(Native Detroiter Francis Grunow
returned to Motown in 2001 after a ten-year stint in New York City
where he studied at Columbia, worked as a city planner, and fell in
love with all things urban … the buildings, the people, the
stories, the possibilities … and also the challenges.)
One million souls inhabit the city of Detroit, but on most days, you
can hardly tell. Empty streets and sidewalks are spared the punishment
of normal use. Empty storefronts never have to worry about changes
in fashion. Empty skyscrapers stand abandoned and obsolete for lack
of parking and their distance from the suburban sprawl.
Nevertheless, there are people who still choose to call Detroit their
home. I am one of those people. Those Detroiters.
Nobody told me I was crazy when I announced I was leaving New York.
I had only been talking about it for much of the last decade. The
thing is, no matter how great a place like New York City is - no matter
how glorious the compression of artists and dreamers, doctors and
housecleaners, hustlers and street sweepers - Detroit can hook its
claws in and pull you back. If you’re a die-hard Detroiter,
you know it.
It was no surprise then that in the fall of 2001 I left the bustling
city I had grown to love, and returned to the city of my birth, to
the foundation and inspiration for what I had become. But that didn’t
make doing it any easier.
Growing up in Detroit, you get used to the incredible: the appalling
disparity between the city and its suburbs, the rift that so conveniently
breaks along racial and socioeconomic lines; the thousands upon thousands
of abandoned buildings and vacant lots (the absurdity of a single
homeless person!); and, of course, our gift to the world, the car
culture, with its freeways slicing and dicing said barren land, conveying
automobile and tractor trailer cargo through Detroit on sunken scars
of asphalt and concrete.
Each day I look out my window and think how reasonable it would be
to walk across the street and buy a carton of milk. Every night I
think how much sense it would make to take a train downtown to go
out to dinner or to a movie. Every time I'm reminded of New York,
I am leveled by how many people inhabit its spaces, its streets…
And every day I think about how much Detroit could learn from places
like New York City.
“Some day…” I think, every day.
Those who would rather not be associated with Detroit often evoke
the phantom pronoun “they”: “They need to clean
the city up…”, “They needs to fix the schools…”,
“They need to make it safe….”
One step in making Detroit a better place would be to stop saying
“they” and start saying “we” every time we
talk about Detroit’s problems.
Some people point to how much has already happened, about how much
new investment has been pumped into downtown, as if the end is in
Yes, life here is better than it was when I left in ’92 - the
city’s trajectory has changed, no doubt. Under the present course,
making Detroit a reasonable place to live may be a safe and attainable
goal. But can we rise to a bigger challenge? Can we to aspire to make
Detroit an exciting, vibrant and meaningful place to live, a city
that is truly “world class”?
We can if we learn to cultivate other ways of life and look to other
places for inspiration and guidance. It would be the ultimate victory
for southeastern Michigan if it would stop running from its long forgotten
center and embrace it, instead. Could it happen?
Growing up in Detroit, you get used to the incredible. Maybe that’s
the problem, but it’s also the promise. And maybe that’s
why I came home.
- Francis G is a Detroit filmmaker and active member of Detroit Synergy
a civic coalition he co-founded with a group of tenacious Detroiters.
He also plays tennis, goes to transit rallies and spends quality time
with the object of his affection, his new niece.
He’s currently finishing the documentary, DETOUR:DETROIT, an
exploration of contemporary American life in and around the city of
Detroit. “What if Trains Came Back to Motown?", a five-minute
short that challenges metropolitan Detroit to envision a vibrant public
transportation system, is the first episode of Detour:Detroit. Look
in mid February.//