—story by Amelia Orozco (@amelia_orozco)
When it becomes common to see a home that has been burned to the ground save for a wall or two, and to see more than one in a row, you know you are anesthetized from the blight any normal person would think appalling. But it’s not apathy that allows you to quietly accept the situation. For people in Detroit, it’s about survival.
Detroit is one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden cities in our prosperous nation, with a school system that is so lacking that it sends kids off into the world without the essentials needed to compete for jobs. 39.3% of Detroiters live below the poverty line, and it’s a vicious circle for those who are caught up in it.
The race riots of 1967 are still heavily creased into its face, but Detroit—its people—is one city that does not stay down. Perhaps it’s fitting that a sculpture of the late Joe Louis’ fist hangs downtown as a symbol for Detroiters who have remained through one tragedy after another. From the tornado of 1997 to the bankruptcy scare that threatened to sell off priceless artwork from the Detroit Institute of Arts, they remain standing, albeit on shaky ground.
Let me paint a better logistical picture for you. If you have a car and live in Detroit, you probably have a job. If you don’t have a car and want a job, you may opt for the bus, which is notorious for being unreliable and more dangerous than it’s worth. For most of my twelve years living there, I was one of the lucky ones with a car, but my financial situation required me to work a second job. That’s when I used to go to my job during the day at a law firm in Southfield, a more affluent suburb north of the city, and then back to Detroit to work at a video store. My manager there, a single mom, who also worked two jobs, was raped on her way home after closing late one night. The next morning, she showed up to work at her other job at a fried fish restaurant, and then back to the video store for the night shift. It was business as usual; she just had to keep on pushing. That’s what we all did. That’s the side of Detroit the news does not always portray—the people who are hanging on by their teeth just to get by.
When I worked at a large firm downtown, the stark difference between the business district and the rest of the city was remarkable. The Detroit River runs just east of it, Canada just across the way, and Mexicantown or Southwest Detroit to the south. On my way to the office, I passed hollow shells that used to be homes and businesses along Michigan Avenue. That stage was the backdrop for prostitutes hooked on crack that showed up to work just as diligently as the executives in the Renaissance Center. It was not uncommon to see businessmen stop by for a quickie before heading into the office. It was not their neighborhood, so no harm done, right?
Still, I could not help but wonder if they were the same people who advocated for better neighborhoods in their cozy towns and that in some way they were contributing to the post-apocalyptic status of Detroit. In their hometowns, their children attended plush schools with new computers and played safely in green parks. Gas stations and 7-11s displayed only low and demure signs because having a tall brightly lit sign would somehow convey it was a low class neighborhood.
But who is to blame? I won’t get into the politics of former Mayor Coleman Young and how his 20-year reign contributed largely to the debt and corruption Detroiters are still paying for today. Nor will I mention how the city once enjoyed a brief moment of hope with Mayor Dennis Archer because, for the most part, trash collection was on the regular, and police response rates were usually less than an hour. I won’t even go into the rise and fall of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his late-night stripper parties in the Manoogian Mansion, the official home for Detroit’s head honcho.
It’s better to ask, what are people doing to get by. Like my former boss at the video store, they are still hustling, making moves, getting their kids to school every day—embodying the true definition of the American Dream, and doing it all in, of all places, Detroit. Sure, Detroit is not the bustling Motown, Big Three blue-collar machine it once was. It’s a far cry from the busy metropolis generated by Henry Ford’s idea that a steady factory job can provide a pretty good living.
But that was then and this is now and new businesses are cropping up here and there. Downtown is not always shut down at 5:00 p.m. like it used to be. Slowly, progress is making its way into some pockets of the city. But as more and more millennials move in with their Starbucks and Whole Foods in tow, those living on the brink fear being pushed out, including those mom and pop shops within walking distance.
What if, I wonder, before merely stepping in to tear down and rebuild, developers asked questions, addressed issues and filled some voids? They may find Detroiters want some of the same things. People in Detroit are resilient but they are fiercely defensive of their city. It truly is their hard-as-nails, walk-through-the-snow, work-two-jobs kind of attitude that has seen Detroit through each time, and will hopefully continue to do so. Let’s just hope America is watching them too, and not just the new kids on the block.