Contrived cool

A while back, I returned to Detroit, my former hometown, for a holiday visit. One of my first stops was the newly reopened lobby of the Guardian Building. It was there, amid the jewel-toned tiles and glittering metal gate, that I was accosted. As is always the case when one is blindsided, the particulars are hazy. I recall greeting an old friend, mentioning I was writing about the Guardian Building for an architecture magazine, and the next thing I know, a complete stranger is firing a nonstop round of personal questions at me: “Why did you move to San Francisco?” “What neighborhood do you live in?” “How much is your rent?”

And then came the clincher: “We want people like you to move back to Detroit.”

Never mind who this shadowy “we” is. The guy mentioned something about CreateDetroit and “cool cities,” claimed to know Jennifer Granholm and offered to introduce me to the owner of the Guardian Building. He could find me a job! He could get me an apartment at the Park Shelton! I began to wonder how I ever functioned in the city without him.

I do recall that, when I left Detroit almost three years ago, a young booster club seemed to be brewing. I myself accepted an invitation to expose curious suburbanites, in suits with cocktails in hand, to Detroit’s art scene by reading my poetry under a moose head at the Detroit Club before I skipped town (in all fairness, I should add that they were a very appreciative audience). While I find this movement somewhat annoying, if it convinces a few thrill-seekers from Mt. Clemens to invest in Detroit (or at least visit), who’s to complain? The problem, as I see it, is not the intent — this nebulous “we” seems to have its heart in the right place — but the approach.

First of all, unlike some of my friends, I did not leave Detroit with a big chip on my shoulder, swearing the city had failed me and vowing to never look back. I won’t lie and say there weren’t times I felt this way, but my relationship to the city, like most residents, is much more complicated than that. I love Detroit. So much of what is good in my life happened there — I made some of my closest friends, I became a writer (largely thanks to this very paper), I met my husband. We were married on Belle Isle, held a reception at the Players Club and threw an afterparty at detroit contemporary. Do I sound like I need some stranger in a coat and tie to help me find my way around?

But love can confine, and there finally came a time when I no longer felt nurtured in Detroit. I felt stagnant. It was time to go. Simple as that. Why? Good question. After all, San Francisco, my new hometown, has been overrun by “cool.” The very people Granholm and the chamber want to lure to Detroit are the reason I pay more than $1,200 to live in a shoebox and have the option of eating $15 plates of SpaghettiOs at the hipster “home cooking” restaurant down the street. But I also said good riddance to my car, can see art films any night of the week, and only have to walk as far as the corner — not drive across 8 Mile — to buy a Sunday New York Times.

These are all things I yearned for all those years living in Detroit. Nobody sold me on San Francisco. Every time I visited, I felt like I belonged here. As for Detroit, I ended up there more than a decade ago by happenstance, initially residing, I should note, in the burbs. But work and friends and, ultimately, an apartment in Midtow— er, the Cass Corridor— helped me discover Detroit’s many charms, without the assistance of any official fan club, and that’s what made my loyalty to the city so fierce. This is something I share with most Detroiters I know. We’ve all found things we love about the city and we enjoy exploring them. It’s not part of some slick marketing campaign. It’s just what we do.

And that’s why I find the young booster ethos so clueless. A person’s relationship with his or her environs can’t be marketed. Choosing a place to live is different than, say, purchasing a new couch. It’s something incredibly personal and it develops, for better and for worse, over time. You can strong-arm people into moving to a city, set them up at the Park Shelton and invite them to preapproved events every weekend. But where, then, does the city factor in? It just seems like one big insular pep club, shuttling from one sanctioned venue to another, oblivious to the real-life experiences unfolding outside.

Case in point: The same day as my Guardian Building encounter, I had dinner with one of my coolest Detroit friends. “I’m looking for a new apartment,” she told me. “My building’s going condo.” And where, you ask, does my friend live? The Park Shelton. Now, I don’t think my friend will hightail it to the suburbs the same way much of San Francisco’s hipster class has headed for Oakland. But her experience does underscore a fundamental problem with the whole “cool cities” approach. Building viable urban areas takes much more than just looking for the next slick lifestyle magazine version of downtown living. It involves accepting the city as the complex place it is. That, in turn, includes knowing the terrain well enough to treat the gentrification of the Park Shelton as an abomination, not a great PR plug.

Now, I can see how my would-be doorman to Detroit might be a bit divorced from the day-in, day-out politics of the city’s finicky housing market. According to a press release from the organization that hired him to harass people like me, he makes his home in Allen Park. But whether it’s made up of gleaming-eyed boosters-by-day or cheerleaders of the live-in variety, it’s hard to ignore the irony of CreateDetroit’s approach: Each over-the-top attempt to prove how cool the city is makes it just a little less so.

Kristin Palm is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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