In Defense Of Detroit

Kathleen Bushnell Owsley

In a recent column on, author Shikha Dalmia expressed skepticism over a Detroit renaissance. She described Detroit as a desolate city that has failed to acknowledge its challenges and take advantage of its strengths. She insinuates that Detroit is banking wholly on one community--artists--to support our turnaround. Dalmia even went so far as to suggest that the basic need to survive and flourish has ceased to exist in the city.

It's easy to disparage Detroit, but Dalmia--and many others--choose to only see one side of the Motor City, that of a hopeless and unrealistic place. But I can't stop wondering how one person's view of Detroit can be so lifeless, when mine has been the opposite.

I was born in the Detroit and, yes, raised to be a fan and supporter of my hometown. My dad took us to the Heidelberg Project--a surrealistic home turned artistic expression--before it was featured in an HBO documentary. My aunt and uncle lived in Detroit's thriving Woodbridge neighborhood until they reached their 90s and could no longer take care of a house.

In 1989, I left for college. I was away from Detroit for the majority of the following 10 years. I lived in Belfast in Northern Ireland, Aix-en-Provence in France, New York City, Chicago, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Mich., and San Francisco before I came back. So I feel I have a pretty good handle on life in other places.

When I returned to Detroit in 1999, the city lacked excitement. I remember at the time just hoping we could get a Starbucks or two--the supposed barometer of a city's "it" factor. (I believe, for the record, the city now has four, with scores of others in the metro area.)

There was a gray, lifeless concrete area two blocks up from my downtown office at the time, and I have a vague recollection of John Cougar playing an impromptu concert there one afternoon. I thought, "What a lousy place to see a concert."

Today, however, I look out my office window and see Campus Martius Park, a bustling square modeled after an Italian piazza and completed in 2004. In the past year I've seen ice skaters, Segway tours, outdoor concerts and Hilary Swank shooting a movie from my window. Beyond the park, there's a riverfront along which to walk, the Dequindre Cut along which to bike, and unique spots, like the Rowland Café, to grab a coffee.

I'm encouraged by a multitude of recent initiatives that support the city, including a plan to increase the density of creative economy businesses, a strategy to get 15,000 more young college-educated people living in greater downtown Detroit by 2015 and a thriving, innovative association that supports the vitality of arts and culture institutions in metro Detroit--which are peppered throughout our community and are not, as Dalmia claims, limited to one block in east Detroit.

The day after Dalmia's Detroit article was published, I attended the Crain's House Party--an annual event where dozens of Detroiters open their homes to attendees for a short soirée. Everyone then gathered together for an "afterglow," where we talked about the amazing lofts, houses and high rises we had just visited. I spoke with a number of people living in the city. They told me it's challenging but worth it. These were regular folks with children and jobs--not the childless bohemian couples Dalmia mentions.

Take Jim Boyle, vice president of Integrated Marketing, a Detroit-based marketing and media relations agency. Jim concedes that raising a family in Detroit can sometimes be difficult, but says his children will have a worldview like no other.

"My children know that not every person is the same or has the same opportunity, and the reasons these things happen are abundant, historical and very complex," says Jim. "We've had author Toby Barlow over for dinner, walked around Heidelberg with Tyree, visited famous musicians' homes (and dogs), and hosted art events and mini-concerts in our home, enabling our children to chat with a whole range of thoughtful people who do cool things with their lives and time."

Jim and his family help with neighborhood clean up, visit the community garden Wednesday nights in the summer, and take car trips to Honey Bee market and cheap eats in Mexican Town.

"The big-picture idea is ... that the soul of the place rubs off on the soul of our people," says Jim. "And Detroit's got plenty of soul."

In the early '90s when my future husband was attending Wayne State University in Detroit, home to one of the largest medical schools in America, I went to visit him at his midtown apartment. The block and the building were broken down and unsafe. I visited the area again for the first time last year. My husband's old apartment building is being restored and converted into lofts. Last week, the raggedy, closed-down bar on the corner had a pre-grand opening party. It's looking amazing. There goes the neighborhood.

During the afterglow, I ran into a young entrepreneur named Kerry Doman, who runs a company called After 5. The mission of After 5 Detroit is to get young people excited about living in the area by connecting them to the best that metro Detroit has to offer. Kerry's business is thriving, and she's in the market to buy a downtown loft. The competition is so fierce she told me that people are outbidding one another to get space.

I also ran into Paul Schutt, publisher of the online magazine Model D. Model D features stories about development, creative people and businesses, vibrant neighborhoods and cool places to live, eat, shop, work and play. Model D is four years old. It has 10 people working on the magazine, including writers, photographers and editors. The fact that Model D continues to publish a weekly magazine about growth and creative types in the city indicates there is a momentum toward positive change.

That's how the resurgence of Detroit is taking place--small pockets, a variety of initiatives, by corners, blocks and buildings. Detroit's revival does not sit on the shoulders of any one industry or group of people. And if we each filter our vision through a veil of sarcasm and impossibility, success becomes laughable, and a holistic look at the facts untenable.

Detroit has gone through stunning tragedies over the years--the auto industry collapse being the latest example. But Detroit has, in myriad ways, defied failure with hundreds of small and large successes, even in 2009. We are acknowledging those issues and working to correct them. This is not a town that will simply throw its hands up and give up.

I'd suggest to Ms. Dalmia that she take a second look at our fair city. I'd be happy to introduce her to some of the gems she missed on her first glance at Detroit.


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