After the two minute Super Bowl commercial that featured Eminem driving through Detroit in a Chrysler, my Facebook newsfeed blew up with status updates from my Michigander friends, both current residents and those who have left, who announced with pride, “Detroit is back!” or some variation of the same sentiment: Hell yeah. The D. Michigan. Stand up. Represent.
The commercial suggests that Detroit has been through hell and back, and the story it presents, that Detroit is a city that knows about luxury, is probably not the story you’ve been reading in the papers, the ones written by people who have never been there. Since the economic crisis has hit, journalists and filmmakers have descended on the city in droves. Visitors come from far and wide to go urban exploring and visit the ruins, the same pictures of the abandoned train station runs in spread after spread, and we’re constantly told that the city is dead, a lost cause.
In his article “Something, Something, Something, Detroit: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff,” Thomas Morton details the experience of James Griffeon: “For a while James was getting four to five calls a week from outside journalists looking for someone to sherpa them to the city’s best shitholes, but they’ve finally begun leaving him alone since he started telling them to fuck off.”
Detroit, and by extension Michigan, has a bit of an identity crisis, and the advertisers who created the Chrysler commercial used this to their advantage. While outsiders often put forth the same narrative for the city and state again and again, insiders have a different narrative, though one that is no less repetitive. In our narrative, we are under-estimated. We know we’re looked down upon by others, and we feel the need to constantly prove ourselves. We believe the city will be great again. And while the Chrysler ad may not have spoken to a national audience that continues to use and abuse Detroit, it spoke to the local audience, to all my Facebook friends who felt validated.
We are a proud bunch. My friend Charles, who is not from Michigan, once said to me, “Man, people from Michigan are the proudest motherfuckers I’ve ever met.” While living in Portland, OR, he had met a group of people from Lansing who all had stars tattooed on the inside of the hands, marking where on this mitten-shaped state they’re from. Because I grew up here, I didn’t realize how strongly my environment had shaped me, nor just how “Michigan” my mentality was. I root for the underdog. I put my nose down and work hard. I don’t complain. Or at least I try not to.
In “The Courage of Detroit,” an article published in Sports Illustrated in January 2009, Mitch Albom discusses our optimism “against all logic.” He says, “We don’t talk about whether Detroit will be fixed but when Detroit will be fixed.” Even though the article focuses on Detroit, it is very easy to apply what’s going on there to places like Flint and Saginaw, other former auto industry towns. And Detroit as our largest city often becomes synonymous with the state as a whole (though I wonder if people in Grand Rapids, a prosperous city on the west side of the state, would agree). Since I moved back to my hometown, Saginaw, and began teaching at a community college, I have often assigned this article, and my students almost always love it. Their sense of Michigan pride and strength swells, and they agree: Michigan will be great again. But when I ask my students why things will get better, they don’t have any answers beyond “it just has to.”
This blind optimism from my students was alive and well in the reactions to the Chrysler commercial. And I get it. When you are constantly told your town or state is horrible, you find yourself defending it, and this is something I have done repeatedly. Like Detroit, my city of Saginaw has an image problem. We can boast of being the hometown of Stevie Wonder, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and professional sport stars LaMarr Woodley and Jason Richardson, not to mention college basketball star Draymond Green. However, we are also known for our crime rate. We have high poverty and unemployment rates, a poor public education system, racial segregation, and one “holiday,” Devil’s Night, where people celebrate by burning houses down. Our nickname: Sagnasty, or The Nasty.
Saying you’re from the Nasty can be a point of pride, as in, this is where I came from and this is where I am now. Instant street cred for those who know what this place is like. When I was living in New York, I got my first Saginaw tattoo—a beat-up heart with stitches and band-aid, that had a skyline along the top, with flames rising from it. A banner with the word “Saginaw” on it wraps around the heart. I have much love for my city, even though I know it’s been beaten down.
Each year since 2003, Saginaw has ranked number one on the FBI’s violent crime report, and whenever I’m asked about it, I say, “It’s really not that bad.” And for a long time, I believed what I was saying because I can live and have been living a decent life here. Teaching at a community college has opened my eyes a lot further to the problems our city faces as I hear the stories from students who grew up not too far from me, but far enough to have a completely different experience of the city than I did. Many of my students have dealt with losing loved ones to gang violence and drugs, have spent time homeless, have dealt with extreme poverty, and have graduated through school systems that in a recent report have shown that 0% of graduates are college ready, and some have served time in prison. And even though I thought I had a good grasp on the problems facing my city, it was not until someone I personally knew was violently and senselessly murdered that I had my wake up call. Things here are bad.
In the early hours of December 2, Sean Stennett, 25 years-old, was visiting friends when there was a knock on the door. When he went to see who was there, someone on the other side opened fire, letting off at least eight shots and killing Sean. There is no known motive, and there are no suspects. This isn’t the first time an innocent victim was killed here. Londyn Pruitt, who was a student at the school I teach at, caught a stray bullet in the head while driving home one night. In 2009, Devin Elliott, a nine-year-old boy was found shot to death, which spurred a number of members in the community to action to attempt to end violence. The week after Sean was killed, Taylor Poling was murdered, and someone was murdered the week after her death too. As I have been working on this article, we had our first homicide of 2011, a fifty-three year-old woman who was sitting at a bar, when someone drove by and shot the place up. In all of these cases, the killers remain at large. The victims of gun violence in recent years in Saginaw are too many to list; it has become “normal.” This is an idea we have to challenge. Violence should never be accepted as normal.
Prior to Sean’s death, I would be one to stand up for my city, to say things aren’t so bad here. And despite the things that I love about this place—the toughness, the creativity, the hard work/working-class mentality—I have to acknowledge there is a lot of anger here. And it’s an anger that kills this city’s young people in a number of ways—through gun violence, drugs, suicide. Despite our seeming optimism for Michigan’s future, the present doesn’t give us much hope.
The Bearinger Boys, a local band, captures the problems we face here pretty well in their song “Burning Bridges”:
I find myself often at struggle with myself. Discomfort can be good, a motivating factor, but more and more I am feeling at a loss. Some days I love it here and I can see a future and I know it is meaningful to work to make a place better—I almost can’t imagine doing anything else. But then other days I want to give up, move somewhere else where life isn’t such a struggle. I don’t want to be an angry person, but Saginaw often makes me angry.
The problems facing Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw are not unique to these cities. Things things—shrinking populations, crime, poverty, unemployment—are happening elsewhere, and it can offer a lot of chances to recreate and redefine our cities. In his documentary on Detroit for Palladium Boots, Johnny Knoxville looks at some of the positive things people are doing in Detroit (while also taking in some ruin porn)—young people are starting businesses, reclaiming abandoned spaces, starting urban farms, and there does seem to be a real artistic energy about the city, though it is a little premature to say, as the Chrysler commercial led a lot of Michiganders to exclaim, that the city is “back.” There’s still a long way to go, and perhaps an even longer way to go for Flint and Saginaw, which lack the name recognition and draw of Detroit.
Recently I watched a few episodes of Detroit 1-8-7. What I liked most about the episodes I saw was that there seemed to be deep sympathy for everyone involved, including those who committed the crimes. You saw people who had their backs against the wall and saw no other way out. They were pushed and pushed until they snapped. On Law & Order and other such shows, the offenders are often pompous and think they’re untouchable. On Detroit 1-8-7, you felt sorry for the kid who is going to serve time for killing two gangbangers who were going to kill his dad, and the tragedy of such a thing was not lost on the detectives in the show either. For a city that has certainly been to hell (the “and back” part is questionable), this makes sense.
There is something admirable about the Michigan mentality, but it’s important to not be blinded by it. Even Albom gets blinded by it in “The Courage of Detroit.” While acknowledging this optimism is against all logic, he ends his article by saying, “We’re gonna have a good year.” Unfortunately it’s not that easy. This is going to take work. We can’t wait for the future to come; we have to make it come.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009). Her last piece for Frontier Psychiatrist was a review of the Tennis album, Cape Dory. She has a star marking Saginaw tattooed on the palm of her hand.