How to Be a Detroiter
A 12-step guide for newcomers, ruin-porn lovers, and everyone else.
Being a Detroiter is not for everybody. That is, anyone can do it, but very few actually want to. Being a Detroiter is about much more than being in Detroit; in fact, the vast majority of Detroiters don’t actually live in Detroit — some moved to real cities, while others simply passed away. Besides, Detroiters aren’t all hung up on things like zip codes, area codes, city limits, and what is and what isn’t a suburb. So whether you’ve just moved in to your fancy new Cass Corridor (Woodward Square to you newbies) condo, or you just want to champion the city from afar, this guide is for you.
You could say being a Detroiter is a state of mind, only no Detroiter would ever say anything so pretentious (that’s way more L.A.). Also, Detroit happens to be a very real place, a place every real Detroiter loves with all their heart and soul, regardless of where they currently reside.
There’s an old saying that the best way to see Detroit is from across the Detroit River in Windsor. The provincial Canadian city due south of Motown (a geographical anomaly of which all true Detroiters are aware) does afford the most striking view of Detroit’s skyline (it’s more of a sky few-dashes-and-a-dot than a skyline, really), but that aphorism also happens to serve as metaphor for one of Detroit’s absolute best features; it’s possible to love it from afar.
Here then, is everything you need to know, say, and do if you want to join the legion of current and former Oakland, Monroe, Washtenaw, Macomb, and Wayne County residents who go around calling themselves Detroiters.
1 Don’t forget the “Motor City”
Even though it’s been nearly a century since more than one auto company had its headquarters there, Detroit is still known as the Motor City. Sure, it’s a sobriquet that’s more befitting Mexico City or Tokyo, if you want to go by where things with motors are actually made, but real Detroiters take pride in the factory-worker heritage that they share with someone in their family, probably, on their mother’s side … they think. It may not even be the memory of a reality, but working-class Detroit is a powerful image; one that evokes visions of grit, toil, and solidarity, while ignoring all the exploitation, economic hardship, and racial prejudice that were the predominant experiences of many actually living in the city of Detroit during its pre-and post-war heydays.
2 Pretend to love Motown
Sure, every nincompoop with a Netflix subscription has seen The Big Chill — that mawkish ode to nostalgia that turned the world on to the music of Motown, but being a Detroiter means being familiar with more than just the first five songs on the Motown Gold CD. For instance, there are the last 13 songs. Knowing those will even convince me you’re from Detroit.
3 Always buy “American”
Hometown brands are vital to any true Detroiter’s experience. All real Detroiters know about Stroh’s, Cadillac, Motown, Hudsons, Farmer Jack, Sanders, Faygo, and Little Caesars — all great brands, some of which actually still exist in the city.
As a Detroiter, union pride is something you’re going to have to pay lip service to (don’t worry, there are no dues). There haven’t actually been strong unions in Detroit since shortly after Jimmy Hoffa left the Machus Red Fox that day in 1975 and just … went away, but Detroiters like to wear t-shirts bearing the image of the union label, even though the actual labels on those shirts say “Made in China.”
But worry not, just as city residence is not a prerequisite for Detroiter status, doing actual labor isn’t necessary for adopting a working-class attitude. It’s mostly about the chain wallet and the cheap beer, to be honest.
4 Ack-centuate the negative
The American accent has many extremely annoying sub-accents. As bad as the Boston twang, the Long Island drawl, and the Yinzer whatever-you-call that-noise may be, they ain’t got nothing on the intensely nasal, heavily Norse-influenced Midwest accent. Don’t worry about learning to do it properly, though — there is no proper way, probably because no linguist could stand to listen to it long enough to fully document it.
Oh yes, and despite its proximity to neither the west nor the middle states, Detroit is part of the Midwest. It’s a Midwestern city (“rustbelt” is another term that still gets used, even though it might as well have come from rune stones for how long ago it was when the steel industry was strong), thus the Midwestern accent.
Detroit also happens to be solidly in the Eastern time zone (knowing this single fact may peg you as a true Detroiter more quickly than any other), something that people on the Eastern seaboard will always refuse to believe no matter how many times you explain it to them.
5 Forget any French you’ve ever learned
Very few people know that the name Detroit derives from a French word meaning “I don’t know how to speak French.” It doesn’t really, it actually translates as “the straight,” but not knowing French is crucial to being a Detroiter. Detroiters say “grash-et” when they see Gratiot, “sharla-voy” when they see Charlevoix, and “liver-noise” when they see Livernois. Even the city name is never pronounced “day-twa,” as it should be; that would sound … you know … French.
6 Learn the art of the spin
As an ambassador for the City of Detroit (and let’s face it, that’s what all Detroiters are — we’re the “now wait a minute, it’s not THAT bad” folks at every party), it’s important that you always frame the current situation in Detroit in the most favorable, or indeed the most charitable, manner possible.
“It’s coming back” should be tattooed on your tongue so you wouldn’t have to actually say the words so goddamn many times when discussing the one-time “murder capital” of America.
The perpetual resurgence of Detroit is so deeply woven into the fiber of the city’s battered soul that it’s actually referenced in the city motto. “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus” is what it says on the Great Seal of the City of Detroit. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Those words were written by French priest Gabriel Richard in 1805, after the fire that devastated the city 66 years before Chicago had its much more popular one.
Beleaguered though the city has been so many times during its history, it has always tried to hold its own against the heaviest of heavy hitters; Paris, London, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, etc. As a Detroiter, you must always speak of Detroit in terms of the status it held briefly at the turn of the 20th Century as one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. Nevermind that its population is now smaller than those of Columbus, Ohio, Jacksonville, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina; Detroit is still a big city, at least in the imaginary Detroit of every real Detroiter’s dreams.
7 No New York: Coney Islands are a Detroit thing … no, really
Every city has its signature food. Cincinnati has its chili, New York has its pizza, Chicago has what it unironically refers to as pizza, Philadelphia has its hoagies, and Detroit … well it never really had anything, so it just went ahead and took the very-obviously-New-York-imported Coney Island as its signature dining experience.
For those not from either here or the New York tristate area, it’s a chili dog with onions. I know, right? And we didn’t even come up with our own name, like Detroit Dog, or Motor Weiner. Oh well, as I’m sure you, a true Detroiter, have learned by now, being a Detroiter means never having to say you’re disappointed when clearly you must be. I mean, honestly.
8 I was there, and other tall tales
It was said of the great actor Peter Sellers that he was so incredibly well-versed in the various accents of England that if an Englishman spoke to him for two minutes he could tell them what street they grew up on, and be accurate within a few blocks. As a Detroiter, I can pinpoint another Detroiter’s generational cohort simply by which subcultural era they constantly long for. “I saw the Pumpkins at 89X Fest,” you say? How’s middle age treating you? “I saw Black Flag at the Freezer”? Ah, the mating call of the newly divorced 50-year-old. If you hear “I was in a band with an Asheton,” you had better indicate how impressed you are loudly, because hearing aid batteries are a pain in the ass to replace, and old-timers are quick to forget.
9 If you can make it here, you can barely scrape by anywhere
Detroit is a city perfectly positioned to embrace the workers of the new economy; everything is really, really cheap, at least compared to comparable cities … you know, like New York, London, Paris, New Orleans, etc. So even though the million-dollar startup you’re working at pays you enough to afford that swanky Cass Corridor, er Woodward Square loft, in those other cities you’d be barely making payments on your basement apartment twenty-nine train stops from downtown.
10 I don’t care what it says on the sign; it’s called Tiger Stadium
If the words “Comerica Park” are ever spoken within the hearing of a Detroiter, their natural response would be to say, “You need to know where to park at the bank?”
You see, there is one baseball team in Detroit; the Detroit Tigers. They have a home stadium, right next to Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play. That stadium is called Tiger Stadium, and only Tiger Stadium. Call it anything else and you might as well wear a sign that says “From Saginaw.”
11 “Fuck this place” is all part of how you learn to love
Hating Detroit isn’t something non-Detroiters are allowed to do, but hating Detroit is something every Detroiter has done at one time or another. Maybe it’s the garbage everywhere, maybe it’s the tragic, hopeless decay of thousands of hectares of formerly populated land literally going to seed, or maybe it’s just the fact that the Auto Show is in town and you’re completely fucked for parking. Whatever it is, hating Detroit to the point of cursing it loudly while maybe throwing something heavy at the ground as if it could inflict pain on the cement is as central to the experience of loving Detroit as holding your breath while you drive past the incinerator.
If you’re like most Detroiters, there will eventually come a day when you will say “fuck this place” for the very last time, and you’ll actually pull up roots and move yourself along. That’s okay, you see, because real Detroiters aren’t born, they’re made. So just like with being an artist or a poet or a Red Wings fan, all you need to do is say “I’m a Detroiter” and voila! You’re a Detroiter.
12 Detroit really is a state of mind; just don’t ever say it out loud
I was born in a hospital in Royal Oak, a suburb three miles north of the Detroit city limits. I grew up in Southfield, a massive sprawling suburb to Detroit’s immediate northwest. At various times I lived in the suburban towns of Royal Oak and Ferndale. I lived for many years in Hamtramck, an independent city completely surrounded on all sides by Detroit (“inurb” is the proper term), and then I moved to Chicago. I never lived in the city of Detroit. I am a Detroiter.
The thing about Detroit is, for all its faults — and there are many — and for all the things it lacks — public transportation, economic and racial diversity, quality public education, grocery stores, movie theaters — Detroit has something no other city on Earth has; the reputation for having been a world-class city once upon a time, long before your parents were born.
And the other thing about Detroit that every Detroiter knows, deep down in the coldest recesses of their souls is this; no matter where you go or what you do, Detroit will always be here for you … waiting.