Friday, December 08, 2006

A Message From Detroit Is A Wake-up Call For Memphis

The announcement by Metrotimes' cultural editor that she was leaving Detroit shocked some people there, but here, it feels unsettling, because all of us know someone who has said something like this. The question is: what do we do to keep it from becoming the prevailing sentiment here?

Here's a wake-up call from Detroit's Sarah Klein:

Dear Detroit,

We need to talk. We've had some pretty good times together throughout the years. But lately things have been different — the passion, magic and excitement that I felt when I first fell in love with you have been slowly dying for a long time. Neither of us are the same as when we first met.

But it's not you, it's me — OK, maybe it is you.

We've had a damn good run together, but I think it's time for us to see other people. But I hope we can still be friends.

And so, in a matter of days I will pack up all my earthly possessions and move my life to sunny, shiny California, thus joining the ever-increasing cadre of Motor City expats.

I've been writing about the cultural underground of Detroit for Metro Times for nearly seven years. In that time, I've seen a lot: the good, the bad, the beyond ugly, the touching, the profound, and the tragic. I've ridden shotgun with designer kidnappers in vinyl catsuits, dived into the Detroit River in the middle of December, and crawled around in the woods with a bunch of geeks hitting each other with foam rubber swords. I've knocked around the dive bars, soaked up live music, crawled through urban ruins, met the people and shared their stories.

And now I need to move on. It's time.

While most Detroiters have a love-hate relationship with the city, in the past few years, mine has devolved into a hate-hate one. There comes a time in everyone's life when they need to break free of their own self-designed containments, but I'll spare you all the Hallmarkian bullshit and get straight to the point: People are leaving Detroit — in droves.

When telling my friends of my impending departure, the common response was, "You too?" Perhaps it's simply that I'm at the age when people make major moves and life decisions, but I see it all around me. People are fed up. Our state economy sucks. For every step Detroit takes forward, it never seems enough. Those I considered dyed-in-the-wool Detroiters have packed their bags.

There is something wrong with Detroit. That we all know.

Yet, there's also something glorious about this city, something that you can't find anywhere else in the world. This city's people have a tremendous spirit, a driven sense of self, a grittiness and determination that comes only from having to haul your ass up from the bootstraps every day. Detroiters are tough, but they are true, genuine and passionate.

But the incredible people who fill this city aren't enough to keep me, or my fellow expats, here. You need things like, oh, basic city services. Roads that don't crumble. Being able to walk out to your car in the morning without wondering if the windows will be broken this time. That all wears down on you after a while, and eventually it can become a weight too great to bear any longer.

I surveyed a few of my friends who've left, asking what prompted their decision. Not surprisingly, many left because of the economy. My close friend moved when her husband, a highly intelligent, capable and hardworking man, was laid off and couldn't find work for three months. They moved to North Carolina, where he found a great job in a matter of weeks. And there's no snow.

Writer and performer Kari Jones, who recently moved to Oregon to get her MFA in creative writing: "As a creative person, it can be extremely depressing trying to get by there. I tried so hard for so long to search out, squeeze out and hold on to every ounce of creative opportunity. And most of the projects that I worked on just crumbled. Sadly, I think some of it has to do with money. People couldn't afford to come see things, no one could afford to pay me or the other artists a decent wage, and because the money situation was bleak, half the time it was hard to get people I was working with to take the project seriously."

Thus far, she's thrilled with her new locale.

"I was here for about three weeks when I realized, 'Wow, I'm not pissed off anymore!' Just like that. And I was pissed off for like 10 straight years in Detroit. I was depressed. It was affecting my health, my relationships, my general well-being. And in a few weeks, I suddenly felt un-stuck."

And it's people like Jones that our state's much-ballyhooed "Cool Cities" program wants to keep. The program is based on flashy economist Richard Florida's conceit, the "Creative Class." Florida claims that in order for cities to prosper they must attract young, creative people who will contribute to the city's vitality.

There's also a mentality here that people should just "suck it up" and deal; that programs like Create Detroit (the Motor City's version of Cool Cities) are a waste of city dollars and effort. Why should we spend money getting creative people to live in designer lofts downtown when our public school system is decaying, basic city services are practically nonexistent and you can't even walk down the street without being accosted by homeless people?

It's a sound question — but there needs to be some kind of balance. I used to think Richard Florida was full of shit, but I have to admit, he has a point. The problem with Detroit is that it has so many needs; when it seems like half the city is abandoned, any money that goes to "the arts" is going to be seen as a waste. How do we fix this? I wish I could tell you.

I really do love this city with all of my hardened little heart, and I am truly sad to go. It's an indelible part of who I am, and I will always consider myself a Detroit girl. I really hope Detroit pulls through in the long run — but in my heart I knew long ago that I wouldn't be sticking around to see it.

I just can't hold out any longer. I'm tired of struggling, and I'm exhausted — emotionally and physically. I'm ready to go.

And to those who think that makes me a whiny, pussy little girl who just can't hang anymore:

You know what?

Fuck that.

The Detroiter in me knows better.


Anonymous said...

What can we wake up from here -- poverty? Most of the problems she describes are poverty-causing-or-caused: crumbling infrastructure, sucky economies, no funding for arts, crime. In Detroit's case, they have a creative strategy (or at least a slogan), so it sounds like they're trying. And I think the whole "how can we afford art classes when our kids don't know _________?" would rage in places like San Francisco if they had more than 3 poor people and fewer than 30 (or more) billionaires.

Memphis and Detroit are both creative cities but also historically poor. Memphis has had that problem since its founding; Detroit for the past 50 years, or especially since the beginning of the decline of the automotive industry. The real creative challenge for both cities: how do we transform the populations we have (including me) from the old broken world to a world of free, prosperous and creative citizens? If we can meet the challenge, it will be the social equivalent of curing cancer. But wait -- Memphis' St. Jude has cured cancer, so my metaphor has precedent.

In the meantime, I worry that we're being bludgeoned by rankings or shining successes dominated by wealthy cities, cities not dealing with this problem. How can rankings help us solve the problem, which really is THE problem? We should always learn from others, both successes and failures. But if we only learn about their successes and our failures, both out of historical context, I feel that it can cross over to self-loathing.

Smart City Consulting said...

Great points. We are indeed on the verge of self-loathing now, and while we resent it, we can't be dismissive (not that you were) about the problems that produce it. There are other cities with high poverty, there are other cities that had crumbling infrastructure, economic challenges, etc., but some have turned themselves around. It's about leadership, the kind that inspires a vision of the future that we can all embrace and be part of. In the end, the inability to deliver basic services is the greatest indictment of failed leadership. We have summits on issue after issue, but in the end, we need to have THE summit in the U.S. on poverty, because more than anything else, that's driving the problems in this city. And as we wrote a couple of days ago, we have to invest in our strength - distinctiveness.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that bloggers here have been warning about Memphis' slide towards becoming Detroit for a long time. Usually they get labeled as being negative.

Gates of Memphis wrote some valid points. It seems the development model of Memphis is failing. So much of the city and people are left out of that model. Expanding small business development and wealth creation across the city seems the only way to allieviate the crime and poverty situation.