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.

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3 responses to “Barlow v. Miller

  1. Great post! My favorite quote: “And I thought: You know what? I don’t give a shit.”

  2. I do live in a2 and drive to SW Detroit every day for school. It’s not that far for me, and I drive like 85 mph. I have *always* considered Ann Arbor part of Detroit and it strikes me that so many “liberal, antiracist” folks here get so upset when I do so. (Not my finest moment, but a real estate agent once asked how I could teach “those” people. My now ex-husband had to literally pull me out of the room just before I pounced). Maybe I shouldn’t do this, but whenever someone from Ann Arbor turns his/her nose up at the D, I immediately think it’s because they are prejudiced. That in and of itself is probably prejudiced and bad! But I can’t help it. It most notably happened when we got our huge 10% pay cut and step freezes (I am making almost $10k less than I should be, in total, about $35k less than the top a2 teacher) and I told people that this crap was starting in Detroit, but eventually would hit Ann Arbor. IMO, no teacher is safe. The most common response was for me to “get a job” in Ann Arbor or Plymouth or Bloomfield or whatever. This ignores the issue that a) maybe I LIKE my job (I do), b) Maybe I WANT to teach there (I do) and c) what if all of the teachers decided to “get a job” elsewhere? There are many reasons that your friends didn’t want to raise a kid in the city, and the school system is but one of them 😦

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