“The Detroit Step is what New Yorkers do when you tell them where you’re from,” the man said. We met outside Comerica Park, the new stadium for the Detroit Tigers. I was hanging off the fence, taking a photo. I was informed that this was the exact reason why the stadium had been dug below street level, so that kids could climb up a waist-height wall and see the game from behind wrought iron fencing for free.
“You tell people you’re from Detroit and they take a step back,” he said. “That’s the Detroit Step.”
This was my first visit to Detroit. I was there for the Detroit Design Festival, where my very first art installation was being exhibited along with contributions from the other members of the Bordertown design group. At first I was a little concerned about traveling to the States and introducing myself to border guards as an artist, not to mention attending a reception and explaining my piece to people who were generous enough with their time to stop by and ask questions. But I’m very happy that I went. Detroit is an amazing place, resilient and kind and a little frightening. You should go.
Much has been made of Detroit’s decline. What was once a thriving capital of industry and a cultural centre is now the place where post-apocalyptic films are shot. There hasn’t been a chain grocery store in the city limits since 2007. “Anchor” businesses like hospitals and universities have to provide rent incentives for their employees to live nearby. Houses crumble. Lots empty. Diverse species of fox and squirrel take over. Crickets are audible almost everywhere, at all times of day or night. The broad streets, intended for the Big American Cars that once flocked the asphalt in days of yore, are now barren and quiet. The population has shrunk. Those who are left either cannot escape, or are deeply committed to the Detroit project.
“The people who come from Europe, they say it’s just the same,” one shop-owner at the Spiral Collective (where you can buy “Detroit Lives!” t-shirts) told me. “There are some places you go, and some you don’t. You keep your head up and stay alert and don’t make a fool of yourself, and you’ll be fine.”
My host and guide in Detroit told me much the same. “There’s a culture of deep sexism here,” she said. “There are some neighbourhoods where I don’t like to go because the street harassment is really bad. But everywhere else it’s okay.”
I saw this happen in person, and told her I remembered much the same from other cities where I’d lived in America. Guys yelling at you to smile. Guys doing U-turns to ask you where you’re going. “I had forgotten what American men can be like,” I said. “Canadian men are so different.”
This can likely be attributed to the Canadian culture of politeness. In Detroit, the culture is all about kindness and contact. Overwhelmingly, Detroiters are just nice. They’re hospitable. It’s a small town. Dogs are allowed everywhere. You talk to strangers, because they won’t be strangers long. You make eye contact. You drop off cake and casserole to your competitors when their storefront opens. You share what you’ve got.
“In Detroit, we don’t stay in and watch movies or whatever. We go out. We spend money. Because if you’ve got enough money to spend in a bar, it’s because you worked your ass off earning it. And if you’ve got money in this town, you’d better go out and spend it.”
A lot of people regard Detroit as a symbol of failure. And in some ways, it is. It’s a symbol of the failures of both American industry and government. They couldn’t keep pace with global and national trends, and they saw to the needs of the rich who brought this community to its knees, and not to the needs of the people living there. The consequences of those decisions are in these photos.
But Detroit is also about making things work. The Detroit Step, for me, is a series of little steps, from the decision to stay despite the theft to the writing of a business plan to the smile spread on the street. It’s about recognizing that things that come easy aren’t earned and don’t really belong to you. But the things you create, the bonds you forge, the community you build, will last through fire and depression and ruin. The people of Detroit are survivors of something that the rest of America is slowly beginning to understand.
I think everyone else should sit up and take notice, too.