Aug 31, 2017
Actor Keegan-Michael Key On What Everyone Gets Wrong About Detroit
Before moving to Los Angeles and scoring a hit Comedy Central show, “Key & Peele” with Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key spent a childhood in Detroit.
While the city is best known around the U.S. for its auto industry and Motown hits, its 673,000 residents also know it as a buzzing center for contemporary culture outside of the country’s main coastal metropolises, with a history spanning hundreds of years that continues to flavor each neighborhood and main thoroughfare.
Movies like “Detroit” and, years ago, “8 Mile” may have highlighted darker aspects of the city, which some may still know chiefly for landscapes of ruin. But Key would like to point out that, in 2017, Detroit might surprise a lot of would-be visitors. “It’s just not as dangerous as you think it is. It’s not the wild, wild West,” he told HuffPost. We spoke to the comedian about what it was like growing up in Detroit ahead of our reporting stop in the city, which you can learn more about here.
Read on for Key’s memories of his Detroit neighborhood, his rave review of the Detroit Institute of Arts and thoughts the city’s promisingly bright future.
Are there any misconceptions about Detroit you’d like to dispel?
I’m trying to think of the most positive way to say this. You’re hearing a lot about Detroit. I think there are people who still believe that parts of Detroit are still like the wild, wild West. If anything, I would refute that claim and say that Detroit, if anything, now is more of an empty canvas. And what I would like us to do as civic leaders and people who live in the communities, in the neighborhoods, to embolden themselves for these communities, and say, “Let’s put some of the paint on that canvas away from downtown.” Somewhere more out in the neighborhoods. Because it’s the infrastructure of the neighborhoods that I think now we need to pay more attention to. Lots of people are spending lots of money and paying lots of attention to the downtown area. And that’s all well and good. I think that’s great. There’s this kind of central column in the downtown area and in our northern downtown area, but once you get about a quarter of a mile away from that downtown area, we still have some of the challenges we had even when I was a kid. I think that’s something we need to address.
Another misconception is, we are Detroiters, and we are Midwesterners. Some of the friendliest, friendliest people you’re going to meet are going to be in Detroit. You and I both probably hold pride as Michiganders, being people from the North. We’re very kind, and we’ll sit and have a conversation with you. I think we’re met with the energy that we put out. You’ll find in Detroit, if you come with an open heart, we’ll just as soon accept and embrace you. I think having been the butt of jokes for so many years, you know, “Don’t go to Detroit without a gun!” Everybody used to have the T-shirts that used to say, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten.” It’s so funny because we’re one of the first places in the United States of America that experienced branding. It wasn’t good branding, but it was branding. I think in the last 30 years, we’ve turned it around, so the branding is positive.
There are places to venture out in the city. You can go to the West side and find a really cool Middle Eastern restaurant, or go downtown and find really great soul food. I’ve been hearing more and more ― which just fills my heart with love and joy ― people say, “Yeah, I went to Detroit last year. It was fantastic! I loved it there.” But I also want people to explore places that they can find out in the neighborhoods. We need more of that. Listen, I think ― and maybe this isn’t super popular ― I think a little bit of gentrification is OK for any community. But you don’t want any community to lose its identity altogether. Another thing I would say is: It’s weird that in this country, the way you denote there’s some form of progress is if there’s a Starbucks in your neighborhood. I’ll go to Starbucks and get my coffee, but I’d love to go to Tommy and Tanisha’s coffee shop on Griswold so I’m supporting local people.
And people don’t understand when they come to Detroit, it’s not that we were a music town. We are a music town. We are an art town. We boast one of the greatest art institutes on planet Earth. We hold some of the masters in our art museum and it’s unbelievable. I think everybody should take the opportunity, if they’re going to the Midwest, go to Detroit, Michigan, and go to the crown jewel of our city, the diamond that is the biggest piece of our civic pride, is that museum.
It’s just not as dangerous as you think it is. It’s not the wild, wild West. There aren’t bullets flying everywhere. It just isn’t that place anymore.
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