40 ways Metro Times changed Detroit (and beyond) over the past 40 years 

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  • MT archives

As Metro Times founders and former owners Ron Williams and Laura Markham once recalled, when they set out to create an "alternative" weekly newspaper for Detroit in 1980 — one with an emphasis on art and culture, and also news — they were "armed with a business plan, a burning sense of idealism, a boundless sense of naïveté, and about $5,000." That was in spite of the fact that at the time Detroit was experiencing a terrible economic downturn, and the fact that other "more talented and better-funded enterprises," as they said, had also tried and failed to enter the Motor City's media market. Indeed, many of our other fellow so-called "alt-weeklies" across the county have since folded as well — but four decades later we're still somehow alive and kicking. As a scrappy weekly, we may not always be first, or best, or even 100% right (though dammit, we do try), but we don't think it's any exaggeration to say that Detroit wouldn't be the same without MT. For our final issue of the year marking our 40th anniversary, we dug into the archives to look back on 40 years of influential stories. —Lee DeVito



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What's going on?

It might seem silly, but MT's weekly events listings of happenings around town were the sole reason many metro Detroiters picked up the paper, and it's perhaps easy to forget what a sea change this was in 1980. Known as "What's Happenin'" in the debut issue and later renamed "What's Going On" as our ode to Marvin Gaye, in the pre-internet age MT's comprehensive listings were for a long time the source to help people figure out what to do that weekend — and proof that despite common misconceptions, there was actually plenty of culture in this Rust Belt city. It's a tradition we look forward to bringing back once this pandemic ends.



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Pressure on Poletown

MT made a big splash just weeks after its debut with "Push comes to shove," a 1980 story about General Motors' takeover of the Poletown neighborhood to evict thousands and build what would become Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly. The move was championed by the Coleman Young administration and many in the mainstream media as a jobs creator that could help Detroit right its dire finances, but writer Michael Betzold questioned why a viable neighborhood had to be destroyed — with tax abatements. It was an issue that MT followed passionately throughout the years as a legal battle made it all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in favor of GM. After all that, it stung last year when GM announced that it planned on shuttering the facility as part of a global cost-saving effort. Backlash ensued, and GM eventually changed course after discussions with the United Auto Workers union; now it plans to transform it into "Factory Zero," a state-of-the-art facility that will make electric and self-driving cars. It's likely that without the hell that MT and other outlets raised over the issue through the years, GM might have gotten away with it, too.



click to enlarge Melvin Davis accepts an award at the 2018 Detroit Music Awards. - LUIS G.
  • Luis G.
  • Melvin Davis accepts an award at the 2018 Detroit Music Awards.

And the award goes to...

In the fall of 1982, Metro Times presented the first-ever Detroit Music Awards, a reader-driven event celebrating the local music scenes. MT ran the DMAs for 10 years until the Motor City Music Foundation launched a rival awards show. In 1997, MT and the MCMF joined forces to produce a joint showcase, but in 2005 MT severed ties and launched its own event again, the Metro Times Music Awards. That didn't last, but the Detroit Music Awards is still going strong.



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Gambling Belle Isle

In the April 1985 story "The secret Belle Isle casino gambling plan," reporter Rosanne Less and Williams landed a scoop: "a confidential document which details a proposal to transform the city-owned island park of Belle Isle into an international resort and conference center which would feature casino hotel gambling." The developers tried to get ahead of the story by handing it to the business-friendly Detroit News to spin it, but TV newsman Bill Bonds saw the real story here. "He sent TV cameras over to our offices," recalled Williams. "And he asked the question, 'How could a little paper like this scoop everyone else in town on a story this big?'"



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Give it away... to the CIA?

"The politics of giving," an October 1985 story by writer Russ Bellant, showed how the Detroit-based nonprofit World Medical Relief Inc., which provided supplies to people across the world, had ties to the CIA. Bellant also showed that medical supplies were indeed being collected and flown abroad, but not all of them were going to help the sick and poor, and also documented ties between the group and CIA-led counterinsurgency measures as far back as the late 1950s. According to Williams, Bellant's story elicited an obscenity-laden call from Gen. John Singlaub, a retired Army officer. Not bad!



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You stink!

MT's coverage of Detroit Renewable Power's trash incinerator, which burned garbage to generate steam and electricity and was a nuisance to those who lived nearby, started early on and spanned decades. Eventually, the incinerator belched its last foul-smelling cloud last year; its private owner said the plant was closed because it was too old and costly to keep open, but MT — and the many activists and attorneys who opposed it — kept the issue alive for many years.



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Anti-apartheid

Reporter Rosanne Less made waves for a number of stories showing that Detroit developments had skirted anti-apartheid boycotts and ordinances meant to punish the racist government of South Africa. That included "Detroit's apartheid connection," an April 1986 story that showed the financiers of the incinerator had ties to South Africa. Less did it again in August 1988 with "Detroit's People Mover: Made in South Africa?" With the help of Frank Provenzano, they showed that "Made in South Africa" was engraved on some Detroit People Mover steel railings. The scoop forced the city to have the contractor responsible for the steel remove it, at a cost of at least $30,000.



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  • Public domain
  • U.S. Rep. George Crockett.

A farewell to Crockett

Morris Gleicher was a longtime political consultant and former president of the Michigan ACLU who became an MT adviser and investor. He was also known for landing the occasional scoop, thanks to his strong connections in the social justice community. A 1990 column announcing the retirement of U.S. Rep. George Crockett, "A heavyweight hangs up his gloves," was "leaked" to the press the night before publication and caused such a stir that officials were running around town trying to find a copy.



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Michigan's militia problem

Six months before the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, MT investigative reporter Beth Hawkins wrote "Patriot games," an October 1994 article about Michigan's militia movement, which expanded on a story that originally appeared in Traverse City's alternative paper, Northern Express. Hawkins quoted militia expert Chip Berlet saying, "I personally do not sleep well with groups of armed paranoids who believe the government is behind a totalitarian conspiracy. ... Eventually, they will have a confrontation. It's inevitable." Following the tragedy in Oklahoma, MT editor Desiree Cooper wrote, "America now ponders aloud how we failed to see it coming, despite several warning shots from alternative publications such as the Metro Times and Traverse City's Northern Express." Flash-forward to 2020, and Michigan's militias are once again in the national spotlight after the FBI said it thwarted a plot to assassinate Governor Gretchen Whitmer linked to a group called the Wolverine Watchmen.



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Know your techno history

Long before "EDM" became a music juggernaut, MT was already chronicling the history of techno, the homegrown electronic music movement that started in the 1980s and endures to this day, in a 1995 three-part cover story by Hobey Echlin. MT is even part of techno history, getting name-checked in "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)," an early record by techno originator Juan Atkins' Model 500. (Sample lyrics: "My head is filled with techno beat, Metro Times, Face magazine ...") In the late '90s, MT would also grant sprawling, three-part histories to the blues (by Keith Owens), jazz (Herb Boyd), and rock (Ben Edmonds).



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Who watches the watchmen?

MT covered the labor dispute at Detroit's two daily newspapers, including the "Joint Operating Agreement" that merged the papers' non-editorial sides, and a bitter strike that lasted for two years and resulted in hundreds of workers getting laid off. Not only did the dispute show the value of an alternative press to report on the mainstream media, but the dailies' loss was MT's gain, with editors W. Kim Heron and Larry Gabriel jumping ship, along with freelancer Jim McFarlin.



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World wide what?

Though alt-weeklies are often written off as relics of the print past, MT was actually quick to join the world wide web. According to the WHOIS database, metrotimes.com was created in 1995, while freep.com was established in 1996 and detroitnews.com in 1997. MT was also quick to develop databases for local restaurants and entertainment, which other papers across the country bought to replicate in their markets. MT was also savvy to create johnengler.com during the 1996 presidential race, when then-Michigan Gov. John Engler was considered by many to be on the shortlist to be Bob Dole's running mate, with the site serving as a landing page for MT's stories about him.



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Avoiding a fall

Ann Mullen scooped the dailies in "All fall down," an April 1999 article about the bankruptcy of MCA Financial Corp., a multimillion-dollar mortgage company that owned about 3,600 rental properties in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Many of the properties were in disrepair, and the bankruptcy would've devastated Detroit's tax base, housing market, and the census count; she also exposed ties between MCA and a nonprofit that was being used to increase the company's profits. About a month after publishing, a task force of officials and neighborhood leaders formed to determine how to manage the properties and bring them up to code.



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Major exposés on cops

MT, as well as the Michigan Citizen, covered the people who died under custody of the Detroit Police Department — before the dailies weighed in. "Let him die," a September 1999 piece by Ann Mullen reported on at least 17 people who died while in DPD custody between 1992 and 1997; as a direct result of Mullen's story, the department announced a number of reforms. And "Under the gun," an award-winning April 2000 cover story by Mullen, told of DPD officer Jerold Blanding, who repeatedly shot a man who said he'd mistakenly walked up to the officer's vehicle at a drive-up ATM. The stories preceded a federal probe into DPD; 17 years later, Blanding would be back in the news after killing a 19-year-old.



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  • Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.com

We do know Jack

The infamous case of Jack Kevorkian — aka Dr. Death, the medical pathologist who ignited a national debate about assisted suicide and eventually served eight years in prison — was one that was covered extensively by longtime columnist Jack Lessenberry in the pages of MT, and also for national outlets like Vanity Fair and Esquire. "Jack Kevorkian, faults and all, was a major force for good in this society," Lessenberry argued in MT, which was quoted in Kevorkian's obituary in The New York Times. "He forced us to pay attention to one of the biggest elephants in society's living room: the fact that today vast numbers of people are alive who would rather be dead, who have lives not worth living."



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We also know Dick

Long before President Donald Trump appointed GOP megadonor (and public enemy of public education) Betsy DeVos to be his Secretary of Education, you could read about her family in Metro Times, including "You don't know Dick," a 2006 cover story by Curt Gueyette that looked into the influence of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation in right-wing causes, ahead of Dick's failed gubernatorial campaign.



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MT goes to Hollywood

Former MT editor Brian Smith's 2007 award-winning cover story "Jesus of Suburbia: A holiday tale, of sorts," was a first-person piece about his friendship with the late Doug Hopkins of the band the Gin Blossoms, who ended his life in suicide. The story had a wide impact that continues to this day. Aside from eliciting countless emails from fans, this year, it was optioned by producers Sarah Platt and Mike Tankelfor for a film called Lost Horizons, which we're told is now in pre-production, with a screenplay written by Brian and his wife, Maggie Smith, with music supervision by Jonathan Daniel and Crush Management. Speaking of Hollywood, two MT staffers have also been immortalized in film: James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros.) played Jack Lessenberry in You Don't Know Jack, the 2010 HBO drama about the notorious Jack Kevorkian (which earned star Al Pacino Emmy and Golden Globe awards), while Harry Judge (Star Trek Discovery) played Curt Guyette in Lifetime's Queen Latifah-starring 2017 film Flint.



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Going gonzo

Another value of the alternative press is that we can gleefully break the rules of journalism — like making our reporters part of the story, for instance. The late Sarah Klein, MT's former culture editor, was a master of the form — LARPing with geeks in the woods, diving into the Detroit River in the middle of winter, and attending a Christian motorcycle rally, among other adventures. (Unsurprisingly for someone who fearlessly put herself out there, Klein was also a burlesque performer. Sadly, she died in a car crash in 2013 at age 36.) In recent years, Jerilyn Jordan has picked up the mantle, perhaps best exemplified when she attempted to attend all six of Kid Rock's inaugural shows at Little Caesars Arena for a September 2017 cover story in an effort to figure out if his Senate campaign was real, and spinning the "Wheel of Destiny" at Jobbie Nooner in a June 2018 story.



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Here's to hip-hop

Before Eminem and 8 Mile, MT was covering Detroit hip-hop, including Rayfield Waller's 1992 story on trailblazing rapper Esham, who Em would later cite as an influence. There was also a pair of early-aughts cover stories about the group that should have put Detroit hip-hop on the map, Slum Village, written by staff writer Khary Kimani Turner. In 2009, Em came out of a brief hiatus by granting then-music editor Bill Holdship an exclusive and candid interview, which promptly crashed MT's server, thanks to the rapper's stans; Em returned to the cover in 2014 to talk about 15 years of Shady Records. In recent years, freelancer Kahn Santori Davison has covered everyone from viral star Tee Grizzley to numerous up-and-comers.



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One bad doctor

Guyette's January 2003 two-part series "A tale of two hospitals" detailed the role Dr. Soon K. Kim played in the demise of two area facilities: Aurora mental hospital and Greater Detroit Hospital. In 2009, Kim agreed to settle a lawsuit by paying the state $350,000 for violating Michigan's public health code and privacy laws after it was discovered confidential medical records were being burned at his farm in Washtenaw County.



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For those about to rock

Years before he was Jack White of the White Stripes, he was John Gillis, drummer in alt-country cowpunk band Goober and the Peas, which you could read about in a 1993 story by Thom Jurek. White would later land on the cover just as the White Stripes were blowing up, with Melissa Giannini's May 2001 story, "The sweet twist of success." As the Stripes' so-called garage-rock scene gained national attention, MT profiled other bands of the era, including the Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs, and the Von Bondies. Former Creem editor Bill Holdship penned a two-part history of the storied homegrown rock 'n' roll magazine in 2008, and Creem designer Charles Auringer become MT's longest-serving art director. (After a four-years in the making doc on Creem finally came out this year, it looks like the brand is back.)



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Tax troubles

Lisa M. Collins' award-winning August 2003 story "Dearth and taxes" revealed that the City of Detroit had one of the lowest tax collection rates in the nation, and it was costing the city $60 million a year in lost revenue. Within weeks of the story being published, Detroit handed collections over to the county, netting a $64 million windfall for Detroit in the first year. But it foreshadowed the problems that would later lead to Detroit declaring bankruptcy.



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Chronicling injustices

A topic that MT has covered over the years is injustice in criminal justice. That includes "Confessions and recantations," an award-winning 2004 story by Ann Mullen about Detroit teenager Vidale McDowell, who was convicted of murdering his mother and sent to prison for life after Detroit police coerced what was later found to be a false confession from McDowell's friend; months after the story ran, McDowell was set free. Sandra Svoboda's two-part 2007 story "Reasonable doubt" looked at problems with the case of Frederick Freeman, aka Temujin Kensu, who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. Kensu remains behind bars, but several years ago an Investigation Discovery episode shed light on the issue, sourcing from MT. Ryan Felton and Dustin Blitchok's 2016 story "Rough justice" about Marvin Cotton, whose lawyers argued he was wrongfully imprisoned due to a concocted testimony from an informant who later withdrew his claims, preceded Cotton's exoneration in 2020.



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Calling out Kwame

Following the revelations of the many scandals of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, MT became the first major Detroit publication to call for his resignation, with 5,000-word February 2008 editorial titled "Just go." Seven months later, Kilpatrick would do so. He remains behind bars.



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On top of pot

MT has long sung the praises of the sweet leaf — long before Michigan voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2008 and finally for recreational use a decade later — publishing a weekly column from cannabis folk hero John Sinclair (immortalized in song by John Lennon) and later by Larry Gabriel. MT remains one of the few local publications in town that will publish cannabis industry ads.

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  • Doug Coombe

Blown-up

In 1997, MT music editor Chris Handyside got a crazy idea: to throw a local music festival across the bars of Hamtramck in March. It was a smashing success — we're talking duffel-bags-full-of-money-success. The second year was even better, featuring an envious bill of then-up-and-comers Eminem, the White Stripes (billed as "White Stripe" — sorry!), the Dirtbombs, the pre-Electric Six Wildbunch, and more; later incarnations would feature the likes of Danny Brown, Andrew W.K., and Death. We'll concede Blowout lost its way when we moved it from its typical March slot to later in the year, started booking established national acts, and spread it across venues in Hamtramck, Detroit, and Ferndale. The last Blowout was in 2015; by then, local music fans had already set up the Hamtramck Music Fest in Blowout's previous March timeslot.



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Kid's stuff

MT and rap-rock king Kid Rock, aka Robert Ritchie, have been beefing for years, long before he became a toady for President Donald Trump; apparently Ritchie felt we snubbed him early in his career and never got over it. There was the time we crowned him "Boob of the Year" in 2007, and then a decade later he called MT's Jerilyn Jordan a "dark" and "sad" "young lady" on Twitter following her coverage of his Little Caesars Arena shows, and the venue operators, the Ilitch-owned Olympia Entertainment, even pulled advertising from MT, referring to our coverage as a "challenge." We feel somewhat vindicated; last year, Olympia and Kid Rock's Made in Detroit restaurant parted ways after he was caught on video at his Nashville bar ranting about Oprah while visibly intoxicated.



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Parking, parking!

Speaking of Little Caesars, MT has long been critical of the billionaire pizza peddlers' use of taxpayer funds to gobble up property downtown. In his 1997 story "Little Caesar's big bite," Curt Guyette uncovered a plan to use the taxpayer-funded Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority to acquire property with the intent of turning it over to Ilitch, which sparked public outcry that the city would try to use eminent domain to give Ilitch parking lots. In 2014, as the Ilitches were moving forward with a plan to use taxpayer funds for a new hockey arena, Ryan Felton wrote "Pulling the strings," a rare story from the local media at the time critical of the deal. In 2018, HBO Sports ran a story critical of the fact that the development that the Ilitches promised would sprout around the arena failed to materialize. Today, the area surrounding the arena is ... still parking lots, and much of the local media has since also grown critical of the Ilitches, following MT's lead.



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First on Flint

In 2013, MT's former owners fired longtime investigative journalist Curt Guyette for "gross insubordination" and "breach of company trust" — their words for divulging the contents of a company press release minutes before it was posted online. MT's loss was the ACLU of Michigan's gain, with Guyette joining the nonprofit in a unique role as a reporter, and he soon made waves investigating the then-unfolding water crisis in Flint. A September 2015 column that Guyette graciously gave to MT pro bono was among the first reporting on the issue, which Guyette would continue to pursue through a partnership between the ACLU and MT. What a stand-up guy.



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We're not afraid of billionaires

While Michigan's most wealthy tend to get the hagiography treatment from the mainstream press, MT isn't afraid to punch up. "Detroit's demigod," a 2014 cover story by Ryan Felton looking at Quicken Loans' role in the subprime mortgage crisis, freaked owner Dan Gilbert's lawyers so much that they came after us; while the story was temporarily pulled offline for review, it went back up without any major revisions. On Twitter, Gilbert has even taken a cue from buddy Donald Trump and sparred with the media, including MT. We've also taken the late Manuel "Matty" Moroun to task over issues concerning his Ambassador Bridge — and anyway, which other local outlet would have the cojones to caricature Moroun as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons?



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We go there

On the topic of daring art, we're damn proud of some of our eye-grabbing covers, including the Spirit of Detroit as "Cavity Sam" from Hasbro's Operation board game for Curt Guyette's 2014 bankruptcy autopsy "Anatomy of a takeover," and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette as a horror-film zombie in 2018.



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  • Linda Parton / Shutterstock.com

Going bankrupt

Detroit's record-setting 2013 municipal bankruptcy was foreshadowed in the pages of Metro Times. "Everything must go!" — a 2005 all-hands-on-deck effort — took a look at assets the city could possibly unload in a garage sale to help get it out of the red, including Belle Isle and even the famous Memorial to Joe Louis, aka "The Fist," which we learned was actually owned by the DIA. Indeed, as part of the bankruptcy, the city did eventually lease Belle Isle to the state under a 30-year agreement, and at one point the city's emergency manager even considered selling off items from the DIA's collection.



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Reporting behind bars

"Mystery meat," a 2015 cover story written by an anonymous writer locked up in Oakland County Jail, gave an on-the-ground report of the abysmal "meals" served up by contractor Aramark, which had recently made headlines for serving rotten, maggot-infested food. While our writer was spared from such indignities, he did report on what it's actually like to survive behind bars on Aramark's meager offerings, peppering the longform piece with inventive recipes made from commissary food. It was widely read.



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Fighting for home

Allie Gross's November 2015 article "Out from under," a sprawling 7,000-plus word story that combined video to detail one Detroit family's fight to win their house back in the Wayne County foreclosure auction, earned 2016 Best Feature Award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and was included in The Atlantic's 2015 list of "Slightly More than 100 Exceptional Works of Journalism." Gross would again combine longform writing and video in "The Throwaways," a January 2016 piece that looked at the cycle of poverty and violence faced by transgender women in Detroit.



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Standing up for the little guy

In 2010, some well-meaning Detroiters revived the legend of the Nain Rouge — a folkloric dwarf said to be a harbinger of bad fortune and believed to be traced back to the time of founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. With the new Marche du Nain Rouge parade, Detroiters would chase the little creature, and bad vibes, out of town. Thanks to the help of academics and even paranormal investigator John E.L. Tenney (of Unsolved Mysteries fame), Lee DeVito showed in a 2016 cover story "Raising Nain" that casting Nain as a demon was a misreading of the original tale, which warned that bad luck would come from offending him. Perhaps silly, but what other local outlet would dedicate a cover story to setting the record straight here?



LENI SINCLAIR
  • Leni Sinclair

Riot or rebellion?

One value of the alternative press is to challenge the mainstream media's account of history. Case in point: Detroit's bloody 1967 civil uprising, commonly called a "riot" by the mainstream, but often referred to as a "rebellion" or "uprising" in the pages of MT. We even dedicated a 50th anniversary cover story to an alternative view of the history in 2017.



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  • Violet Ikonomova

Detroit's landlord crackdown problem

An August 2018 story by Violet Ikonomova on the shortcomings of Detroit's slumlord crackdown — including concerns that it would lead to higher rents and massive displacement — proved prescient. Every one of the problems outlined presented itself, and the city eventually shelved the program.



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Clearing the air on vaping

Last year, a mysterious and deadly respiratory illness linked to vaping caused a panic; around the same time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a public health emergency over nicotine vaping, citing a rise in teen use, and Michigan became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes. It soon became apparent that the illness was linked to black-market cannabis vaping — not e-cigarettes — but many in the mainstream media continued to conflate the two issues. (We didn't, because we vape ... cannabis and nicotine.) A blog post pointing out this simple fact remains one of the top-read MT stories of all time, and Steve Neavling and Lee DeVito expanded upon it for an October 2019 cover story.



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  • Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

Awesome alumni

For many local writers, MT was the first place to give them a chance, while others were already superstars who deigned to grace us with their talents. An incomplete of some the most notable names to write for this rag include, but are not limited to, filmmaker Michael Moore, former Detroit mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., Ms. magazine editor Helen Zia, Freep columnists Nancy Kaffer and John Carlisle (aka Detroitblogger John), Elle features director Melissa Giannini, Trinosophes co-owner Rebecca Mazzei, and 1960s icon John Sinclair. Meanwhile, photographer Leni Sinclair was MT's founding art director.



TOM CARLSON
  • Tom Carlson

We are literally responsible for human lives

Thanks to the pre-dating app, alt-weekly heyday of classified ads from the '80s through the early 2000s, MT helped untold numbers of people find true love. (Or at the very least someone who shared their particular fetishes.) That means that it's no exaggeration to point out that some of you wouldn't even exist if not for MT.



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Here's to another 40... we hope!

The impact of the pandemic has hit MT particularly hard. You can support local journalism by joining our Press Club.

Special thanks to former MT staffers Ron Williams, W. Kim Heron, Michael Jackman, Larry Gabriel, Curt Guyette, Rebecca Mazzei, Brian Smith, Bill Holdship, and Herb Boyd for their help and mentorship over the years (and to those who helped choosing stories for this list), and thanks to the many people who have worked on this alt-weekly over the years. We wouldn't still be here today without you.

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