Tag Archives: suburbs

Barlow v. Miller II: ‘I’m a Detroiter, too’

As promised, here’s my follow up to my post on Toby Barlow’s “‘Detroit,” Meet Detroit,’ this time focusing on Rabbi Jason Miller’s response to the Barlow piece.  It’s important to preface that according to Barlow himself, speaking on today’s Craig Fahle Show,* he thinks he & Miller are more or less on the same page.

Miller almost immediately gets off on the wrong foot with me:

Whether Barlow realizes it or not, through his words he has brought the late Mayor Coleman A. Young back to life. Or at least the former mayor’s sentiment. In his twenty years in office, Mayor Young successfully drew a sharp divide between the residents of the City of Detroit and the suburbanites. The race riots of the late 1960s forced middle class whites to flee the city, but it was Mayor Young who kept them away. The polarizing mayor made the Eight Mile border a dividing landmark between the races.

Ahh, yes, the myth of mean old scary Coleman Young who hated Whitey.  White people were scared of Coleman Young, and in retrospect he created a PR disaster for the city, but he was no more responsible for its downward spiral than was Detroit’s white-dominated establishment that picked up and moved en masse.  No mention at all of the executives at all the auto suppliers & ancillary industries who moved their headquarters and factories out of the city, nor of suburban officials like L. Brooks Patterson who race-baited just as gleefully.  There are a lot of older white people who love to perpetuate the myth that it was all Young’s fault because he was a convenient scapegoat and it absolved them of responsibility.  It’s just depressing that well-intentioned people like Rabbi Miller are continuing to buy it and repeat it.

Then there’s the misty-eyed tale of exodus in response to mean old Mayor Young:

Both of my parents grew up in Detroit. They both graduated from Mumford High. Their families left the city, but not because the big homes with big yards in the suburbs were so appealing. They left the city because the city was changing for the worse. They left reluctantly, but who wouldn’t?… I sat with my parents last year as we watched the stage production of Palmer Park, which accurately portrayed the tense race relations in that Detroit neighborhood in 1967. My parents had tears in their eyes (and so did every other native Detroiter of their generation who sat in the theater) because this production brought back the emotionally jarring, difficult times of that period.

My grandparents’ generation didn’t turn their backs on the City of Detroit. They continued to work in the city and support its culture. They were saddened that they had to move out because they didn’t have a choice.

Oh, please.  Your grandparents’ generation — and by that I mean the white people of their generation — left when it was convenient to them to do so.  Mind you, they didn’t owe the city anything and were free to leave when they wanted.   If I’d been a homeowner in, say, Brightmoor, I would have thrown in the towel sooner or later too.  But let’s drop this pretense that “they didn’t have a choice,” that they were hapless victims.

Miller contends,

The people who are paving the way for this renaissance do not live in the city. Yes, these business people are working hard to get young talent to move to Detroit and live affordably in Midtown or Downtown with attractive stipends. But at the end of the day these executives are driving back north to their homes in the suburbs.

Now, this is true.  Metro Detroit’s elites have shelled out tons of money to the city and have for decades;  that’s the only way the DSO, the Michigan Opera Theater, the DIA have stayed afloat.  What they don’t do is live in the city, and there is a simple reason for that:  there is no reputational cachet in a Detroit address for rich people.  There never will be, until there emerges some tiny enclave in Detroit that is prohibitively expensive.  Even the most expensive addresses in Detroit — in Palmer Woods and some of the new developments in downtown and Midtown — are simply not pricy enough yet to provide the necessary cue.  Rich people choose to live in places that signal exclusivity; for that reason, the rich will continue to cluster in a few pockets of central Oakland County, the Grosse Pointes, and, increasingly, Ann Arbor.  Detroiters are never going to get most of these status-conscious capitalists to move to the city, but they’d be imbeciles to turn down the money they are shelling out.

Some of Miller’s talking points make a lot of sense:

Even if the majority of employees who work in Detroit head back home north of Eight Mile at the end of the day, Barlow should be grateful to them. They’re paying income taxes to the City of Detroit where he lives but doesn’t work (a simple Internet search shows that Barlow works for an organization that is based in Dearborn, not within the city limits)…

The City of Detroit is 144 square miles of land that is too big to manage… The old mentality that the City of Detroit doesn’t need or want white suburbanites coming into to “our City” is unfortunately still alive and well (just ask business leaders how difficult it is for them to get city contracts).

Others are such ingrained, oft-repeated conventional wisdom one wonders why Miller bothered to recite them:

For many energetic young people like Barlow Detroit seems like a euphoric metropolis now, but will they continue to reside Downtown when their kids are ready for school? The fact is that Detroit still has a high crime rate. How will that impact these enthusiastic Detroiters’ decision to stay put as their kids get older?

And then there’s the lecture on the great things that have come from the suburban shopping mall:

In his article, Barlow cynically writes that it’s great that suburbanites might know the Faygo song but they probably don’t know about “the College of Creative Studies’ massively incredible new Taubman Center.” Hold on one second. How does Barlow think the CCS got that massively incredible new Taubman Center? Let me explain. From the generosity of Al Taubman. And I wonder if Barlow knows where Mr. Taubman got the money to support such a center that he finds to be massively incredible? He made that money owning malls. Big malls. In suburbs. In fact, since Novi is the first suburban city (of many) Barlow condescendingly mentions in his article, it’s ironic that without Twelve Oaks, the massively incredible mall that Taubman built in Novi, there probably wouldn’t be a Taubman Center at the CCS in Detroit. Barlow writes, “Nothing good ever came out of suburbia.” Perhaps he wants to rethink that one.

I’m thinking, no, he probably doesn’t.  I would not cite enormous shopping malls as one of the key examples of the great things that have come out of suburbia.

And then he concludes by scolding Barlow for his alleged ingratitude:

Rather than criticizing the suburbanites who choose to stay in their suburban homes, Barlow would make more sense if he thanked the suburbanites who work in the City of Detroit and come to the city for sports events, casinos, dining, and entertainment. It’s the money coming from the suburbs that’s going to spur the renaissance for the City of Detroit. No matter how much grocery shopping and dry cleaning Barlow does in the city, suburbanites like Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos are the ones turning the city around. And even if they head north on the Lodge Freeway to go home after work each day, they are Detroiters. And so am I.

Well, you are & you aren’t.  As Supergay Detroit explained, you don’t have to put up with the bullshit — the crime, slovenliness, the shitty public services —  from other Detroiters like residential Detroiters do.  And you aren’t shoveling the same amount of tax dollars into the ravenous abyss, never to be seen again, the way (employed) full-time Detroiters do.  (I’m not going to lie, I pay a lot more in property taxes in Ann Arbor, but I feel better about how my money will be spent than I did when I paid City of Detroit income tax.  The buses run on time here.)  So I have to agree with Toby & Supergay that residential Detroiters have a certain earned cachet.  They have certified their ability to put up with the plethora of inconveniences of living in Detroit in a way that people on the outside haven’t, a certification of fortitude (if not necessarily financial savvy).

I have mixed feelings about piling on to this increasingly tired argument.  Innumerable commenters on innumerable posts on Detroityes.com have wasted innumerable hours circling one another, pointing fingers and flinging accusations, and all it does is continue to cement the region’s image as dysfunctional, insular, petty, and racist.  Now metro Detroit’s passion for assigning blame been broadcast nationally via the HuffingtonPost.  There are some nice things about living in Southeast Michigan, but the litigation of Barlow v. Miller (aka Young v. Whitey) has reminded me how this region disgusts me sometimes.

*In which Craig Fahle also, somewhat randomly, flips out on Rabbi Miller at one point, when the latter insinuates that a building he passed was a crack house.  I’m always amused by such outbursts from Craig.  Hot-tempered, that one.

Barlow v. Miller

So there’s been, as Supergay Detroit puts it, “a little bit of a shitstorm” over Toby Barlow’s piece for the Huffington Post, ‘”Detroit,” Meet Detroit.’

I don’t actually disagree with Barlow — if I were to take a job in the tri-county region, I would want to live & work in the city of Detroit.  I always encourage acquaintances to consider living in the city and applaud when they do.  I’m quick to correct outsiders when they make blanket generalizations about living in the city.  So I agree with him when he writes:

(Y)ou can’t have a region without a center… It is not just some idealistic dream, it’s an economic necessity… (I)t’s the straightest path to getting your property values back… (I)f you’re in Southeast Michigan, you’re from Detroit. It’s your brand. So deal with it. When companies are thinking of relocating to the region, bringing jobs here, the perception of Motown is the biggest thing that matters. And when companies start thinking of relocating away from the region, the health and reputation of Detroit has a certain undeniable weight. Those companies aren’t going to listen when you say “Come on! We’re different! We’re Troy!” They may have fallen for that in the past but now they know the truth. Detroit is right here, front and center, our inescapable fact.

But then Barlow kind of shot himself in the foot with this: ‘Seriously, nothing good ever came out of suburbia.’  God only knows what kind of damage control his employer, (suburban-based) Ford, has been doing on that statement alone.  (Although they appear to keep him on a pretty loose leash.)  A sloppy, ill-considered attempt at tongue-in-cheek?  With that sentence, a perfectly good sales pitch fatally devolved into a city-v.-suburbs debate, and naturally, suburbanites with an axe to grind pounced.

Barlow is a fairly recent transplant to Michigan but you’d think even he would have recognized that “Detroit v. the suburbs” is a tired, fifty-year-old argument that no one on either side has ever won.  It’s an argument that, for that matter, nobody would even be having if Detroit were not perpetually in crisis.  (I’m pretty sure there is not a similar feud between, say, New York City and Westchester County.)  And it’s not an argument Detroit proper can ever win.

Toby Barlow’s heart was in the right place with this essay, and 90% of it is right on target.  He would have done well to have left the 10% that everybody is all riled up about on the cutting room floor.

Like me, SupergayDetroit fundamentally agreed with Barlow.  And I nodded in agreement with some of what he had to say, too:

(T)he fact is, if you don’t live in the city, if you don’t put up with the bullshit along with the glory, then you ARE a suburbanite.  The biggest lesson I learned when I moved to Detroit was that living in Detroit was a completely different experience than just hanging out in Detroit.  And you can’t fake it and you can’t learn it from the outside and it is almost impossible to create authentic, meaningful, non-douchebaggy change unless you live here.

Supergay starts to lose me, though, with a personal anecdote:

I was having a drink with an old acquaintance a while back. someone who knew me from my store back in the Ann Arbor days and who now lives in Royal Oak.  He was doing what I call the Suburban Shuffle … getting in on the street cred of Detroit while trying to rationalize staying in the ‘burbs.  The old, “I’d move to Detroit except …” And I said listen, nobody who lives in Detroit has any superpowers.  But they did make that leap, and they take the bad with the good.  So don’t expect a pat on the back because you tool down I-75 for the fun stuff and then tsk-tsk from the comfort of your fake loft when the latest calamity strikes.

I can’t recall the last time I had a conversation like this.  The closest I’ve come is discussions with parents with young kids, or expectant parents.  I’m thinking specifically of my cousin Kate, who was raising 3 kids in Farmington Hills, and of a former colleague who had moved from Southwest Detroit to Plymouth after her marriage and was planning to have children.  Both of them were perfectly upfront about the fact that they would not consider parenting in the city with young kids, which I feel is a pretty solid excuse:  living in Detroit is not always a cakewalk even without the demands of parenting.

Where I HAVE witnessed it, it is companies using the Detroit ‘brand’ as a marketing device, the prime example being Chrysler’s marketing campaign.  THAT is the douchebaggery Supergay is talking about:
There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in Detroit right now, and it hasn’t always been this way.  And suddenly it’s cool to say you’re a Detroiter.  I do believe there are Detroiters “in spirit,” but at the end of the day you don’t get to use Detroit to validate yourself without fully committing.

So what IS the status of the suburbanite who loves Detroit but won’t or can’t move to the city?  Or who just loves where they live (because frankly our suburbs are pretty great if you’re into that kind of thing)? Well, I think you are “A Suburbanite Who Loves Detroit.”  Or a “Detroiter in Spirit.” It’s not an aspersion, it’s just a fact. I know a TON of people who fit that description. Please, do stuff in the city, work to make it better if that’s what you believe in, say good things about it.  And be honest and unapologetic about your level of involvement.  I think you’ll find everyone appreciates that.

At first I wondered if Supergay is maybe building a wee bit of an imaginary problem with this argument, because again, I do not personally know a lot of suburban residents running around claiming to be hard-core Detroiters.   He is much more active in city boosterism than am I, so again, he may meet lots of these kinds of people.  For everybody else, it seems like hair-splitting.

But then it occurred to me:  Maybe I was one of those people SGD was talking about, racking up visitor hits to this blog in part due to the way I throw around my Detroit references.  Am I a douchebag because I no longer work, live or pay taxes in Detroit — only did it for a year or so, in fact — but still blog about it?

Hmm.

And I thought:  You know what?  I don’t give a shit.

Let me explain why:  I moved to Ann Arbor for school, because it made no sense to me to commute forty miles each way every weekday.  I stayed in Ann Arbor after I finished school because it was University of Michigan, not University of Detroit Mercy, where I was offered a job, and once again, a daily commute from and back to Detroit made no sense.  In theory, I could eventually take a similar job in my field at, say, Henry Ford Hospital or Wayne State, but I’d do it because it made sense to me professionally, not because of a deep and abiding desire to “save Detroit.”

Ann Arbor residents like myself have been studiously ignoring the rest of the state, including the city of Detroit, for most of the city’s history.  I don’t see how that has served Detroit very well.  I’m paying attention and blogging about it because my partner lives there, I still spend a lot of time there each week (not to mention a small fortune on gym fees, parking, gas, food, drink & recreation), & I enjoy it.  My partner & I relish the increasingly frequent occasions when, while we’re walking someplace in the city, motorists from the suburbs (often black) pull over to ask us for directions.  But when people ask me where I live, I tell them Ann Arbor because, well, that’s the truth.  (I am still, arguably, a douchebag, but there are lots of other reasons that might be the case.)

The idea that suburbanites might somehow be benefiting from unearned street cred, associated with Detroit, may irk Detroit residents.  Supergay may have a point when it comes to rich celebrities (Kid Rock, Eminem) and companies (Chrysler) where image and branding is everything.  But I think Detroiters have enough problems already without getting all territorial and (as Rabbi Miller would put it) “Coleman Young” about what’s Detroit & what isn’t & is somebody pretending-to-be-cool-when-they’re-really-just-a-poseur.

Next post, I’ll jump back to Supergay’s & Toby Barlow’s side, and take a crack at Rabbi Jason Miller’s equally problematic response.