“Is it really as bad as it looks?”
That is the million dollar question that is seemingly a knee-jerk reaction every time I tell somebody that I’m from Detroit. The curiosity is understandable, much of the world has had their eyes on the post-industrial enigma that is the Motor City. Yet despite the fact that I’ve encountered this question more times than I can count since moving to Montreal (and practically have a prepared answer ready to go at this point), I still struggle to find an answer that really fits. How can you? Sure, I can carry on about how there’s good and bad parts, or how about Detroit still has more residents than cities such as Boston, Denver, or Washington D.C. But that’s just numbers. You don’t get your point across with a demographic summary unless there’s something more behind it. You need context. A story. Something to relate to.
This is what the Detroit Anthology does that I will never be able to do in a quick blurb about Detroit.
Following the same format as it’s Rust Belt Chic (RBC) predecessor “The Cleveland Anthology,” the Detroit book is a largely a collection of short stories with some added photography and poetry thrown in. Each volume in the RBC family (the Cincinnati Anthology was released at the same time as Detroit’s) has its own writers and chief editor, with Michigan native Anna Clark taking the helm. The portrait she paints through the writers is a vivid and honest account of life in Detroit, told by the people who live these stories every day.
The selected works in the book come from a variety of sources, most of which are premiering with the publication (although there are some reprints). There are some who contributed which may be familiar names to Michiganders. Poet ML Leibler is featured, as well as revolutionary Gracie Lee Boggs and famed Detroit historian Thomas Sugrue. Among them, the pages are filled with new writing blood that includes new Model D managing editor Matt Lewis and Forbes contributor Aaron Foley as well as a wide array of names you’re not going to recognize, regardless if you’re a local or not. Equally as important as those included are those who aren’t. Staying true to the RBC vibe, you won’t find stories written by politicians like Mayor Mike Duggan, industry moguls like Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Illich, or developers like Dan Gilbert. It’s not a soap-box for people looking to propagate an agenda or an ivory tower look at what the “people” of Detroit are like. The contributors don’t need to tell you that, they just want you to listen to their story.
What Clark has done with these writers is shown that you can have a truly authentic Detroit experience, built from all walks of life. There’s city dwellers, suburbanites, new comers to the city (and region), former residents, and people just passing through. In a city that often pits people against each other based on race, class, and geographic location (although this is often linked more closely with the other two factors), RBC Detroit brings everybody to the table to have a voice.
One of Detroit’s defining features is its down-to-earth realism, something that is well reflected in this book. There is no dismal feeling of woe you feel watching Dateline, nor is there hipster-infused optimism (read: White millenials hanging out in coffee shops) that radiates from the pages of The New York Times. That’s not to say that there aren’t ups and downs, there certainly are. The whole book takes you one an emotional roller coaster, talking frankly about all the things that seem to bind and define Detroit, for better or for worse.
The myriad of subjects addressed covers everything you might expect and then some. There’s the General Motors, arson, love, drug use, Whole Foods, prostitution, driving, Belle Isle, white flight, art, riots, baseball, Islamic terrorism, Tourette’s syndrome, Motown records, unionized labor, the Vietnam war, and Detroit’s amazing ability to idolize a past that it never truly had. The characters have props like Better Maid potato chips with Vernors Ginger Ale, hanging out in Highland Park poetry jams or at the Telway Diner.
On our adventures through all of these arenas, the authors go through numerous challenges and reflections. With man of these stories taking place decades ago, you begin to wonder as a reader how they might have been told different if told during the time of the events unfolding, but in the end you feel like you are being given things straight. With the stories feeling so personal, someone who has never been to Detroit can better understand the gravity of the Detroit “situation.” But RBC Detroit makes it clear: Detroit has problems, but so does everybody else. By putting stories behind the headlines, maybe people will start to draw that parallel between Detroit and their own city.
What RBC Detroit is really about though, is much simpler than that. At its core, it’s about one thing, as Aaron Foley puts it, “regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else.” It’s not about getting people to understand Detroit like some kind of sociology study, it’s about sharing what people have to say about what really makes the Detroit experience unique, even if on many levels things aren’t that different than anywhere else.
Maybe that’s what will scare people about this book: They like Detroit on their iPads in the form of a “photo essay” featuring a burned out home in Brush Park or the infamous Michigan Central Train station. The idea that Detroit might not be that different than where they live is too close to home. It’s easy to demonize places like Detroit, it’s much harder to relate to them. What matters here is that while some things are going to be a world apart from what people are used to, the day to day lives of many Detroiters is like that of any other American city, especially a Midwestern rust belt city. So maybe it’s not that scary after all. It’s just people, and people get less frightening the more you can listen to what they have to day. The Detroit Anthology is what lets people listen.
This anthology is for people looking to get a real look at what Detroiters have gone through while all of this fabled local history was happening around them. “The D” prides itself on their tenacity, something that both locals and long-distance gawkers will appreciate.
Soon somebody is going to ask me again about what life is like in Detroit. They will talk about how they know what’s going on because they pay attention to the news, or how they’ve been to insert another city with a high crime rate here so they have a good idea what it’s like in Detroit. But Detroit is its own animal. It always has been. Despite the ties that bind and the number of similarities that it has with its neighbor cities in other states, it’s simply not the same. So I’ll try to answer the question as best I can, but there’s nothing I can tell you that really gets the point across. Words are just words, but stories are greater than the sum of their parts. If you really want to know what life has been like in Detroit, listen to those stories and check out The Detroit Anthology and keep the conversation going.
Maybe I’ll cut to the chase and just tell people to read the book. But I’ll probably just smile politely and fumble my way through an inadequate explanation like I always do.
You can read one of my favorite stories in the anthology here at BeltMag.