun playing with my friends football, baseball out in that field, which is a very strange thing to find in an urban center like that. There would just be: Here are a bunch of kids living the American dream of a childhood! I’m with my friends and I’m playing baseball in a field! There just happen to be prostitutes walking up and down the street right behind me in the outfield.
Do you think growing up in that particular place has shaped your work at all?
Yeah, I think, because I’m a person who likes to draw from their own experiences as a human when I’m building characters, or when I’m looking at a piece of subject matter for something that I might want to work on or produce. I think my history helps me in that regard because I grew up with lots of African-American kids, lots of white kids.
The biggest thing for me was probably the way people spoke, which is kind of an earmark of my career. I love dialects and accents, they’re something that really resonate with me and that I find fascinating. And there were quite a few of them to absorb as a kid. So it certainly helps my work in that regard. Also, just seeing ― spending my time in a kind of lower-middle class to middle class neighborhood, but a neighborhood over where a bunch of my friends lived, they lived in a kind of middle-to-upper class neighborhood, right in real close proximity to each other. So it always allowed me to see how different people behaved. Why is that lady more conservative than my mom, but that lady over there is more liberal than my mom? I kind of kept my eyes open to new experiences as a kid in that way, so that’s always helped my work. It gives you an opportunity to know, “Oh, this is how I perform a person of means, and this is how I would perform a person who’s working class.” I got to have a lot of that in this sort of three-neighborhood area that I grew up in.
Are there any misconceptions about Detroit you’d like to dispel?
I’m trying to think of the most positive way to say this. You’re hearing a lot about Detroit. I think there are people who still believe that parts of Detroit are still like the wild, wild West. If anything, I would refute that claim and say that Detroit, if anything, now is more of an empty canvas. And what I would like us to do as civic leaders and people who live in the communities, in the neighborhoods, to embolden themselves for these communities, and say, “Let’s put some of the paint on that canvas away from downtown.” Somewhere more out in the neighborhoods. Because it’s the infrastructure of the neighborhoods that I think now we need to pay more attention to. Lots of people are spending lots of money and paying lots of attention to the downtown area. And that’s all well and good. I think that’s great. There’s this kind of central column in the downtown area and in our northern downtown area, but once you get about a quarter of a mile away from that downtown area, we still have some of the challenges we had even when I was a kid. I think that’s something we need to address.
Another misconception is, we are Detroiters, and we are Midwesterners. Some of the friendliest, friendliest people you’re going to meet are going to be in Detroit. You and I both probably hold pride as Michiganders, being people from the North. We’re very kind, and we’ll sit and have a conversation with you. I think we’re met with the energy that we put out. You’ll find in Detroit, if you come with an open heart, we’ll just as soon accept and embrace you. I think having been the butt of jokes for so many years, you know, “Don’t go to Detroit without a gun!” Everybody used to have the T-shirts that used to say, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten.” It’s so funny because we’re one of the first places in the United States of America that experienced branding. It wasn’t good branding, but it was branding. I think in the last 30 years, we’ve turned it around, so the branding is positive.
There are places to venture out in the city. You can go to the West side and find a really cool Middle Eastern restaurant, or go downtown and find really great soul food. I’ve been hearing more and more ― which just fills my heart with love and joy ― people say, “Yeah, I went to Detroit last year. It was fantastic! I loved it there.” But I also want people to explore places that they can find out in the neighborhoods. We need more of that. Listen, I think ― and maybe this isn’t super popular ― I think a little bit of gentrification is OK for any community. But you don’t want any community to lose its identity altogether. Another thing I would say is: It’s weird that in this country, the way you denote there’s some form of progress is if there’s a Starbucks in your neighborhood. I’ll go to Starbucks and get my coffee, but I’d love to go to Tommy and Tanisha’s coffee shop on Griswold so I’m supporting local people.
And people don’t understand when they come to Detroit, it’s not that we were a music town. We are a music town. We are an art town. We boast one of the greatest art institutes on planet Earth. We hold some of the masters in our art museum and it’s unbelievable. I think everybody should take the opportunity, if they’re going to the Midwest, go to Detroit, Michigan, and go to the crown jewel of our city, the diamond that is the biggest piece of our civic pride, is that museum.
It’s just not as dangerous as you think it is. It’s not the wild, wild West. There aren’t bullets flying everywhere. It just isn’t that place anymore.
Is there any part of the city you’d still like to explore?
Something I’d like to do is, they do these driving tours, where they’ll drive around these neighborhoods like Indian Village, and I’ve never done one of them. I have friends, very good friends, who give walking tours of the city, and I would like to do a walking tour of the city. I would like to invest more of my brain space in understanding the history of my city, because whenever I learn about the history of Detroit, it’s always so fascinating, from a little kind of beaver-trading post to the place where automobiles were manufactured. I learned much later in my life that “le détroit,” the phrase, means “the strait,” and technically the Detroit River is a strait, and that’s what they were calling it. It’s funny when you hear where the name actually comes from. When people hear the name “Detroit,” it invokes urban decay, it invokes industrialism, it invokes “rust belt.” But what it really was was this really bucolic place with these barges going up and down this little waterway with tons and tons of beaver pelts on it. That’s what we were there for.
There are also museums in my city that I’ve never been to that I still want to go there. That’s what I want to do the next time that I visit, is to be able to go to museums that I skipped when I was in my 20s, when I left and went to school, then moved to LA ― all these places that I forgot about and haven’t visited, and then I’d like to visit the old museums I went to when I was a kid. There’s a lot of culture in this city! We are one of the grand cities of the United States.
Do you go back often? Is your family still there?
I go home as often as I can. My family’s still there, my brother and my mother are still there, I have aunts and uncles there. I have lots and lots of childhood friends who still live there. My two best friends from childhood are now firefighters, Detroit firefighters. It’s really lovely to go home, and see the people you grew up with, and see how it’s changed for the better.