Detroit: Less “Heart of Darkness” more “Things Fall Apart”


I’m not from here. “Here” being Detroit. I’m originally from a small farming community in northern-lower Michigan just south of Traverse City. It seems important to note this detail for two reasons. First, I am not possessed with the ardent hometown pride of the born-and-raised Detroiter—a pride that is second to no one, I might add—and this status as foreigner hopefully contributes to my objectivity. Second, my northern roots are important to note in the greater context of this post’s reference to the classic novella “Heart of Darkness” and novel “Things Fall Apart,” as it is my upbringing, and the myth of Detroit, that I most want to dispel in light of these two works of literature.

In many ways, when I first moved to the city in 2005, I felt like Charles Marlow, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness.” I wasn’t particularly thrilled about my assignment. I was on edge, deeply guarded, and afraid of the ugliness I was certain to encounter.

My perception of Detroit, formed long before my wife and I moved into our apartment on Jefferson Avenue, reflected the dominant thinking of my upbringing. Detroit, I was told, was a dangerous, forsaken place. It was a dark city. A place overrun with criminal African Americans—a group easily demonized in our nearly all-white community—who were all drug dealers and violent gang members. The news, it seemed, was always bad when it involved the D. Before becoming a resident of Detroit in 2005, I’d been to the city just once when I was nine years old. Our state’s largest city—one of our nation’s most celebrated metropolises—and I’d only seen it once before the age of 24. Distance played a role in this (my childhood home is four hours north of the city), but so did Detroit’s reputation.

By the time I moved to the city I was, as Chimamanda Adichie discusses in her TED Talk, possessed by a single story. All I knew of Detroit were its woes. Violence and fires and corruption—these were the underpinnings of my Detroit story. And for much of our country these elements remain the entire story.

Obviously, there were legitimate fears that kept many people at bay. Detroit has a well documented history from its boom to its burning, and while its past is inseparable from its present, such one-dimensional, single-story perceptions of the city and its residents are far from accurate. Especially nowadays.

In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Chinua Achebe, the author of “Things Fall Apart,” lambasts Joseph Conrad for relegating the African characters in his story to little more than prop pieces. Achebe would go on to dispel the notion that Africa was a dark, unenlightened continent through his novel’s protagonist Okonkwo and the Igbo people. Society, values and culture—in short, a rich, complex life—existed long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Similarly, it seems like the media wants only to perpetuate two stories of Detroit. The city is either a wasteland beyond saving or it’s a giant blank canvas for artists and entrepreneurs to mess with. As a resident outsider, I think that’s a pretty limited story. Here’s how I see it:

Detroit has some rough edges, but those edges are no rougher than areas in Chicago or South Boston. Man’s greatest invention is the city, but a byproduct of such a high concentration of humans is a certain kind of ugliness. Be it crime, refuse or just apathy, it can’t be avoided. Detroit doesn’t strike me as having more or less of this ugliness than any other city I’ve spent time in. Are there burned out buildings and abandoned skyscrapers? Yes. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s also just one aspect of the cityscape. And yes, there are plenty of opportunities for creative, adventurous souls who want to do big, bold things here. And that’s really exciting and should be encouraged. But before the influx of the converted, drawn by low cost of living and curiosity, started streaming into the city, Detroit was not—contrary to popular perception—a ghost town lacking life. People lived here. People lived in the suburbs too, and those people were no less Detroit than residents of Arlington are Bostonians or Park Ridge residents are Chicagoans.

Look, I’m as excited as the next person by the changes occurring in Detroit. It’s an exciting time to live in and around the city. Hell, it’s an exciting time to be a Michigander (Note: not Michiganian), as Detroit, being our largest city, is the face of our state. But I would caution adopting a new single-story mentality, swapping one narrow perspective for another.

After all, if you were asked to define any major U.S. city, could you? Could you distill Chicago or Boston down to a single story? I’m fairly familiar with both of those cities, and there’s no way I could do it. Why should Detroit be any different?

Let’s let Detroit be Detroit. Let’s let a mix of stories be its story.

Yes, Detroit has a ways to go. I think everyone would agree to that. But I couldn’t be prouder to say, “I live here,” even if I’m not from here.

If you haven’t visited in a while, or if you’ve never visited, now’s the time.

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