Common Misconceptions & Detroit | #2


Table comparing Portland and Detroit water utility facts –> Digest this before you read my post.



I’m always happening upon familiar faces from UMich in the city. This time, it was my dear saintly chum, Luke Liu. I was overjoyed to see him, and I demanded we go get pizza at the Woodward mainstay, Sgt. Pepperoni’s, to celebrate. As we caught up on our way, Luke asks me the question we are all always inevitably asked: “What’s your favorite part of Detroit?”

The answer changes every time in large part because I discover more and more of the city’s nuance each day. This nuance usually comes in the form of new and even subtler contradictions: seemingly impossible circumstances that have somehow manifested in Detroit. This article is certainly chock full of them.

What is so special — indeed, so horrible, about the impoverished in Detroit? What convinced lawmakers in the city to give Detroiters no more than 30 days to get their water bill payed off before they plugged the pipes? Most cities in this country will allow at least two or three bill cycles to pass before they even threaten shutting the water off. Many cities allow their citizens to accumulate as much debt as they must and never end up pulling the proverbial plug. I’m not one to propagate alarmist messages and ideations, but the “blue line of shame” reminds me very much of the marks that cartels and other gangs put on the streets in front of those peoples’ homes who they intend to murder. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to get overdue notices in the mail and then walk outside and find your home marked ominously and wordlessly. Christ, it’s the homeowner’s equivalent of a break-up text.

These are the things I consider when I answer questions like the one that Luke Liu asked me. I still think about that Juneteenth event; beautiful and moving, but harrowing and disheartening as well. It was a manifestation of tumult and unsustainability. A night like that has to come to an end, just like the state of Detroit’s poverty and its outdated and seemingly nonsensical “solutions.” That night has become a concrete emotional and intellectual representation of what Detroit is for me.

However, that night did not have to end because it was too ugly or unpleasant. Like Detroit, it was unequivocally spectacular and uplifting. Detroit, as it is, is beautiful. However, the variety of beauty occupies a spectrum with Zone 8 on one end and Campus Martius on the other.

My most recent Uber driver spoke about how much he liked the city. He was very excited about all the changes and all the tall buildings, referring frequently to the separate, “crappy,” and antiquated Detroit. That sort of thinking is dangerous because, although Woodward is shiny and new, it is merely the aftermath of a proverbial bulldozer down the middle of the city. It is a piece of art arbitrarily deemed to be lesser and painted over: a recycled canvas, and the original painting forgotten. However, it makes no more sense to paint over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel than it does to “revitalize” Detroit this way. Yes, it may be old, dusty, and chipped in some places, but it also holds a heritage and culture that is iconic in even the contemporary world artscape. It’s also certainly a great deal more than a painting; every brushstroke has a place and just as much right to be there as any other splotch of paint or pastel.

That’s what I told Luke Liu when he asked, or something like that.

One thought on “Common Misconceptions & Detroit | #2

  • July 13, 2018 at 11:58 am

    I love this reflection, Charles. You are totally right that it is incredible to think that while most cities give residents months of missed water bills before even contemplating doing anything about it, Detroit had been shutting down water after just 30 days. There are some interesting implications to think about with that, of which I’m sure you’ve already considered.

    I love that you are able to articulate what it is about Detroit that means so much to you. That’s great! One thing that you can do to take that to the next level is talk about how, if at all, that might tie in with your personal and professional goals for the future. Do you see working in Detroit as a part of that? Do you see yourself working in another city with some similar characteristics to Detroit? That might help you situate your own narrative within that of the city, and that can be an incredibly powerful personal message.


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