I moved to Detroit back in the summer of 2018. I’m in a fellowship called Venture for America. It places recent graduates with an entrepreneurial spirit in rising startup hubs. In this fellowship, we work at startups in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, and the like for two years. The idea is that we’ll learn what it takes to found our own companies one day while contributing to the underrepresented cities we call home.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Detroit. I was going into it pretty blind. I was, of course, aware of its perception as a ‘dangerous’ city and had heard it’s on the up and up at the same time. Since moving, I’ve found that both views of the city hold true. There are parts of the city that are still struggling with issues like crime, tax foreclosure, and blight. At the same time, parts of the city are resurging. Efforts from the scale of grassroots organizations to multi-million dollar investments are uplifting Detroit. It’s a beautiful and nuanced city and one that I’ve come to love.
The most surprising thing that I’ve found in Detroit so far, is the people. It’s the thing that I love most about the city, and something that I think makes it special. A Detroiter is a unique breed of human. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting one, allow me to introduce to you A Detroiter:
- They are a hustler. They are passionate visionaries. They couldn’t avoid their audacious ideas if they tried.
- They are strong and resilient. They will always persevere the challenges that come their way.
- They are kind and generous. They will lift their communities up and always lend a helping hand.
- Someone who is from Detroit, or lives in Detroit. This part is more debated, the question of a native versus transplant Detroiter.
- Someone with love and respect for the city. Someone who takes the time to appreciate and accept the nuances of the city.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several Detroiters and speak to them during my year or so living in the city. Here are a few of my favorites.
I met the reverend when I was surveying an abandoned house on the city’s eastside. He greeted me and my coworker by telling us we were wearing the right color. Having recently moved from the west coast, I — wearing a red shirt — immediately panicked about gangs. My boss later assured me that “this isn’t California” and the reverend launched into a detailed description of all the car accidents that had happened on his street. He was talking about our high visibility construction vests.
The reverend described his long history with Detroit. He talked about how he became a maestro of music. When he watched arts programs get cut from local high schools, he stepped up. He started teaching kids how to play music and even donated his own recording equipment to let them record their own songs. He talked about his local church and pointed to it just down the street. He still plays there on Sundays and helps when he can. Now he spends his days relaxing at his home on East Warren Ave and playing music. I could imagine he makes the perfect grandpa.
Detroit Dagwood is perhaps one of the most interesting Detroiters I met during my time surveying abandoned houses. We were looking at the one next to his own house when he came outside to say hi. People were generally happy when they found out the blight next to them was slated for demolition. Dagwood was no exception. He had lived in the city for most of his life and had been in this neighborhood since the ’70s. He watched the city go through so much change and told us about it. Perhaps in too much detail.
Dagwood called himself Dan, although it’s worth noting he was wearing a mechanic’s shirt that said “Matt” on it the entire time we spoke. He was a bit of an enigma. The nickname Dagwood came from his biker days. Why? Because when no one would do it, Dag would. Before his knee surgery, he used to ride all over the city and had the best bike. He said it would carry him home each night, as he cruised Eight Mile Road. We went our separate ways, but he still stands out in my mind.
I’ve never been to a chiropractor for myself but accompanied a friend to an appointment once. It ended up being a spiritual experience in itself. Dr. Anderson runs a practice on Eight Mile Road, just on the city’s eastside. I would recommend her to anyone as a chiropractor and a wealth of wisdom. I’ve never felt more welcome at a doctor’s office. Within minutes she was sharing her journey and relationship with the city. By the end of the visit, we were uplifted by her spirit. She told us to call anytime, whether or not it was related to our backs.
She — and everyone else I’ve met — embodied what Detroiters are. Often deeply spiritual and wise, they are an archetype that doesn’t exist anywhere. In my year living in Detroit, I’ve experienced the generosity of its people countless times. I’ve heard the wisdom and power of its residents each day. I constantly draw inspiration from it, and I’m grateful to the city’s people.
The ruling is still out on whether or not I consider myself a Detroiter. I hope that one day I will show this city the same kindness and generosity that it has shown me.