The dichotomy was obvious, the contrast in opinions stark like the white letters on the black POW MIA flag that partitions our beds from the front of the van at night. When we arrived to the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak where Mike O’Sullivan threw open his door and his refrigerator and wallet at dinner that night we were met with an attitude not uncommon in the area.
“Detroit?” We were meeting Mike for the first time; even Devin was, his second cousin. “What do you want to go there for?”
We sort of thought we were in Detroit, like Lake View East and Hyde Park are still Chicago. But we were informed otherwise.
“Let me show you around.” Mike thinks faster than any person I’ve ever met and when he talks, sometimes it’s like his sentences can’t keep up. Daily he dons a green sleeveless shirt with his moving company logo. His hair is gray and long at the back of his head and he has a tattoo covering his left bicep, though it’s close to illegible.
Mike drives us around downtown Royal Oak. Bars, coffee shops, Mexican, Italian, a Five Guys and an Ed Hardy shop. “We don’t have to leave Royal Oak, you know. We can shop, go out, eat, really do it all here.” Royal Oak is nice, feels safe. But it’s Crystal City to D.C. and when he asks what we plan to do with our time we have to be honest.
We tell him we want to see Detroit.
“Man,” Mike says, “I don’t know what you could do down there. It’s empty, dirty, dangerous. Murder Capital, USA. You know that, right?” So though he opened his small home to the three of us, gave us beds and showers, paid for our beers and dinners that first night, stocked his refrigerator with sodas and dips and lunch meat, left his door unlocked and told us to come and go as we needed to and for however long we wanted, showing us Detroit was out of the question. There was never an offer and we knew what the answer would be if we asked.
We were waiting for Alex outside of his school, a two story building in Mexicantown across from a soccer field. Through the windows we could see mostly young teachers and the brightly colored orange and purple and green walls of the hallways. “Doesn’t it make you want to learn?” Alex said as he walked us to his classroom.
It did. Even on a day cloudy and dark in the city, the halls were bright and warm and inviting. And so our first impression of the city of Detroit wasn’t that it was dirty or empty or unsafe but that there was money from somewhere being dumped into a mostly Hispanic middle school, creating new classrooms and gyms and laptop initiatives for the children of Detroit. (Detroit is, in fact, millions of dollars in debt.)
As he drove us around in the rain (a perfect tour guide for having been there less than two years as a teacher from the Teach for America program), what we’d heard became reality: entire rows of abandoned homes, ghettoes of four and five thousand square foot homes (signs of what Detroit was only decades ago), crack houses, etc. It’s also true that when a house goes up for auction you might buy it for $500 if you’re the only one to bid, though there’s no guarantee that someone’s not squatting in it when you get there, claiming it as their own turf.
Despite what other accounts, reported numbers and even Mike’s testimony about Detroit told us, seeing the city with Alex I felt what I hadn’t expected—life. Amongst abandoned million dollar train stations and water treatment facilities and industrial buildings there’s a spirit of survivalism and hope. Like Chicago Cubs fans, hell, Detroit Lions fans for that matter, those left in Detroit still claim it as their own with a raised chin. “Yeah, we might be struggling,” says a man who calls Detroit home. “But it’s still my city.”
Alex’s church is built upon the principal of moving from the suburbs to the hood, something people have been doing the opposite of in Detroit since the white flight following the 1967 12th St. riot. One of two of the church’s pastors named Eric, the white one to be specific, moved with his wife to the middle of crack alley. “Four or five dinners a week at his house are open to the public,” Alex tells us. “That’s how they get to know the people in the community.” One church member has an entire fenced lot beside his house where kids from the neighborhood come to play safely. (If you buy a foreclosed house in Detroit, any adjacent lot can be bought for $500).
“Oh, I love it,” Alex says, referring to Detroit and why both of his prospective jobs at the end of this school year will keep him where he is.
It’ll take more than love to rebuild a city once as economically and industrially thriving as Detroit. But when it comes to restoration, I can’t think of a better place to start.