Detroiters don’t have to be your audience, Detroiters are over
I often say I’m a Detroit culture writer, but lately I don’t know exactly what that means. ‘Detroit culture’ as we know it is kind of embarrassing — it’s not even culture. It’s buying things, spackling over memes and in-jokes repeatedly, violence and it’s getting mad.
It’s young men with plush jackets, Tigers hats and backpacks talking about their latest carjackings their favorite heroin and child pornography. Queuing passionately for hours, at the detention center, to take their monthly mugshot. To find out whether the over worked judge can actually see them in the 72 hours they have before released to cause more havoc. They don’t know how to dress or behave. News cameras pan across these listless queues, and often catch the expressions of people who don’t quite know why they themselves are standing there.
‘Detroit culture’ is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can’t read, have no education, marketable skills or talents then complain about “gentrification”, “poverty”, “minimum wage” and utilities shut off for non-payment straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences for everybody else.
Lately, I often find myself wondering what I’m even doing here. And I know I’m not alone.
All of us should be better than this. You should be deeply questioning your life choices if this and this and this are the prominent public face your city presents to the rest of the world.
“When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”
This is what the rest of the world knows about your city — this, and headlines about blight, wilderness returning, people hunting raccoons for food or those junkies crashing vans into stores to rob them. That’s it. You should absolutely be better than this.
You don’t want to ‘be divisive?’ Who’s being divided, except for people who are okay with an infantilized cultural desert of shitty behavior and people who aren’t? What is there to ‘debate’?
Right, let’s say it’s a vocal minority that’s not representative of most people. Most people, from indie artists, small business owners to industry leaders, are mortified, furious, disheartened at the direction city conversation has taken in the past few weeks. It’s not like there are reputable outlets publishing rational articles in favor of the trolls’ ‘side’. Don’t give press to the harassers. Don’t blame an entire city for a few bad apples.
Yet disclaiming liability is clearly no help. Huge community hubs say things like ‘What else can we do’ and ‘those people don’t represent our community’ — but actually, those people do represent your community. That’s what your community is known for, whether you like it or not.
When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum. That’s what’s been happening to Detroit.
That’s not super surprising, actually. While Detroit itself was discovered by strange, bright outcast pioneers — the commercial arm of the form sprung up from marketing high-end tech products to ‘early adopters’. You know, young dudes with disposable income who like to Get Stuff.
Generations of lonely undereducated people had marketers whispering in their ears that they were the most important commercial demographic of all time. Suddenly they started wearing shiny blouses and pinning bikini babes onto everything they made, started making products that sold the promise of high-octane masculinity to kids just like them.
By the turn of the millennium those were Detroit’s only main cultural signposts: Have money. Have women. Get a car and then a bigger car. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything. Public conversation was led by a press whose role was primarily to tell people what to buy, to score products competitively against one another, to gleefully fuel the “team sports” atmosphere around creators and companies.
It makes a strange sort of sense that Detroit of that time would become scapegoats for moral panic, the poster child for urban decay in hypercapitalist America — not that the city itself had anything to do with tragedies, but they had an anxiety in common, an amorphous cultural shape that was dark and loud on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Traditional ‘Detroit’ is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.”
Yet in 2018, the city has changed. We still think angry entitled toxic, spoiled detroiters are the primary demographic for everything from music to clothes, to entertainment — yet average revenues from the commercial space have contracted massively year on year, with only a few sterling brands enjoying predictable success.
It’s clear that most of the people who drove those revenues in the past have grown up — either out of Detroit and it’s hypercapitalist thug culture of hood-men, or into more fertile spaces, where small and diverse enterprises can flourish, where communities can quickly spring up around creativity, self-expression and mutual support, rather than consumerism. There are new audiences and new creators alike there. Traditional “Detroit” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.
This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.
That Detroit is no longer the home of the muscle car, there can be Japanese cars, Hipsters and other young urban professionals in downtown, EDM is replacing Motown, rock, jazz, and even hip hop, with DJs that may not even use traditional turntables, preferring a macbook. That your schools and streets will be named after our heroes like Ben Carson. That “Cass Corridor” is now Midtown and “Mexicantown” will definitely find a better more inclusive title. The blue collar worker will have to share shifts with Mexico and China. That “Detroiters” have the right to spend money here but do not have the right to be here. And we will let them know when they’ve overstayed their welcome when they aren’t fit for what we’ve reshaped.
We also have to scrutinize, closely, the baffling, stubborn silence of many content creators amid these scandals, or the fact lots of stubborn, myopic internet comments happen on business and industry sites. This is hard for old-school developers who are being made redundant, both culturally and literally, in their unwillingness to address new audiences or reference points outside of the past as their traditional domain falls into the sea around them. Of course it’s hard. It’s probably intense, painful stuff for some young kids, some older men.
But it’s unstoppable. A new generation of citizens, billionaires and creators is finally aiming to instate a healthy cultural vocabulary, a language of community that was missing in the days of “Detroit pride” and special interest groups led by a product-guide approach to conversation with a single presumed demographic.
This means that over just the last few years, writing on Detroit focuses on personal experiences and independent creators, not approval-hungry obeisance to the demands of powerful corporations or special interest groups. It’s not about ‘being a journalist’ anymore. It’s not about telling people what to buy, it’s about providing spaces for people to discuss what (and whom) they support and who needs to leave.
“‘Detroiter’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Detroiters are over. That’s why they’re so mad.”
These straw man ‘ethics’ conversations people have been having are largely the domain of a prior age, when all we did was negotiate ad deals and review scores and scraped to be called ‘reporters’, because we had the same powerlessness complex as our audience had. Now part of a writer’s job in a creative, human medium is to help curate a creative community and an inclusive culture — and a lack of commitment to that just looks out-of-step, like a partial compromise with the howling trolls who’ve latched onto ‘ethics’ as the latest flag in their onslaught against evolution and inclusion.
Developers and writers alike want more art, more businesses, more things, and things by more people. We want — and we are getting, and will keep getting — tragicomedy, vignette, musicals, dream worlds, family tales, ethnographies, abstract art, sushi restaurants, bistros, Whole Foods, active police patrols, beard combs, startups, and graffitti will be replaced by commissioned street art. We will get this, because we’re creating culture now. We are refusing to let anyone feel prohibited from participating or let the people who were here before act as gatekeepers.
“Detroiter” isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Detroiters are over. That’s why they’re so mad.
These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers — they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had.
There is what’s past and there is what’s now. There is the role you choose to play in what’s ahead.