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Published: Sunday, 8/11/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Commentary

It’s a Detroit thing; you wouldn’t understand

When I left Detroit, I felt as if I had committed an act of treason

BY JEFF GERRITT
DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
A store in Detroit’s Greektown sells ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’ clothing — a reflection of the defiant pride Detroiters often feel. A store in Detroit’s Greektown sells ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’ clothing — a reflection of the defiant pride Detroiters often feel.
DETROIT FREE PRESS/ANDRE J. JACKSON Enlarge

Detroiters are used to people trashing their city and getting it wrong, but Motown’s fiscal crisis has triggered an orgy of Detroit-bashing that has them even more guarded.

Rush Limbaugh just called Detroit a “petri dish of everything the Democrat Party stands for.” He even blamed the 1967 riots on Mayor Coleman Young’s election. Sorry, Rush, Mr. Young wasn’t elected until 1973.

With talking heads like Mr. Limbaugh cheering on Detroit’s fall into bankruptcy, it’s not hard to understand why Detroiters are even more defensive these days. Hoodies that read “Detroit vs. Everybody” are selling hot. And when you live there, that’s just how you feel.

I wouldn’t expect people here to understand the fierce and unflinching loyalty Detroiters feel toward their city, though I’m sure Toledoans have strong feelings about their city, too, and should.

I spent 15 years in Detroit, working mostly as a columnist and editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press. I wore my Detroit flag with pride and serious swag. When I moved out of the city six months ago, I felt as if I had committed treason.

“I bet you were glad to get out of that hellhole,’’ a Toledoan told me last week.

No way. Leaving Detroit was, for me, a painful, difficult decision. Being a Detroiter was — and still is — part of who I am.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, another ex-Detroiter, said the self-image of people in the Detroit area isn’t tied to their ZIP codes. He’s wrong. Detroiters’ self-image is very much tied to their locale, though not in the pretentious, smug way it is in some parts of the country.

No area code has a stronger brand than 313. It has come to represent the city’s resilience and toughness. When Detroiters travel to other cities, they just smile when they’re told to dodge certain neighborhoods. “I’m from Detroit’’ is explanation enough.

Despite their swagger, Detroiters care too much about what the rest of the world thinks of them. Criticism breeds insecurity. When Dateline NBC correspondent Chris Hansen did a hatchet job on Detroit three years ago, we all felt wounded. His broadcast, “City of Heartbreak and Hope,” captured much of the heartbreak of Detroit but little of the hope. Detroit is miscast by national media not so much because of what’s reported, but what isn’t.

True enough, with nearly 400 homicides a year, Detroit is one of the nation’s most violent cities. But it’s also the friendliest city on the planet — a place where strangers speak and deep conversations can start with a simple compliment. “Brother” is a word freely given, even to strangers, and intimacy can happen in almost an instant.

Just before I moved here, I got into the elevator at my downtown Detroit complex one night at about 2 a.m. A well-dressed middle-aged woman was also getting in after a long night, and we rode up together. By the time she got off on the 19th floor, I knew that she was recently divorced, had just lost $3,000 at the casino, took her honeymoon in Las Vegas, had a strong faith in God, and liked jazz.

I never did get her name.

Detroit has more churches per capita than anyplace else in America. Detroiters also give a larger share of their incomes to charities than people anywhere else. Even those who have practically nothing find ways to help. In the hood, you’ll sometimes see extension cords running from a house with power to another house without it.

At its roots, Detroit is a Southern city that resonates with warm voices. Waitresses call you “sweetie.” Even a salty receptionist at city hall might end the conversation with: “Have a blessed day.”

It’s also a place where grimmin’, or getting into a stare-down, can get you killed. That’s another of the city’s many sides. Traffic lights are optional. It’s the only place where I’ve ever gotten honked at for waiting at a red light.

Detroit created techno music in the burned-out shells of abandoned buildings, and it can surely re-create itself. It started the Motown sound, and contributed mightily to jazz and hip-hop. Some of the country’s leading urban artists have tagged Detroit’s scarred landscape.

For Detroiters, art is life, even if their only canvas is themselves. Detroit’s hair wars, and the wildly creative styles they engender, reflect Detroiters’ obsession with self-expression.

Fashion and dress are competitive sport, a means of telling the world there’s life on this planet. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, don’t even think about wearing jeans to church.

It can take a lot to drive a Detroiter out. A friend of mine, a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital, complained for years about high taxes, poor public schools, a $4,000-a-year bill for car insurance, and treks to the suburbs for groceries. It took an AK-47 bullet ripping through her kitchen and grazing her youngest son to push her to Sterling Heights, about 20 miles away. Even then, her heart remained in Detroit.

For some residents, staying in a predominantly African-American city represents racial pride. Detroit-bashing launched many political careers north of Eight Mile Road, practically a Berlin Wall in the 1970s and 1980s.

Long before Mayor Young told Detroit’s drug dealers and “rip-off artists” to “hit Eight Mile,” hundreds of thousands of white folks put the Motor City in their rear-view mirror. Metro Detroit remains one of the nation’s most segregated and polarized regions.

Despite the hype, however, Detroit isn’t paralyzed by racial politics. In a city that’s 85 percent African-American, a white guy from the suburbs, Michael Duggan, just won the mayoral primary as a write-in candidate.

When I moved to Detroit 16 years ago, you could spray downtown with an Uzi and not hit anyone. Now it bustles with new condos, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques. You have Hart Plaza and Belle Isle in the summer, the rink at Campus Martius in the winter, and the Detroit Institute of Arts and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History all year round.

Most of all, there are the people, and the spirit of Detroit.

I could go on forever about this sad, joyous, beautiful, and terrifying place — but it’s a Detroit thing; you wouldn’t understand.

Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com, 419-724-6467, or follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt.



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