I recently attended a work-related event in Plymouth, a charming and quaint little burg located about halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor. The event consisted of a dozen or so upper-middle-class white women meeting for tea and to discuss a chosen topic, “preservation”. I was contacted by the group’s leader and invited to share product samples and talk a little about my business. Others read poems, shared family stories or talked about their work restoring old homes. It was a nice event, if not really my thing, and the women were very sweet and friendly and supportive. But when I invited them to visit my place of business, I was taken aback and dismayed by how many of them replied sweetly, “Oh, I don’t drive into the city…” as if that were a totally normal excuse.
Wait, what?! These women seemed educated, and while “cosmopolitan” might be a stretch, they certainly weren’t the MAGA red-hat-wearers that I typically associate with fear of the city (Macomb county, I’m looking at you). The one who restores old homes was dressed very stylishly, in striped wide-legged pants, a turtleneck and a cool vintage beaded necklace. She looked like she could have been a board member (or major donor) at the DIA. Another was around my age and was also an entrepreneur in the same sector as me. To her credit, she actually did come visit and meet with me to talk business, but was perceptibly on edge about the drive, almost canceling at the last minute because of a light snow.
I really wish I had responded to them with, “Oh, really? Why is that?” I think some of them were literally just scared of driving in “big city traffic”, but obviously that wasn’t the whole story. I’m kicking myself for the missed opportunity to enlighten people that Detroit (especially any of the parts these women would set foot) isn’t some scary lawless place where criminals roam the streets with assault rifles waiting to rob, carjack or shoot any visitor (read: white person). Not to sound naive, but I honestly thought those anarchic, post-apocalyptic stereotypes were limited to certain subsets of Macomb and far Oakland counties (and others from farther afield who have never been here and don’t read anything about what’s actually going on.) It was pretty depressing to realize just how far we still have to go with the city’s public image when “educated” people who don’t even live 15 miles from the city limits are scared to come here.
Of course many of my fellow Detroiters would say, great, we don’t want those people here anyway. And while I personally wouldn’t mourn not having to share space with sheltered bougie suburbanites, the reality is that bodies equal dollars, and Detroit can use all the dollars it can get. I can hear the argument already–that those visitors would only spend money at businesses in downtown and Midtown, not the neighborhoods. That may be the case, but if some of that money is then used to pay the wages and salaries of residents, who may in turn spend money locally in their neighborhoods, I still think it would be a net positive. The more the narrative changes (i.e. “I went to Detroit and visited all these cool places and there were people of diverse backgrounds all hanging out and I didn’t get shot…”), the better for everyone, and we can continue to dispel the ugly clichés of the sort you see in the comments section of any article in the Free Press.
I realized the other day that this summer will mark 20 years since I moved here. As someone who has the ability to move amongst and relate to people from many different socioeconomic strata (I grew up in a suburban area and have a college degree, but I am also a low-income city-dweller), I have an opportunity to exert positive influence when I encounter skeptics or outright critics. Next time someone tells me they don’t come to the city as a rule, I’m going to do better to tease out of them exactly why not, and to give them a different perspective.