The late Grace Lee Boggs begins the documentary American Revolutionary (by Grace Lee, no relation) standing in front of the ever-dilapidated Packard Plant, covered in wool winter clothing, 97 years old, saying, “I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit.” Contrary to popular belief, Detroit’s heyday was just before auto manufacturing hit hard, effectively creating the Fordist model of middle-class living in the United States. But, of course, when you have one part institutionalized white supremacy, one part classism, one part outright greed, and one part clinging to the past, you get the American experiment that is Detroit.
Sometimes I think this experiment was a failed one. When you build your economy around the hyper-individualism that is cars leading to freeways leading to suburbs, you shouldn’t be surprised when your economy doesn’t work out. Despite this feeling, I echo Grace: I feel sorry for people who don’t understand our city. Detroit is a place where, as many activists say, people “make a way out of no way.” There’s a pretty short list of cities where residents started [illegally] growing their own food because grocery stores decided to follow the cars/freeways/suburbs, and Detroit tops it. There’s a pretty short list of cities where a resident polices his own neighborhood with a video camera to keep out dumpers/Johns/drug-dealers, and Detroit tops that one too. There’s a pretty short list of cities that [until recently] had just one recycling center open 3 days a week instead of instead of curbside recycling. But of course, that’s what makes this place the Detroit I love. When city services and private interests leave you for dead, you either start killing each other or you start working together.
The Detroit I love is an underground place. Once you find the caverns you’re pretty much in. And once you’re in, you can contribute to whatever community you call home as much as you want, be it taking your neighbor’s recycling to Recycle Here, playing records at your local bar, buying a coffee for a beggar, putting your neighborhood garden to bed in the fall, or painting a mural on the thousands of canvasses around the city.
I feel so bad for people when they talk down on my city. They’ll never know the heart, soul, and mind that Detroit fills. These people’s inability to see past vacant lots, boarded up buildings, and beggars (who are are not them but still us) is what happens when your measuring stick is made out of dollars, cents, and media portrayals. Yes, this city has some glaringly embarrassing problems; including city workers who don’t really actually care about the city, non-existent regional transit, crime, and more. But the Detroit I love is proof of what happens when people are sick and tired of being left out of the game. They create their own future together, without permission or shame.