Oct 27. 2011

Detroit is not a blank canvas

by Nora

I gotta confess; when I first arrived in Detroit last August, I’d call it a “blank canvas.” There’s so much vacant spaces, so many possibilities. At times, you do feel like you landed in a no man’s land. But in fact, Detroit is all but a tabula rasa. After two months, it became very clear to me that the city couldn’t move forward without looking in its rearview mirror – because objects are closer than they appear.

Those objects have names: the Great Migration, the “white flight” and the 1967 “riots” (which inner city Detroiters prefer to call “rebellion”.) This tense history still has a huge impact on what Detroit is today.

While doing extensive research for our documentary project, Hélène and I have met with what we like to call the “wise elders” of Detroit’s many villages. Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary 96-year old activist, is one of them. Olayami Dabls, an African American visionary artist who’s been creating in the D ever since the 70s, is another one. In just a couple of weeks we came to realize that Detroit wasn’t like what so many newspaper articles would describe. All these reports lack critical distance. The urban farming movement didn’t just start in the mid-2000s; artists didn’t just start working in abandoned houses yesterday. The energy that’s palpable in Detroit today, and what makes it so inspiring and “cool,” comes precisely from all these people who were brave and ballsy enough to stay during the tough years the city went through.

A friend told me recently how “Chicago and NYC are cities to dwell, while Detroit is a city to create. And what you create can actually have an impact here… as long as you do it right.”

A portion of Detroit’s newcomers – often white entrepreneurial “hipsters” – are proud to call themselves pioneers and even conquistadores. I believe that this type of attitude can only bring so much to the city: blind gentrification. It’s already happening to a couple of neighborhoods, Midtown and Corktown being at the forefront of the movement towards “cleaning” the city. I’m not discussing whether it’s good or bad. Detroit needs investment and “muscles” as the New York Times referred to recently…

But “transplants”, such as myself, must also make a genuine effort to blend in the community that’s already there. It may not be easy nor quick but it’s certainly rewarding. Here in Detroit, the saying that “you get what you give” is more true than ever. And yes, I gotta admit, being French helps; Americans can’t resist the accent!

So Detroit isn’t a blank canvas at all. It’s a painting with many colors, dark and hopeful at the same time. You’re free to add any color you’d like to that painting, but you better take a good look before you do.

This post opens a series of “naked truths” about living in Detroit. We’ll talk about housing, food, getting around, nightlife, and other stuff – from a French newcomers perspective. French touch in sight, be ready!