Detroit confessional

I've been a Detroiter for all of four months. I moved here from Phoenix, which denizens of Detroit view as Shangri-la. Trust me, it ain’t. The highlight of living in Phoenix was the opportunity to marvel at cultural vacuity. Haute couture is a swap meet. The conventional wisdom — possibly apocryphal — is that this maw of urbanization gobbles up desert at the rate of an acre an hour.

Some Arizonans swell with boomtown pride at the sight of another exclusive golf course, another gated subdivision of tract homes on steroids. Or another faceless strip mall.

The merciless sun, you see, poaches brain cells. Sunspots disrupt synapses. Last summer, in the clutches of 116-degree heat, Phoenicians by the score stood outside Bank One Ballpark all day to get bobble-head dolls. Dozens were treated for exposure and dehydration.

When people discover I moved to Detroit from Phoenix, they look at me as though I’m crazy. I had opportunities in Boston and California. But Detroit, in all its storied mayhem, cast a powerful spell.

Detroit is Motown, baby. By comparison, Phoenix is Morontown.

The more friends creased their brows and advised me against Detroit, the more determined I became to move here. Perhaps I’m counterintuitive. Perhaps my years have taught me that conventional wisdom is neither wise nor conventional.

But whoever said that familiarity breeds contempt wasn’t far off. Too many Detroiters have lost sight of the glory that surrounds them.

Locals may be surprised to discover that there are those of us — including Sun Belt survivors — who consider Detroit the pinnacle of urban living. The lifestyle is singular and utterly without pretense.

There’s a palpable energy here, creative and defiant. A life force produced by people living abundantly.

Detroit has a rich history and vastly underrated culture. It’s a big secret for much of the land, and I feel privileged to be in on the secret.

I tend to back underdogs, anyway — especially when the purported also-ran is really a big but loyal beast that nobody dares trifle with.

Sure, Detroit is dysfunctional — hilariously so — but its problems become trivial when I walk down Monroe Street on a brisk night, hearing mandolin strains echo off the facades, smelling the waft of spiced lamb, seeing people of every race and creed milling peacefully about.

This city reminds me of a lyric in the Sarah McLachlan song “Building A Mystery.” She croons of a “beautiful, fucked-up man.”

Yet the pride is innate. A friend I’ve made here notes that Detroiters and New Yorkers alone clench their fists when proclaiming their hometowns.

What’s not to like about big bands at Cadieux Café or Baker’s? Or seeing Bob Dylan levitate a throng at Cobo, which boasts the best acoustics of any indoor arena I’ve experienced? Or Herbie Hancock at Orchestra Hall? B.B. King at the Fox? Or Jack White gnashing on his guitar at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in a room decorated by a cat named Diego Rivera?

The music in this city — from Johnnie Bassett to the Lanternjack — is unparalleled, genuine and admired by aficionados around the globe.

It’s amazing to sit in a club or restaurant as musicians saunter in, casually set up and proceed to sear the paint off the walls — provided the walls have paint.

Detroiters know and appreciate their music, their art, their sports, which is why so many impressive venues coexist and prosper.

Enlightened beings around the world extol the virtues of Detroit, if only because the sublime shines through the squalor.

The view from my living room of the Ambassador Bridge lights reflected off the seemingly benign Detroit River is a nightly revelation.

My neck aches from craning to behold block upon block of faded but fabulous edifices. The old Michigan Central Station is a gem, a poignant metaphor for outlandish dreams and civic frailty. Long may it stand.

Vehicular anarchy rules the road. Traffic laws are optional. I love Michigan lefts. Yet when the traffic lights go dark, as they frequently do, nobody gets road rage. Detroiters just roll their eyes and downshift. (Meanwhile, automakers should consider using I-94 as a test track for off-road vehicles. John Engler himself should be made to hoist a shovel to fix this insult of a freeway.)

My car stereo got jacked, and I might not replace it. The wires dangling from my dashboard deter the larcenous and remind me where I live. Petty crime is like the city income tax — it sucks, but it’s part of the price you pay for living in Detroit. I grin and bear it and pay an insurance premium that rivals my car payment.

I also smile when I venture north. The farther I go, the smoother and more landscaped the streets and the more virulent the Detroitophobia. I met a guy from Bloomfield Hills who hadn’t been downtown for 10 years. I got the impression he expected me to mug him.

I dig the fact that Lions fans paid to see them when they were 0-12. And that, in spite of their futility, nobody in the NFL wanted to play them by season’s end. I dig the Wings, Tigers and Pistons. Jerry Stackhouse and Ben Wallace, by the way, are all-stars. Like so much else regarding Detroit, they don’t get the respect they deserve — except from Detroiters.

I dig the fact that Kid Rock didn’t move to Hollywood — he made Pamela Anderson move here.

I dig a place where I can be racially profiled: People skeptically size me up, peg me for an interloper. I dig the People Mover.

Urban decay invigorates crazy people like me. The detritus of people living together is uplifting and heartbreaking. In the world of organisms, decay provides nutrients and replenishes the soil. Detroit is a similarly fertile place, ripe with possibility. We are on the cusp of a renaissance.

Yet I don’t listen for long when people yearn for Detroit to reclaim its grandeur.

Motown never stopped being great.

Jeremy Voas is editor of Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.