The Blog

Who Is a Real Detroiter? We All Are

There isn't a reason to battle over who will save Detroit. The reality is that we all need each other. Why do I have to choose between the suburbs and the city?
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Five years ago I got a job, moved to the suburbs of Detroit, and got married. Over the next two years my wife and I worked and volunteered throughout the suburban area, honestly spending very little time in the city. By 2007, however, I had landed a job in Southwest Detroit and we figured out that the economics of the situation made sense for us to move into the city. These days we live in Corktown, I work in the city and my wife splits time working in both the city and suburbs. To us, this is not a problem but after reading Toby Barlow and Rabbi Miller's thoughts, one would think we are struggling with our identities.

Are we Toby's Detroiters who are "really, actually, honestly, 100% from Detroit" (who qualifies? I was born in Traverse City and my wife is originally from Atlanta), or are we Rabbi Miller's Detroiters, the ones who (according to him) are doing the real saving of the city and driving home to the suburbs at night? Toby says that "nothing good ever came out of suburbia" and Rabbi Miller says that the 1960s riots "forced middle class whites to flee the city." Really guys? This isn't a Funny or Die spot, this is real life. The hyperbole needs to be left to another day.
The fundamental problem with these perspectives is that they are based on a mentality of "either/or." Why do I have to choose between the suburbs and the city? It seems like everyone in Southeast Michigan has strong feelings about the city of Detroit. I have heard countless stories about what Detroit is "really" like and have had friends refuse to visit our home in the city. I have had neighbors who live in the city tell me that we should "forget everything north of 8 Mile" and I have had others say that they haven't been outside of the city limits in months. I am a passionate person so I get the energy, but old, negative stereotypes need to follow Regis' footsteps and retire.

It is as if they have all forgotten that events in the city like the Marche du Nain Rouge and Dally in the Alley are celebrations of both city and suburb, as people from all over the area come to celebrate these festivals. Wander my neighborhood on St. Patrick's Day and you'll understand that it is more than just city residents celebrating the holiday in Corktown. Likewise, Arts Beats and Eats and the Wayne County Festival of Lights are suburban draws for everyone. It doesn't have to be "either/or."

There isn't a reason to battle over who will save the city. The reality is that we all need each other. The city and the suburbs have suffered over the past ten years and, as someone who believes each person is unique and valuable, it's important to recognize that we will all succeed only if we work together. There was a time where this region was based around a "me first, screw the rest" mentality and unfortunately, some of our area leaders and residents still think this way. Chances are we're not going to change their minds, but that doesn't give us the excuse to resort to whining and fighting amongst ourselves. Let them think what they will but the rest of us have some great things to accomplish.

Nowhere is this more evident to me than in my day job. As a high school teacher at a Catholic college preparatory high school in Southwest Detroit, I see every day how many people it takes to make a great thing happen. A few hundred students have access to a quality education because of the sacrifice and support of over 90 corporate sponsors, dozens of parishes and thousands of individuals. We have sponsors in Troy and in the Central Business District and everywhere in between. I am certain that our school leaders do not exclude sponsors if their address is north of 8 Mile.

In Hebrew there is a word "shalom," and it often translated as "peace." Critical to my faith and many others, this term does not simply mean a lack of violence but suggests a true flourishing, completeness, for both people and place. I believe we can see this shalom in our region as long as we are willing to set aside the 20th century arguments about "who is a Detroiter" and accept our responsibility to better our entire region with our own gifts and talents. It does not take a lot to want to see this happen, but it does require an active response. So go out and plant trees, open businesses, start schools, give back, and we'll all be happy to call ourselves Detroiters. When that happens, this city, and this region, will truly be an incredible place for us, our children, and anyone who wants to call Detroit home. Let's stop being the people of the "either/or." It's time people embrace Detroit as the "both/and" and acknowledge that we all have a lot of work to do.