Perhaps it’s true that we don’t know what we think until we ask ourselves. Most of the answers we construct on any topic are a strange confabulation of fragmented thoughts and sound bites from any number of trusted sources. Most of us enter into conversation with some type of ready script. However, I’ve found that many of the stances I was sure I held, I didn’t actually hold at all once I resisted my own assumptions. Which is why I found it odd to sit across the table from Antonia Baum, feature writer for Frankfurter Allgemeine Sontagszeitung, the German daily equivalent to the New York Times, discussing what I find wrong with the “new” Detroit. After all, I’ve been a vocal proponent of change in Detroit for every one of the fifteen years I’ve lived here. I’ve said in private conversations that the magic bullet for Detroit’s woes might be found in luring artists and creatives to the city. I’ve tried to persuade both my White and Black friends from afar with enticing tales of short sales, cheap mansions and endless space. I never doubted that people like my friends and I were exactly the elixir Detroit needed. We are smart. We love making beautiful things. We can all quote, by memory, certain sections of Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class: “The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He—or she—is the new mainstream.” I, for one, was ready to be the new mainstream in Detroit. Except for one problem, the new mainstream may not be ready for me. And I didn’t recognize this fully until Antonia began probing more deeply about the erasures that come at the expense of neo-Detroit.
I met Antonia at a fundraising dinner for a local organization seeking to create a homestead for literary artists in the city. I was asked to read a few poems at the function, and it occurred to me that very few people want to hear poetry while they are eating, so I cleared the mental cobwebs and performed a monologue instead. Antonia approached me afterwards, explained that she was a German writer visiting Detroit for one month and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed. Excited by the offer, I, of course, agreed.
Antonia and I met at a diner a mile outside the city. When she arrived she told me she was nervous about the interview, as was I. I feared I might say something completely off base, or give answers that sounded like a Madlib game. What I’m saying is, my mind moves at the speed of lightning while my mouth staggers behind like a tortoise. I’m just not suited for the interview format. At any rate, having both addressed our insecurities we started chatting like the fast friends we were to become. I responded to standard questions about what drove me to writing with patent answers—reading that one person who changed my life and made me believe I could be a writer, and so on. Then the question came around to Detroit—‘How long I’d been in Detroit?’ chased by ‘Why Detroit?’ My answer was a half-truth, “because I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Antonia wanted to know how I felt about Detroit’s slow ascent as an attractive place for young, White creatives jockeying to change the landscape and rescue the city. Then she looked away, bit her lip in an unconscious display of reticence and dug in with her own observations. It seemed that during her stay I was the only Black person she met. She thought that odd being in a predominately Black city. She wondered where all the Black people had gone. And that’s when my previous interview fear became a reality; I blurted out, “We’re here and have always been here. This city doesn’t need salvation, it needs healing!”
As with most writers, I tend toward hyperbole. But this wasn’t mere embellishment or exaggeration. In that moment, the only thought worthy of preservation was: Detroit isn’t ruined. It doesn’t need a cast of creative superheroes to save it from the third rail. It’s a city, like other cities, that suffers from the decades-long struggle of race and difference. And no amount of gentrification will fix that. In fact, it serves to make it worse. Why? Because people are moving back to a city their families abandoned, largely, to get away from the people who still live in that city. And when that happens, the people who still live in the city are pushed to the edge of the envelope—priced out, made invisible, reduced. That’s not ruin, that’s a sickness.
The symptoms of this chronic illness are often not noticeable. Most of the places that Antonia visited would not have had Black people en masse. Places like new trendy, expensive businesses and exclusive country clubs and literary fundraisers (I was only one of two Black people at the event). That makes me wonder if in trying to showcase the best parts of the city, boosters ignore the people who’ve been struggling here for a long time. Now that the Midtown area is beginning to soar, it’s easy to give a tour of Detroit without leaving 5 square blocks. Walking around the area of the DIA one Friday night, I found it hard to recognize the Detroit of 10 years ago. I can walk down any street in Midtown and not see one familiar face. I can go to any number of new eateries and not run into one friend. In the place of my familiars, there are people who would have been terrified to walk in Detroit a decade ago. And I wonder if they might still be terrified of people who look like my sons. If opportunity and pioneerism and t-shirts on country club members emblazoned with “Detroit Hustles Harder” has subsumed a small fraction of that fear, it has been replaced it with entitlement. In which case, the sickness still presents but shifts from bad to worse.
As I explain these small distinctions between salvation and healing, I notice that I am staring in the diner’s wall mirror behind Antonia. I realize I am explaining this to myself as much as I am explaining it to her. There is no amount of being a privileged do-gooder that will do anyone any good if people can’t respectfully co-exist without entirely erasing each other—physically, geographically, economically, psychically—in the name of progress. It’s true that a lot of ill, racist history has happened in Detroit. Yet, it has not been destroyed—primarily because of the people who never left either because they never could or never wanted to. So, perhaps, creatives in capes, like myself, aren’t the panacea for this city. Maybe true progress means that no one is looking for a savior to ride into town on a donkey, but rather every man is his own doctor, seeking the jagged pill for this inherited plague and hoping for the best.
AIREA D. MATTHEWS, a Cave Canem and Callaloo Fellow, is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and a former Zell Postgraduate Poetry Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA in poetry and was awarded the 2011 Michael R. Gutterman Prize. Her nonfiction prose, poetry, and fiction have appeared in a number of periodicals, including The Baffler, Women's Studies Quarterly, Indiana Review, and The Missouri Review. She serves as associate editor for shufpoetry.com and lives in Detroit.
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