Image: Valerie Jean
When we talk about the health of Detroit, whether it’s thriving or struggling, we’re usually talking about its physical health—how many buses are running, which schools are open and which are closed, where will money flow, and where will it be choked off: but I think we ought to look at the soul and mind of this city. Because, more than the corporeal problems of Detroit, the financial malnourishment, and the shortages of this and that, the most pressing issue today is the city’s crisis of identity. What do we pride ourselves on? What aspects of our culture are worth investing in and passing on to the generations? I’d argue that we have everything we need if we see ourselves for who we really are. Detroit is no Atlanta, no Pittsburgh, no Miami. Detroit is unique among American cities. Yet, when pressed to assert what sets this town apart from others, all we can muster is some luke-warm mention of Vernor’s pop, Better Made chips and a half-hearted “Nothing Stops Detroit.” Most agree, in the abstract, that Detroit is different, but our efforts at doctoring the city are one-size-fits-all — based on nationwide data more than a real understanding of what this place, and its people, have to offer.
I lived in New Orleans for a spell and I got to thinking about how they approach culture as opposed to the way we do here in Detroit. For example, everybody knows New Orleans is famous for its food and one of the main staples is red beans and rice. They’ve got people hopping off planes direct from Tokyo and London and the first thing that these big spenders just have to try is a bowl of New Orleans red beans and rice. Now, if you think about it, red beans and rice are the epitome of struggle food. It’s poor folks’ food. You take beans and hocks or some smoked ham and boil them until they get tender—just that simple. Everybody cooks beans and rice, not just New Orleanians. New Orleans wasn’t the first or the last to make beans this way, but what sets the city apart is the fact that they take pride in the dish. What, to others, is shameful, country, and uncultured, is to New Orleanians the very essence of their culture.
In Detroit, some of the best cooking I’ve had was home-cooked and delivered to my job or to my house by somebody that I knew who made a hustle out of selling plates. While this enterprise might not technically be on the up and up, I see this sort of business as a valuable asset to the city. There are scores of other businesses run on this model, from mobile mechanics to people selling water and snacks curbside. These hustles have sprung up out of necessity, but their impact is positive. They offer a means of making money in a much more immediate way than a 9 to 5 that requires lengthy interviews and vetting of employees, requires waiting two weeks on a paycheck even though the work has already been performed, and furthermore, these small-time hustles keep Detroiters’ money circulating in Detroit. Politicians spend a lot of time talking about ‘creating jobs’ and they often do it by luring corporations to the city with tax breaks, or out-and-out incentive payments. But the end goal of providing work for Detroiters could be accomplished much more rapidly and at almost no expense by encouraging these hustles and micro-businesses instead of hamstringing them with regulations and taxes. Much is made of the idea that Detroit is a city that ‘runs on hustle,’ but we invest in the actual hustlers in words only. How about really boosting micro-businesses by designating areas in city parks and other available properties as city markets where any who wish to hawk their wares may do so freely? Why not allow residents to hold rent parties and cabarets in their own homes, to sell food and drinks, and charge admission? Why not only allow this practice but encourage it? How about making these entrepreneurial efforts part of our sanctioned culture by devoting a month of the year to such home businesses, publicizing them, and inviting tourists? It would hardly cost a cent and it would be something no other city could lay claim to doing.
Another aspect of New Orleans that made me think about Detroit is its music. People flock to New Orleans from all corners of the globe to experience the city that birthed jazz. And while New Orleans’s claim to fame on this account is genuine, it is once again, more so their willingness to embrace their musical legacy that makes it important, for, in many ways, Detroit’s musical heritage is much richer than that of New Orleans.
Detroit’s roster of jazz greats includes Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, and Donald Byrd, all heavy-hitting players who helped forge the sound of modern jazz as we know it. And there is no shortage of talented young players coming up now. Detroit is equally strong in its contribution to gospel music, spawning the Clark Sisters, the Winans, Fred Hampton, and many others. Then you have Detroit’s techno pioneers like Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, and Derrick May—artists who practically invented the genre. Or how about J-Dilla, who single-handedly redefined hip hop production, influencing not only that genre’s current sound but also profoundly influencing the sound of modern jazz. Add to all these Detroit natives the musicians of Motown fame: Aretha, Stevie, Smokey….on and on and on and on. But how is it that we have so few nightclubs devoted to live music? How is it that any Detroit musician will tell you, that you’ve got to leave the city to make it? Our musical heritage is one of Detroit’s most valuable resources, yet we invest in it almost not at all. When a music fan from Europe comes to Detroit to experience the city that birthed his favorite artist, where would you tell him to go? Apart from the 30-minute tour at the Motown House and a handful of clubs like Baker’s and Bert’s, what’s to see? There are hundreds of young musicians making their names now in the city, but more than likely, they play most of their gigs in the suburbs or nearby cities. If we can roll out the red carpet for the Illitches and the Gilberts how about giving the same treatment to fledgling live music venues, recording studios, and radio stations that play local music? How about making sure that students have music education in school, and damn good music education from the real cats that can play, whether they’ve got a teaching degree or not?
Detroit’s musical exports have changed the world (and I’m not just talking about all the babies made off of a Marvin Gaye record). From James Carter to Sada Baby and from Dwele to Amp Fiddler, Motown hasn’t gone anywhere. The music is still alive and well here. If we were as faithful to music as we are to the auto industry, this city would be much more prosperous. We ought to take a page out of New Orleans’ book and prioritize this aspect of our culture. Though it may not appear lucrative on the surface, a look at New Orleans will show you that music is a multi-million dollar business when it is given credibility and encouraged.
Detroit and its people have been through some things. It goes without saying. But we’ve gotten so used to being the victim that we’ve lost sight of our assets. We’ve gotten so used to being the victim that we think salvation can only come from elsewhere. It’s easy to feel that this city has been left behind time and time again by government and industry and by people. But it is liberation in that fact. It offers us the opportunity to be different from other cities. Since it’s clear that big industry and government will not be our salvation, we are poised to be a self-sufficient grassroots city.
Take for instance our public school system, which is, by national standards, not so good. The thing is, however, even if it were up to those standards, we would not be preparing students very well for a productive life here in the city. Why chain students to their desks to learn science and mathematics, history, and reading in the abstract when they could be learning to apply those disciplines to the city in which they live, right now, not at some future time? The Detroit Land Bank has thousands of properties under its control, many of which are demolished for upwards of $50,000 apiece. Why not teach mathematics and science by teaching students how to renovate these houses? They would learn skills that they could put to use regardless of the lifelong vocation they choose. Why not erect greenhouses in every school so that students can grow food for school lunch programs instead of shipping in anemic produce from food banks? There ought to be busloads of students at every city council meeting learning about the mechanics of government. Students should learn about wildlife and biology by teaching them to fish in the river. Teach them to navigate the river in a boat. There are so many ways that we can use the city to give students a fine education.
I taught as a substitute teacher in a number of Detroit schools, and the problem never seemed to be a lack of resources. Most schools had state-of-the-art technology. The problem is, as I see it, a lack of direction in the curriculum, a lack of vision, no sense of culture. If students from Detroit are disadvantaged, it’s because the standardized, national curriculum does not speak to their circumstances. Detroit students are not slow by any standard, but we need to show them how their education can be applied to their surroundings. That is why so many of the cities’ brightest minds leave town because the education they are given has little use in the city. Students are taught, more than anything, to be useful to the mechanisms of power, whether it be industry or government. What we have the opportunity to do in Detroit is to actually give students power of their own. Teach them how to become entrepreneurs in this city, how to be creative with the resources we have here. All the funding in the world will not replace a focused, Detroit-centric curriculum. If we begin to think of our resourcefulness, our hustling spirit, not as a “best-we-can-do” result of our 3rd world status in America, but as the very essence of our culture, we will thrive.
The city improvement ideas that I’ve proposed are all slightly imaginative, and probably will not gain too much traction with city hall, but regardless of whether any of them catch on, the crux of my argument is to shift the focus of our activism from an attitude of pandering and begging for help from abroad, for additional resources and a fair share of what everyone else has, to effectively exploiting the resources we already have. Our music, past and present, our micro-businesses and small-scale hustles, our unused buildings and vacant lots, our youth and their schools—all of these can be used to our advantage, if we see the city for what it is, instead of what it is not.