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What It's Like To Live In Detroit In 2017

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Hello from Detroit, home of Motown, the U.S. automotive industry and, perhaps the most innovative development in this town’s history, a combination Applebee’s-IHOP. These are exciting times to live in the Motor City; nothing gets residents’ adrenaline pumping like the lingering concern of their cars are being broken into while sharing a plate of polenta at the fifth gastropub to open this month.

OK, I won’t be so cynical. But you know it’s true, though.

We’re getting a lot of attention right now thanks to this week’s North American International Auto Show, mainly from journalists who came to ask automotive executives if they’ll outsource everything to Mexico because, well… you know.


Aside from that, this is one of the few times of the year where the population, if temporarily, kinda feels like what it’s actually supposed to be rather than what it actually is. No doubt they’ll also be wondering (and so will you) about how us gritty, hardscrabble denizens are faring in 2017, having survived a litany of ills ranging from mass water shutoffs to Kid Rock’s Badass Beer.

I’m here to say that for the most part, things are on the up-and-up in ol’ Motown, a place where it’s not uncommon to see a Buick Terraza. Oh, there are still a few things about living here that make it enjoyable as stepping into a pile of steaming dog shit. But just you wait, because we are coming back for real this time. Really. Really really. For real.


I think.

First off, yes—you can drink the water here. Detroit is south of Flint, and that’s the city with the water disaster, not us. It’s a horrific disaster, one that has had us questioning the leadership in our governor’s office and what we can do to make sure this shitshow won’t repeat itself come 2018.

Sure, boosters from literally every other Michigan city not named Flint will highlight that Michigan is still a beautiful place to live (more coastline than any other state!), but even looking beyond Flint, it’s hard to justify some other catastrophic decisions from our Nerd-in-Chief—namely, the crash and burn of a new public school district in Detroit created under the governor’s watch that only impeded the city’s progress.

And speaking of schools, public education is still the great barrier from Detroit ever having half a chance at a full rebound. No, it’s not the lack of automotive jobs (there has been cautious optimism about a return of non-automotive factory work). No, it’s not the municipal bankruptcy (not all the lights were turned off, but as of a few weeks ago, all the lights are back on!). It’s that for more than a decade now, teachers have been overworked and unrewarded, school buildings have been falling apart, the rise of fly-by-night charter schools have decimated classrooms (and forced those who were left all into the few classrooms that remained, so now we have schools that look like sardine cans), and no one seems to understand that unless you educate a city’s children properly, they’ll contribute little to nothing when they’re adults and the city will remain stagnant.


Schools aside, there are a few bright spots that just might make it OK to continue to root for Detroit. Crime, for the most part, is down. Police response times have improved. I only saw one stray dog in recent weeks. And I suppose climate change will make the winters more bearable.

I think it’s OK to be optimistic about Detroit because it seems like for the first time in years, newcomers and longtime residents might finally be on the same page with understanding what exactly needs to be done to make Detroit a thriving, inclusive city for everyone. Hear me out on this.


We, very unfortunately, had a police officer killed in the city barely two months ago. I’ll admit that I was worried that because the officer was white and first suspect arrested (who was later released because it wasn’t the right guy, but more on that in a sec) was black, we’d immediately divide into the same racial strife that’s held this region back for generations.

I was honestly surprised that the city collectively agreed that killing a police officer in a city that needs more protection against violent crime was wrong, and when the innocent man was eventually let go, we all scolded the cops for getting it wrong. It’s sad that it took a tragedy to realize this (and this does not at all minimize strained law enforcement-civilian relations elsewhere in the region, which still exist – hello, Macomb County Jail), but I think it finally clicked for some people here that we are all in this shit together.


On a far lighter note, it wasn’t that long ago that every time a new entrepreneur opened something as little as a food truck, New Detroiters would immediately fall to their knees in praise, dedicating their Instagram feeds and Yelp reviews to these heaven-sent missionaries willing to offer comfort in the way of craft cocktails and premium denim. Nowadays, we treat these people as human. Businesses that are built high up come crashing down just as fast, showing that even the most bright-eyed and bushy-tailed among us isn’t immune to the risks of opening a business.

I, for one, am not looking forward to the barrage of Detroit Free Press push alerts about the goddamn Restaurant of the Year, because honestly, that same restaurant might not even be here at the end of the year. And we all tend to shrug the latest New York Times travel listicle or whatever bullshit-ass list we end up on nowadays, because we all know wherever they say the city is, it ain’t there yet.


You see, now that people are more practical about their expectations for Detroit, we can be more tempered about our enthusiasm. That keeps us grounded in reality and makes us more in tune with curing systemic problems in Detroit instead of expecting shiny baubles and band-aids—like a 3.3-mile-long streetcar, for instance—to fix everything. Finally, finally, the bubble of (color)blind boosterism is bursting.

We’re nowhere near being the next San Francisco, the next Austin, the next whatever. We just need to figure out how to be us.


Yeah, it sure is nice that Dan Gilbert owns all the buildings and pumps in all the Quicken Loans workers to make sure that the new Nike store will never go under, but we should also give props to folks that understand that we need more than him. Things like the Live6 Alliance, which is making sure that the residents there have a say in redevelopment and have a say in making sure they can still remain in the neighborhood they’ve called home long before Curbed readers started giving a shit. Or people like Mama Shu in Highland Park, who is turning an abandoned block into something beautiful, doing the work that others wouldn’t.

Everyone always asks “what’s the one thing Detroit needs right now?” Well first off, schools. Definitely the schools. But if you don’t want to be a teacher, you know what’s the one thing you can give to Detroit that’ll really help? Time. Give us time.


Look, a lot of this shit has not changed in the last year or so since I’ve done one of these “what does Detroit look like”-type of posts. But there is slight progress, and it’s the kind of incremental change that you can only see if you’re actually here. It takes time for us to get better.

Give us that time, and just you wait.

Aaron Foley is editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine. He was previously the contributing Detroit Editor at Jalopnik and is the author of the book How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass.