Salt in the Water

Salt in the Water

When someone tried to break into our house last year, Cedric and I were both told, independently of one another, to buy a shotgun.  “It is a sure way to scare people off,” conveyed co-workers and friends.  Vigilante justice: it is part of the Do It Yourself (DIY) narrative in Detroit, albeit DIY is often applied to activities with a more positive twist.

There are numerous terms commonly used in the rhetoric about Detroit that are equally nebulous when habitually employed.  One term in particular beckons our attention: community. I am an ardent listener of WDET’s Craig Fahle Show and noticed that the term “the community” has become a particular favorite of Craig’s and guests’ alike when talking about matters in Detroit. What Craig Fahle, his guests and Detroiters for the most part know and acknowledge is that this notion of a locally unified community is an imagined group of people that is made up of numerous racial and religious groups, political constituencies, and subcultures that often have little to do with one another.  If we look at demographic models of segregation across the United States, Detroit ranks as one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the nation.  Yet, this idea of Detroit as a singular community has gained exceeding popularity over the past two years as discourse of Detroit revitalization has burgeoned onto the national stage.  The city has become an entity unto itself in both local and national media, a singular voice that boasts that the Detroit community “hustles harder.”

Community is often assumed to be a positive word with positive connotations.  In fact, it is incredibly rare to hear this word used in a negative context.  It lures us in; it seduces us into believing that we are a part of something larger that is, in many ways, just like us, an entity that sees the world as we see the world.  It is for adults’ what a pretty rainbow-swirled lollipop is for kids: that sweet piece of satisfaction, sumptuous though not gustatory and as every bit as enticing.  It holds promises of a better world, one as equally tempting and ephemeral as a child’s piece of candy.

Yet, it is not just media outlets that have become infatuated with this notion of a financially destitute city pulling itself from the ashes through inspiring entrepreneurial and artistic activity; this also seems to be the mantra for recently arrived youth of a particular socio-economic background who have found opportunity in Detroit’s de-industrialized, informal economy by engaging in public or community based art projects in Detroit.  It is often all to easy to point to this young, often white, demographic and see how they have invested in Detroit’s communities and revitalization in a genuine, but opportunistic manner.  Many young artists are placing their cache in public or community based art in hopes of stabilizing Detroit neighborhoods, drawing attention to blighted houses, or simply to take advantage of large vacant spaces.  It is primarily these young artists, not black artists, who create “community building” art projects out of dilapidated homes.

Under the umbrella of monolithic communal terminology, Detroiters become a collective entity in this story of a city that is perpetually rising from the ashes, defending itself from an onslaught of national criticism. Detroiters assume a collective history and a shared struggle in it, silencing the numerous, and dissimilar, lived histories of Detroit’s ethnic neighborhoods.  For young Detroiters of who many, including myself, moved back to the city after our parents and grandparents left the city for lives in the suburbs, Detroit is an unfamiliar urban center with a history often only vaguely or textually understood.  I have often wondered how frequently young artists and entrepreneurs in Detroit reflect on their position and relationship to Detroit’s histories, how often they think of the freedom and prospects they have been afforded in this city oftentimes due to a blighted history of discrimination, oppression, and segregation against Detroit black and immigrant communities.  Unfortunately, we frequently forget that while we identify with the city of Detroit, we cannot claim to be a part of or understand all of Detroit’s disparate histories.

Nonetheless, Detroiters are portrayed, and portraying themselves, as a unified group at a national level, while heated debates of who is a native vs. a transplant rage within young affluent circles.  For many recently returned privileged youth, who is and is not a native is not a given.  Many young Detroiters who have made a name for themselves in the city often feel beholden to a city which has afforded them unconventional opportunities and, in some cases, status and local fame.   Unlike larger cities in which there are often numerous institutions with similar vocations, employment with one of Detroit’s up and coming institutions may provide a unique and rare platform from which to work, providing individuals lucky enough to receive these jobs with influence and status.   It seems as if this aspect of Detroit work life has created a sense of entitlement about positions of authority in the city.  I cannot count how many conversations I have had in the past two years in which people have imparted their opinion about how an outsider is “going about things all wrong.”  Detroiters are exceptionally particular about how people interact with “their” city.

To be an outsider or a transplant implies that one is disconnected with local Detroit issues and history, and may be naïve or, worse yet, messianic in their ambitions to help the city of Detroit “turn around.”  On the contrary, to be an insider or native is to lay claim or ownership to the city of Detroit, a status that garners a seal of authentic experience and knowledge about the city, or in other words, a position of authority.  This debate often overlooks, and erroneously conflates, numerous issues: one being the question of authenticity itself; the second regarding what is really at stake in these discussions: the displacement of privilege in order to feel a part of the greater Detroit struggle.  The reality is white Detroiters who are often returning to Detroit after generations of flight have reason to fear the outsider label if being able to claim native status is rooted in generational occupancy or the number of years one has lived in the city.  Indeed, recently arrived Detroiters cannot claim to be a part of a historical Detroit struggle or hustle.  Yet, should the number of years one has lived in Detroit validate one’s right to speak on behalf of the city?  Again, Detroiters are not part of a monolithic community with one shared history.  Does one’s race give a person the right to speak on behalf of the city? Status? Privilege? Education? I think it is pertinent for us all to stop and question the grounds upon which we individually justify our own Detroit expertise.  Clearly, at this point in time, one’s experience (regardless of color) seems to trump all; yet, my understanding is that this issue of insiderism and outsiderism is not as important within Detroit’s black communities.  These types of conversations circulate amongst Detroit’s white communities, particularly the white communities that have received ample national attention for their revitalization efforts in Detroit.  I find it ironic that it is frequently white Detroiters who are critical of other white people coming to the city to do artistic or other work.

In many ways, guilt seems to weave in and out of debates regarding insiderism and outsiderism, referencing the affluence of our parents and our grandparents who fled the city, taking most of the cities capital with them.  Only amongst white Detroiters have I heard such heated debates regarding who should and should not be doing X project in Detroit, and, implicitly, who has the right to work, create, develop, and speak on behalf of the city.

Referring to Detroit as one monolithic community assumes that all Detroiters operate from an equal playing field.  It masks who often benefits from Detroit’s reputation as a broken city, as a land of opportunity where one can make a name for themselves and find purpose in the city’s spacious boundaries, while it simultaneously silences those for whom urban plight, abandonment and destitution has been an on-going detriment.  In other words, it enables us to overlook what privileges we may have been afforded in life and, in turn, imbues us with righteous purpose and certitude about what we know is best for this city.  We have lived the day in and day out struggles of Detroit and therefore we can lay claim to knowing something intimate about her.  Yet clearly we have not all experienced Detroit in the same manner; we cannot all claim the same histories of Detroit struggle.

The point is not to dwell on the past or to feel guilty for the privileges we’ve been afforded in life, but to cultivate an awareness that our life experiences inform our understanding of basic, and often assumptive, ways of being.  It is from this recognition that we move forward with a respect for difference.  Our life experiences shape the manner in which we experience and relate to the city of Detroit.  It is up to us to own and acknowledge what we have been afforded in life and recognize when others’ viewpoints come from life experiences we may never fully understand, much less, experience.   However, this beckons the questions: if we are fully aware of our respective privileges in life, how will that shape our day-to-day actions and how should it?  What do we expect to glean from reflecting on a history riddled with racism, hate and discrimination?  What knowledge comes from pondering our socio-economic disparities?

Two weeks after experiencing The Hinterlands amazing performance, Manifest Destiny, I can still hear Calamity Jane’s prophetic words echoing in my ears: “Detroit is the new frontier!”  I think it is worth contemplating the notable similarities between frontiers of the past, particularly the “Wild West,” and new frontiers of today (Detroit) as the settling of these frontiers is never an a-political process.  The West was seen as a blank canvas, ripe for the taking by new settlers.  At the end of the hour and forty-minute performance, after leading the audience through the dry deserts of the Wild West to the brothels of consolation and debauchery, Manifest Destiny led us in a toast to the New World shaped by man.  We sipped from our cups of salty water and only then began to satisfy our thirst.  Here’s to hoping for the recognition of our positions before the water turns to salt.

Rachel Yezbick
Cultural Anthropologist

For more on her work, see Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade to be released this fall on 9/11/11.