by Sean Mann
Detroit is my city. It was hardly a foregone conclusion. When I graduated from college, I was hell-bent on escaping Michigan. I spent a significant portion of my twenties exploring the world, developing an appreciation for football (the non-American kind) and intercity rail. But the Greek hostels and cramped London apartments soon grew as tiresome as the comic stylings of Dane Cook. As my escapades wound down, I came to a realization that shocked me: Detroit, not Chicago or D.C., was my city. It was a place that could serve as home and yet satisfy my constant need for exploration.
My city is 143 square miles of contradiction and fascination. It’s a city brimming with faded glory and life. A city of abandoned skyscrapers that hover over neighborhoods that are ripe for renewal. A city that everyone knows but few take the time to experience. A city that will inspire you—and yet leave you dejected.
It’s a city where a twentysomething like me can buy a 3,600-square-foot historic house with painted murals from the ’20s and stained-glass windows. My mortgage payments are half the rent my friends pay for shared apartments in Chicago or Brooklyn. My incredibly diverse neighborhood is full of Mexicans, Arabs, African-Americans, and white folks, young and old, all of us linked by a common sense of community involvement. It’s truly inspiring. We’ve formed a block club; we regularly participate in protests; together we tackle blight, support local businesses, and spend time in our beloved Clark Park.
At the same time, a late-night drive past abandoned storefronts and burned-out buildings can be demoralizing. And I admit to feeling anxiety every morning when I walk out to my car, wondering if I’ll find that one of the windows has been broken—or if I’ll find no car at all.
Detroit is a city in which a simple neon sign can inspire great hope. When the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit installed a Martin Creed piece called “Everything Is Going to Be Alright,” it was a beacon of possibility. It illuminated Midtown beautifully, capturing a sense of the possibilities in the abandoned buildings that are being redeveloped. With that sign projected from the MOCAD, a drive down Woodward was like a walk in the clouds of future prosperity.
Detroit is also a city where that very same museum, a few months later, could turn around and display a big neon sign that professed the exact opposite sentiment: “Nothing Will Be Alright.” And just like that, the drive down Woodward inspired thoughts of the homeless who aimlessly walk the streets, the real-estate development that never materialized, and the crumbling buildings that wait for gravity or the wrecking ball to bring them down.
The signs sparked a debate and a dialogue, as good art often does. But let’s be honest: No Detroiter who is paying attention needs neon signs to open their eyes to the dichotomies of our city.
My city is what it is: a city. It’s real. It’s exciting. It’s gritty. It sparks raw feelings and sentiments. It inspires and frustrates. It embodies what is right and wrong with our state—and ultimately where we should start to build a new Michigan.