If you believe the headlines, Detroit is decaying before our eyes. The city, once known for cars and rock ’n’ roll, seems a shadow of its former glory. But maybe we’re looking at it wrong. That’s what one alumna believes as she works to reinvigorate a city not on the decline, but on the rise.
by Sarah Somes ’13
I have always been an optimist by nature. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., I heard plenty of this and that about Detroit’s many failures, but I believe that if you want to know the truth about something, you have to experience it for yourself, not simply rest on the accounts of others.
But it’s a pretty difficult task to unwrap all of the negative messages and layers painted on Detroit that hinder its growth. There’s such a large stigma about living and working in the city. For generations now, people have been fed every possible negative message and statistic about the Motor City, but there has always been good here, and that good is now gaining a much more significant influence over the city.
During college, I tried my best to keep track of all the new things happening in the city to combat the negativity I also heard. I followed Detroit’s social entrepreneurs and artists online and, every time I came home for break, I visited a new place: the Heidelberg Project, the redeveloped River Walk, Green Dot Stables and many more. However, nothing could prepare me for the adventure of taking the plunge and living in the city.
Last July, two months after I graduated from the College, I moved into the Detroit City Apartments. My new job as a fellow with Challenge Detroit wasn’t scheduled to start until the end of August, so I made plans to have no plans and just explore the city.
In Charleston, lights shine bright at night in the empty stores, and shopkeepers wash the windows and sidewalks every morning. The large storefront windows remain unobstructed, allowing the merchandise to entice passersby who happen to glance in. In Detroit, windows are covered with flyers, advertisements, stickers and street art. The lights are dim at night, and construction scaffoldings line many streets. Both are beautiful in their own right, but I have to admit, it was an adjustment moving from the aesthetic of Charleston to that of Detroit. I had grown accustomed to the pristine facades and found myself wary of places I could not see into.
I’m so glad that I love to challenge my fears and biases, because if I didn’t, I would have never heard these words of support from the owner of Eve’s Market: “I’m glad you’re here. You’re going to make a difference.” Or these words of wisdom from a young committee member at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue: “Meet your neighbors. We’re all a family and we look out for each other.” Or even the movie recommendations from Frank, the man flagging cars to park in his lot for the Tigers’ home game. I would have never met Clark, the proud third-generation owner of Lott Anter Tailor and Cleaning or enjoyed the mom-and-pop bakery that sells mouthwatering cookies for only 75 cents.
Through my experiences with Challenge Detroit and on my own, I’ve met many people, seen many places and experienced things that shock and delight me. For example, rather than walking away and remaining a stranger, as most of us do every day, I stopped and met Sandra – a driven woman with children, someone who experienced an unfortunate chain of events that led to her struggles as a homeless mother. My admiration for her grew as we talked about her persistence and urgent desire to support her children and gain control of her life again. It’s easy to assume you know the likely story, and it’s much harder to hear the truths of our world and the pains of our neighbors. An acquaintance recently told me, “Be a lifelong learner, because wisdom can come from anywhere and from anyone.” I have truly enjoyed the willingness and eagerness of Detroiters to learn about me and to share their stories.
Those of you familiar with the amazing arts culture at the College can understand my excitement when I was invited to a Detroit gallery’s grand opening. I followed my GPS out of downtown and began to lose heart with the ever-darkening streets and the growing ratio of abandoned to occupied buildings. My enthusiasm tilted closer to caution, but I pressed on because I know you cannot judge this city by its skeletons.
I was so delighted when I arrived to see people filling the street like it was a last call. One building’s walls stood tall and partly crumbled, its interior exposed to the elements. Black lights illuminated paintings of elegant ballet dancers and abstract images on the exposed brick. The other building housed the artists’ studios and main displays. Loud music pulled me to the back of the building, where I was ecstatic to find myself among courageous people reciting poems and engaging in freestyle word battles. I could imagine all the possibilities of Detroit right here as I saw what two young men, no older than 27, could do with abandoned buildings. Their creation, the Untitled Bottega, is a place of inspiring and experiential art, an incubator for local talent.
Charleston is known worldwide for its Southern etiquette and the hospitality of its people. Despite the many differences of these two cities, I was absolutely delighted to find the same level of kindness and public etiquette in Detroit. In fact, many of my new acquaintances in Detroit have felt more genuine and more eager to support me in achieving my goals than any stranger I met in Charleston.
This is the wonderful thing about Detroit: There’s always an adventure to be had, a friendship to be born and an opportunity to be made. But, like at the College, it’s up to you to discover it for yourself. And that is the “wow” factor of this city. You’ll be surprised by all the wonderful people and things that surround you – if you just open your eyes and open your mind to Detroit.
– Sarah Somes ’13, former captain of the College’s sailing team, is a fellow with Challenge Detroit, a yearlong leadership and professional development program with the mission to attract and retain innovative and entrepreneurial professionals.
Illustration by Timothy Banks