Re-Speaking Detroit

More than ever the time for progress and positivity in Detroit is now. I genuinely believe if we cannot reinvent this city in the next upcoming generations, no one will be able to. We live in an age, if you're on board or not, that conscious evolution is rising so quickly. With this new time comes a new way of thinking, living, and treating each other and the community we live in. So why is it that there's so much negativity surrounding Detroit, this black cloud? Don't we know what we speak out becomes truth, even if only our minds? In the last year I've dived back into venturing into Detroit as much as possible. I grew up in Plymouth and my father owned an axle plant on Greenfield so I was downtown on a regular basis to work over the summers and do community service at Good News Gang on the weekends. To be honest I stopped going downtown a while ago, because simply no one I knew was going there or all the talk about it was bad. Over the past year I've jumped into making Detroit a regular destination and my passion for being part of the city has grown tremendously, so much so that I plan for all of my community service/non-profit work, consumerism, social and business life to be in the city the majority of the time. But I've realized the same thing that kept me out of the city, so to speak, is keeping all the people who need to be there to benefit Detroit out as well. So where does this separation of Metro Detroit and Downtown Detroit come from?

I recently traveled to Portland on business and got a pretty clear understanding of why Detroit is in the condition it is while traveling. Five words wrapped it up: "I was watching the news..."

Let me explain; as I met over a dozen people from business colleagues to locals in Portland while spending my off time at various restaurants, Art fairs, and the Pearl District I realized the common denominator of the speculation of Detroit. While meeting all of these new friends the immediate first phase questions always ensue. You know the gig; "What's your name? (insert: hand shake), What do you do? (insert: connection or common interest), Where are you from? ( insert: Geographic Judgment)." For some reason it's common that in our mind we think we "know" someone after they've answered these three questions. I get gradually more excited to explain all the answers as the conversation builds and specifically to see the response as I declare I'm from "Detroit." As I say "I'm from Detroit!" I have an obviously unapologetic excitement about my home city written in a smile all over my face, which seems to confuse most people. Repeatedly, in some form or another, each person would respond with the same tone wrapped in different words but with the same expression. It always sounds something like this "Detroit? (Insert: odd stare or look of disgust.) Ohhh, but Detroit's a scary place, you don't actually go downtown do you?" Every single time the response was always tagged with the word 'scary.' 

At this point in conversation I'm very engaged and almost feel as if I'm on a mission to connect the speaker to something in the city that will grab their attention.  I know their three answers to the first phase conversation and will circle back around to the "What do you do?" answer to get them personally involved soon. But first I ask a question "Why? Why do you think Detroit is scary? Can I ask, have you been there?" Typically I see at this point the person on the other end of the conversation realizes that no, they haven't been there, and will respond with the unfortunate obvious, "On the mews they're always saying how dangerous it is... the murders... there's no business." Luckily at this point I'd walked through the weekly Art Fest in Downtown Portland and had observed countless protesters; a large majority was doctors and elder citizens protesting passionately and peacefully. With my own two eyes I witnessed several locals march peacefully to stand up to corporate greed, I felt a sense of unity and great conviction at the protest. Suffice to say my next comment comes with that in mind, and I respond with "Well, ya know... on the news on my way to PDX in the airport they were also sensationalizing Portland as a quack area ridden with protests filled with young rebellious kids and hippies on the streets. I chose to toss that out the window and decided to get downtown in Portland to see firsthand what the protests were like. After taking in the situation firsthand I loved the ideology and passion behind the protest and felt very connected to the people. I also have been able to take in the energy of the city, the people (like you), the love of art and young local entrepreneurs at the markets and you know what that reminds me of... (pause for dramatic effect)... it reminded me of Detroit. If you want to believe it or not Portland, you're Detroit and so is everyone else. We're all people living in ridiculous economic times, albeit Detroit is the epitome of that, but giving up on the old traditional way of life and allowing the new markets and consciousness to rise up. In order for that to happen we have to do away with the old way of thinking we know a whole of a place because the media is sensationalizing the bad and grasp the good firsthand from people one on one. See, you and I have no political, monetary or rating agenda to say something that will get the other person to gasp, we only have our firsthand knowledge of what we've seen and I'll take that any day over the talking box. Instead I think if we pass on the good we'll enable the good to grow by getting each other involved in the amazing things that are happening. Maybe even come to Detroit to challenge the idea that the media gave you and see if that point of view resonates with you or not, at least then you can have an opinion that holds weight. Come to Detroit and see why I light up when people ask me where I'm from. I'd be happy to show you some places that have changed my life in Detroit."

By this time I'm SURE a few of the innocent lectured were thinking to themselves, "Seriously, I just asked where you from crazy woman!" But in all honesty, I felt like 100% of the at least 20 people I talked to will describe Detroit differently the next time they speak of it. At bare minimum I feel they won't advance the fear and barriers that are holding the city back. Maybe they'll remember the Detroit Soup that I talked to mostly with the local art vendors a few that decided they wanted to locally duplicate the idea. Detroit Soup is a community get-together and meeting of non-profit entrepreneurial minds that meet once a month to privately fund a micro grant to a beneficial idea for the city. Or the business colleagues might potentially wander into "the coolest cigar bar I've ever been to in my life" at the La Casa De La Habana on Randolph next time they have business in the Metro area. Potentially the organic food vendors I talked to will make a trip to Detroit to help me out with the non-profit organic produce hoop houses called "Grow Paradise" I'm planning to launch in spring 2012, or the countless others that are already going on. Or maybe the entrepreneurs that I spoke with will actually consider taking root in Detroit because of the "huge potential and blank canvas" I believe the city holds for warehouses or manufacturing plants.

Regardless, I saw my conversation with these people go from a place of fear to a place of hope and curiosity. I hope they will venture into the city, and the more that happens the closer we get to Detroit being the metropolitan working city of the Midwest that it once was. 
All I'm saying is this: I'm one person and so are you but we have the ability to change Detroit by simply changing the way we speak about it. You never know who you're speaking to and quite frankly not one thing is going to make the city better, it's a collaboration of people bringing everything they have to the table so the city can take on a strong diverse personality. You want to stop driving four hours to get to a cool city like Chicago? Be intentional and passionate when speaking about Detroit and figure out where you fit in the city. If you have nothing nice to say don't say anything at all AND get downtown to figure out what positive you can say -- I promise there is a lot!  Start speaking intentionally and questioning where your "opinion" is coming from. That's the beginning of the underdogs rising up and recreating a brand new city; we all have the potential and tools we need to do it. The important take-away is by explaining Detroit in "rose-colored" lenses it gives people hope, everyone resonates with hope, and you never know you may be talking to someone who has the capabilities you might not have to be part of the reinvention. 
Let's all start thinking of ourselves as the new authors of the story of Detroit and watch that story come alive. I've seen it happen already... and not from the TV but with my own two eyes.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." 
― Robert F. Kennedy