Detroit is the go-to punchline of every insecure pundit and wannabe economist. It is fodder for Reddit and Bill Maher. It is the raised eyebrow and the half-grin of so many casual introductions.
But Detroit — while it is in a dismal state right now — is more than a site for film producers to blow up buildings. Downtown Detroit is a beautiful and (dare I say) safe metropolis with history, personality and great shawarma.
To fully understand why people love Detroit, you need to know its story. To fully know its story, you need to know about trauma and redemption.
To many, even those who were in the suburbs of metro-Detroit like myself, the auto crisis was more than a distant headline about a changing economy. It was family after family stepping before the church podium to announce a move south. It was the slump-shouldered fear of those who wondered daily if, today, their nameplate and two decades of work would go home in a cardboard box.
The process of decay is the rhythm of inching closer to the sky. An old church, once bundled in the shingled forest of A-frames and Detroit automobiles, is now the headstone of a community that died or left long ago. The sky is vast and cryptic above empty lots and forgotten gutters.
But the story is far from over. Small businesses — coffee shops and concert venues — buzz with excited chatter about the big game or a new startup. Amateur photographers document sunbeams piercing abandoned buildings. Street art stretches across a broad face of brick. Children weave through a crowded farmer’s market past top-notch restaurants and century-old buildings. There is a deep, moral pride and ownership common to those from Detroit.
But Detroit suffers the misery of abandonment. The destructive power of apathetic fear is far worse than the whistle of mortar or bullet. Neighborhoods fold inward to empty lots and broken Blues. The love of a generation sinks into a psoriasis of crabgrass. Somewhere between riots, white flight, black flight, a felony-charged mayor and the downward spiral of a core industry, America forgot about Detroit.
This economic, emotional and geographic abandonment sent shockwaves of trauma through the entire region. The quintessential American city that once carried the nation in industry and music is shaky at the knees while we, America, turn to cheap shots and hurried accusations.
And is this not how we deal with most trauma? Is it not how we treat rape victims and those often called homeless? Is it not how we treat the elderly and the sick — stuck in the sanitized ghetto of a whitewashed hospital ward? How do we treat our veterans? Our public servants? Why don’t buses connect white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods? Where do all the holocaust jokes come from?
It is a symptom of our collective short-term memory and our obsession with achievement that we treat Detroit like an embarrassment or a crutch. Detroit — like our veterans, like members of the homeless community — is in need of admiration and appreciation. Trauma, riots, political upheaval and bankruptcy do not extricate us from our responsibility to those around whose history is so tightly wound to our own. Redeem with every breath. Battle cynicism with the magnificent forte of God’s thunder.
Detroit is a foil for how we deal with trauma, which, let’s face it, is not a good sign. Trade accusations for support, and remember that Eight Mile is just another road with houses, yoga classes and some mean Ethiopian food.
Follow Nate Barton on Twitter: @TheNateBarton