(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Last week, my older sister and a Duke friend coincidentally sent me links to the same New York Times article. The article, titled, “Last stop on the L Train: Detroit,” by Jennifer Conlin, explains and contextualizes the migration of many New Yorkers to Detroit (here’s the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/fashion/last-stop-on-the-l-train-detroit.html?_r=0). While the subject matter intrigued me, it’s the individuals featured in the article that stood out to me. They did a great job of verbalizing some of my own thoughts in the six weeks I’ve been here.
One of the New Yorkers, Ben Wolf, moved to Detroit in response to Brooklyn’s soaring housing prices. He viewed Detroit’s affordable real estate as an opportunity to start a business, and a few years in Detroit have made him a profitable entrepreneur. Since coming to Detroit though, Wolf has altered his perception, saying, “I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me.” Though dramatic, that quote really struck me as I, too, have been humbled by my experience here.
When we arrived on June 6th, our cohort had the impression that we could save Detroit. And why not? For many Duke students, accomplishing goals has always come easy…making a tangible, positive impact on a community would be no different. We couldn’t wait to save the city and further its revitalization; however, I soon realized how one-sided my views were. Here I was, coming into Detroit as an outsider, expecting to bring my own knowledge and skills to better the city. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the city would better me.
“Newcomers need to realize Detroit residents have been working to find solutions to the city’s problems for decades and should respectfully join natives’ efforts, rather than presume to have the answers.” This quote from the Conlin’s article perfectly sums up my shift in mindset. I came here so ready for the city to embrace my work that it didn’t occur to me to take a step back and embrace the city that already exists. Whether its Corktown, the New Center, or the abandoned Packard factory, every mile of Detroit has a story behind it, and I’ve begun to realize that listening to those stories is more important than rolling up the sleeves and saying, “I’m ready to help.” I’ve since learned how misguided and disrespectful it is to come to an existing community almost assuming that what you have to offer is more valuable than what’s already been done there.
Toby Barlow, another former New Yorker who migrated to Detroit, also raises a great point that has helped hone my ambition. He realized that “Because the city has been through so much, we are ahead of the nation on all the big conversations like race and class.” That’s such an understated takeaway from Detroit. Yes, there are some racial tensions (i.e. the predominantly white, upper-class area of Grosse Pointe building walls to separate itself from Detroit, http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/newly-constructed-barrier-appears-to-separate-grosse-pointe-park-detroit/26703588), but overall, Detroit is striving to be an example for other cities when it comes to racial integration. You’d never know that until you got here though. When I arrived, I was ready to tackle racial tensions and help fix socioeconomic problems; on the contrary, the conversations I’ve had with Detroiters have made me more conscientious of race, social status, and the issues that grip most large cities. The reality that I’ve experienced is this: Detroiters couldn’t care less about your race, where you’re from, or what you’ve done. They care about the work you’re doing here and the motives behind that work. That’s how it should be, and it really doesn’t need any fixing.
Detroit has done more for me than I could possibly do for the city. Whether its becoming more aware of my surroundings or placing myself in others’ shoes, the biggest impact I’ve seen since being here is that which I’ve experienced in my own perceptions and character. So thank you, Detroit. Thank you for challenging myself and changing my world.