What Detroit Means to Me
Detroit. That well-known name represents many things to many people. For some, it signifies a 32-mile long river which feeds into Lake Erie, one of busiest waterways in the world, and a place for boating, fishing and reflection. For others the name Detroit represents its founder’s Cadillac “city of the strait” an idyllic location that represents the only place in the country where one has to head south to enter Canada.
Detroit is also synonymous for the nation’s auto industry that helped turn this once small fur trading post turned into an international metropolitan city and icon. For many others Detroit is Motown, Hitsvile U.S.A., the place with rich musical talents that gave rise to the musical careers of The Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. More recently this musical legacy has included the likes of Anita Baker, Aaliyah, Eminem and Kid Rock.
For the sports enthusiasts, the city has been voted best sports city by the Sporting News. Detroit is Hockeytown USA, home to the Red Wings, home to MVP Justin Verlander and the A.L. Central Champion Detroit Tigers, where the NBA champion Piston’s “Bad Boys” once patrolled the hardwood against Michael Jordan where the Lions play football on Thanksgiving and where Barry Sanders once spun defenders in 360 circles on his way to the end zone. Detroit regularly hosts major sports events such as Super Bowls XVI & XL, the 2009 NCAA Final Four and 2005 MLB All Star game among others.
Detroit for me however is all of these things and more. It’s spending time with my family past and present. It’s my grandfather working tirelessly as the second African-American bus driver in the city and later as a real estate agent. It’s my uncle teaching for years at Detroit’s iconic and newly awarded state football champion, Cass Tech High School. Detroit is church picnics or sunsets at Belle Isle, the nation’s largest city-run island parks. Detroit is the gospel music sound of the Winans family, the Clark Sisters, Thomas Whitfield, Fred Hammond and Marvin Sapp and many more. Detroit is Vernor’s Ginger Ale, Faygo Pop and Better Made chips. It’s a city of great faith with over 5,000 congregations many of which strive to make the city a better place and serve the poor. It’s a place with surprisingly friendly people as many visitors discover. It’s gritty, it’s determined, it’s tough, it’s imperfect, it’s hopeful. It’s Detroit.
Sadly today, Detroit represents a shell of its former self geographically and economically. Gone are most of the big factories, many of the local businesses, and many of its residents that once numbered close to 2 million residents. Abandoned homes, businesses and even churches line many neighborhoods across the city. Political corruption, racism, crime, violence, poverty and unemployment have plagued the city for decades. Foreclosure and population have hit the city hard with the city losing a quarter of its population over the last ten years. A city of nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s has been reduced to just over 700,000 residents today. Today the city faces state financial receivership and substantial budget shortfalls that will one way or another reshape the scale and scope of the city for years to come.
The good news, even if it has been long in realization, is that all cities inevitably rise, decline, and rise again. That is the nature of the life cycle of every city. Perhaps this is what Father Gabriel Richard knew when he coined the city’s motto” after the fire of 1805 destroyed most of city. Detroit, which has been down in many ways for the bulk of half a century, will rise once more from this most recent slow-burning socio-economic fire that has decimated the city. Positive signs can be seen in the recently revitalized and scenic Detroit Riverfront with miles of scenic landscaped walkways or in the recent economic activity in the city’s downtown and midtown areas. Events such as the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Detroit Electronic Music Festival (Movement), Detroit River Days, and Winter Blast all make Detroit attractive as a destination and represent signs of vitality. Much work however remains to be done in the city’s neighborhoods, schools and employment sector. There is reason for optimism even amidst some of the despair, Detroit after all has been here before.
As seen through the city’s history and through the lives of its residents including Detroiters from Elijah McCoy to Henry Ford, from Joe Louis to Thomas Hearns from Tom Sizemore to Tom Selleck, from William Boeing to Roger Penske and from Rosa Parks to Ben Carson; Detroit has, does and always will represent ingenuity and hope.
“We hope for better things, she will arise from the ashes”
Yes she will.