What do you think of when you think of Detroit? The Motor City? Ruins? Segregation? Abandonment? A cautionary tale?

Then ask: Have you been to Detroit? Have you researched it? How much time did you spend coming to your conclusions? What led you to think of Detroit that way? From what I've seen, few of the modern-day notions about Detroit come from a robust understanding of the place at the ground level. Not even my own.

We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That's not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we'd never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as "Rust Belt"—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.

But there's a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit's fate. In some ways the city has become America's movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called "ruin porn" shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing are nearly devoid of actual people.

Consider some of the identities projected onto Detroit:

America's Bogeyman. As Detroit native Pete Saunders noted when calling Detroit "America's Whipping Boy," Detroit is an all-purpose bogeyman leaders in other cities can use to frighten voters when proposing their next boondoggle. "Better approve this stadium tax. Do you want to end up like Detroit?"

The Really Bad Sinner. Much as we minimize our own failings and justify ourselves as "good people" by comparing ourselves to serial killers and other "really bad people," cities can defend their own manifest failures by saying, "At least we're not Detroit," a tack humorously exploited by one of the Cleveland tourism videos.

Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland. Climate change activists try to outdo each other by presenting ever more apocalyptic visions of what will happen to the planet if their preferred solution isn't implemented immediately. Likewise, many writing about the legitimate problems of Detroit seem to compete with each other in creating the most spectacular depictions of total urban collapse.

"Fear of a Black Planet" (a term I'm borrowing from the name of a Public Enemy album). Racist views are no longer acceptable in society, but for some criticizing Detroit, America's blackest big city, makes an acceptable substitute. By talking about Detroit's crime or poverty or graduation rate, people can pretend to be criticizing "Detroit" when they really mean to criticize African Americans.

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