How To Explain Living In A Bankrupt City

Do you have a bunch of questions about Detroit that you were too afraid to ask? It's fine, we'll always try to answer them in the best way we know how.

If you're from Detroit and you tell people you're from Detroit, this might have happened to you in the last two months: You get a pause, a brief stare and a "what's it like?" in a low voice.

I get it. A lot. I get it from people who live just across the Eight Mile border and I get it from people in other parts of the country. I don't mind answering "what it's like" at all, but lately I do find myself wondering if I always say the right thing.

I travel a fair amount for my day job and a recent trip took me to sunny California, where I happened to meet a bunch of great colleagues (including a hot and heavy moment in the backseat of a Lotus Evora with Autoweek's Blake Z. Rong, and by "hot and heavy" I actually mean impossibly cramped and hopeful of warding off a severe spinal cord injury). Naturally, the Detroit conversation came up quite a few times over the course of the trip.

Honestly, I get nervous talking about Detroit. For one, you're asked to provide a lot of information off the top of your head. I'm a Detroitophile, I know a bit. But in casual conversation, you have to be brief, be informative and be authoritative.

But even then, I'm human. When someone asks me "what it's like," I usually take a deep sigh and start with an exasperated "well..." Because living in a broken city that's also your hometown takes a lot of patience and compromise.

So here are the questions I get the most. This is usually how the conversation goes. It's lots of anecdotal observation mixed with hard facts, but it's also my own vantage point. It's not meant to convey how everyone in Detroit feels; we're not a monolith. But I wouldn't be surprised if other people say the same.

What's it like to live in Detroit?

It's not bad. Really. Things could always be better...

Is the city going to come back? and/or But the city's coming back, right?

It'll come back, but I'm not sure it'll come back in my lifetime. But then again, let's define "comeback." Does comeback mean 2 million people have to live here again? I think 700,000 is quite enough. I can never say I live in a small town, y'know? Does comeback mean a comeback of the Big Three? I think that's been established for a while, but things haven't really changed in the city all that much. Really, I'm not necessarily rooting for a "comeback." I'm just trying to make my way here, y'know?

Do you live in downtown/"the Midtown?"

(I get this every single time.) No.

So where in Detroit?

The west side. Four fingers up, two twisted in the middle.

Why not downtown/"the Midtown?"

We're dog owners, so we needed a backyard. We'd also like to own a house without having to sell our bodily organs for our mortgage. A garage is a must. And besides, Detroit is 139 square miles. The world doesn't revolve around Midtown. And not every guy under 30 wants a loft with exposed brick walls and shit. Sometimes you just want a roof over your head and a place to plant some daylilies. Detroit has plenty of neighborhoods that offer just that.

So you live in the real Detroit, then.

"Real Detroit" (picture my air-quotes and a slightly irritable inflection in my voice) is a weekly alt-mag published in the suburbs that we can't make fun of anymore since they don't fire their editors for talking to the press about the future of their publication. Midtown is the real Detroit just as much as Delray just as much as Warrendale just as much as Indian Village.

Wait, there's an Indian Village?

Well unless the people at LOVELAND want to call it North West Village Shores or some other fresh-outta-Brooklyn-hipster nomenclature then, yeah. That name's not going to change anytime soon.

But how do you deal with the (insert any city dysfunction here)? Wouldn't it just be easier to move?

*sigh*

I don't know a single Detroiter who hasn't talked about moving. I think about it every day. Stay or go? My emotions change when I (reluctantly) watch TV news. New big-box chain opens store within city borders! "I'm so glad I can say I'm part of the city's revival." Evil bus driver backhands a confused new resident! "Maybe we should move to Grosse Pointe; the police there aren't doing DWBs like they used to."

Even places like Chicago, a temptation for anyone who has grown up in the Midwest, stays on my radar. I don't know, man. I'm good for now, but anything can happen. Life, amirite? But when I hear about x amount of people being shot in Detroit over a period of time, could I really move to Chicago and hear the exact same thing?

All I know is that my trash gets picked up on time, the city's tearing down houses little by little and it seems like there's always a new restaurant or something opening. I'd say life, for me, at least, is regular 90% of the time.

I was in Detroit for (some auto industry thing/some sports thing/a wedding) and there was literally no one downtown. Is this a ghost town or what? and/or I read that Rembert Browne piece in Grantland and he didn't seem like he had a good time. What's the deal?

Did you not go inside a bar? We like our drinks and we preferably like them with good company. Speaking of good company, everyone here is six degrees away from each other, but we're also pretty insular about who we hang with. Seems to be the thing in your 20s and 30s for everyone. That might mean if you came here from out of town instantly expecting to make a bunch of friends, it didn't happen because we were all at a house party or some bar you've never heard of talking to people we just saw a week ago. Or we were in Ferndale.

That said, Rembert Browne unfortunately came on a relatively dead, sports-light weekend. It's too bad he missed Motor City Pride, the Detroit Jazz Festival, Movement or anything else that would've been going on at Hart Plaza when he stopped by. But on the other hand, every big city has a pride fest, every big city with a black population is likely to have some kind of big jazz thing. Like I said, we're a pretty normal city when it comes to things to do, I guess.

Is it true that police take a billion hours to show up? and/or What's the crime like?

(I answer both these questions with two unlinked stories.)

Next door to me was an older gentleman who was dating a younger woman who was a recovering crack addict. The older man died and the family no longer wanted the woman around anymore. Knowing this woman is a recovering addict, I don't have to put two and two together what happened next. I didn't see her as much around the neighborhood anymore, until one night around four in the morning she came knocking at my door, bloodied and beaten. She said a man down the street beat her up, but I already knew in the back of my head what had likely happened: Deal gone south. I called the police four times before they finally showed up as the sun rose.

Last week, there was a car accident at the intersection near my house. There's not a stop sign for the side street, and high bushes on people's yards make for difficult visibility, so there's a fender-bender here every three months. In the past when the police were called, they'd take hours to show up. When I called to report last week's accident, they showed up in ten minutes with one of the new squad cars.

I say those to say two things: Police response time, solely based on my own anecdotal information, is improving. I DO NOT KNOW IF IT IS IMPROVING CITYWIDE so if Motor City Muckraker or somebody has some crazy story tomorrow about someone walking to the hospital with half his foot cut off or some shit because the police didn't show up in time, then maybe times aren't improving. My inner optimist will always think otherwise.

But the other thing is, I think crime and other violent events often — not all the time — happen between familiar acquaintances and to people who put themselves in harm's way willingly. Is there random crime? Unfortunately, yes. There will be crime as long as there is earthly human interaction. Is crime bad in Detroit? Yes, and part of me has learned to live with it and part of me is mad as hell that it has to be this way. Usually I just keep my wits about me in unsure situations, make sure I engage my security system — something every house everywhere should have — at night and be extra careful about who I associate with.

How can you minimize crime? Maybe start by not leaving your thousand-dollar Nikon on the front seat of your car anywhere in America. Did you ever read your college paper? How many iPods were stolen from libraries and unlocked cars on your campus? I'd like to think that in a perfect world, you could leave a thousand-dollar Nikon on your front seat. But don't get robbed in Detroit and then go rant about how Detroit is a shithole because you lack common sense.

Will I get robbed, raped and beaten within an inch of my life for driving a foreign car?

No. While us Detroiters love our big American sedans like the Dodge Charger, the Chevrolet Impala (fleet units have suffocated the used market, so it will never die here) and the Buick Lacrosse, several factors have made it "okay" to drive import.

The economic crisis has turned a lot of buyers subprime, which means they'll probably have better chances with an auto maker that deals in subprime buyers (looking at you, Mitsubishi) or end up in a used Corolla or Accord. Conversely, the middle class has always viewed German and Asian imports as aspirational, so you'll see a ton of Merc SUVs (because winter), Acuras and Lexuses (Lexii?) in driveways around here.

And yeah, the Aztek. Because GM employees, retirees and family members, and their purchases which cycle in and out of the used market.

Are hipsters bad for Detroit?

No. Bratty johnny-come-latelys with unchecked white privilege are bad for Detroit.

But the black population...

Nope, stop. Can't speak for all black people just because I'm black. I can tell you what I think, but everyone here thinks differently about different things when it comes to race relations in Detroit.

I can tell you this, though: A white family moved onto my street last year. They are the only white family on the street. They, like me, needed a place to live and not necessarily granite countertops. They have kids and a dog. Their oldest kids go to the same high school I went to, and their younger kids play with all the black kids in the neighborhood. The wife of the household converses with the other women in the neighborhood like "Desperate Housewives" and the husband drinks beer on his porch while keeping an eye on the kids. Sounds pretty normal, wouldn't you say?

How To Explain Living In A Bankrupt CityI saw "8 Mile" and...

Goddammit, don't ask me about "8 Mile." Go to Google Street View and look how long that street is. If you've got the time, turn down each individual street along the route and see the differences in neighborhoods.

I heard that...

Anything you heard is likely 99.9% false.

Are they gonna sell the art?

I don't know! But since the News and Freep write a dozen stories asking "are they gonna sell the art?" every week you'd think so. I think local reporters bug the DIA staff more than Christie's and Kevyn Orr combined.

So what's the one thing Detroit needs?

I don't know that, either. Look, all I know is this: I'm doing fine. A lot of things were in place before the bankruptcy filing. A search for a new police chief was well under way. There's always something new opening downtown. Almost every time a house goes for sale in my neighborhood, someone buys it. All the time on Facebook, I see people that I knew from high school doing things like getting new jobs at Quicken Loans, always at Quicken Loans, does everyone in Detroit work at Quicken Loans now?, buying a Chrysler 200 or celebrating a new and bigger apartment.

Some of the things on Torchinsky's chart haven't happened, and I'm not sure if they'll happen. City services cut? I mean, they've been cut to the bone for some time now. Things are operating today just as they were two months ago. But on the upside, emergency management has promised (I know, I know, it's just a promise) that city services would be fully restored, even during the bankruptcy. The biggest worry seems to be is what exactly will happen to the pensioners.

I would love if Detroit got its schools together. For every parent I see happy about their kid making it to Cass or Renaissance, I think about the hundreds of parents who are rolling the dice hoping for the best outcome at Denby or Mumford. If that's the one thing Detroit "needs," then that would be my best guess.

But I don't know. Two months ago, I said Detroit was going to be just fine. I still think that. I guess when I meant "just fine," I didn't mean it in the Mary J. Blige way, but in the "well, life goes on" way. Life is going on in bankrupt Detroit. I don't know how else to explain it.

[Photo via AP]