I only lived in Detroit for a short time, six months, and I went to school there for three years. No matter how long you’re in the city though, Detroit is the kind of place that stays with you forever.
There’s a lot of attention on Detroit these days… corrupt politicians, a failing auto industry, and an unemployment rate at almost 30%, it does sound like a pretty depressing place. Even with all of that though, it’s difficult not to love Detroit. It’s especially difficult not to love the people.
Recently I stumbled across this piece in Time called Assignment Detroit. Time bought a house in Detroit and they’re going to live there for a year. Why?
Because we believe that Detroit right now is a great American story. No city has had more influence on the country’s economic and social evolution. Detroit was the birthplace of both the industrial age and the nation’s middle class, and the city’s rise and fall — and struggle to rise again — are a window into the challenges facing all of modern America. From urban planning to the crisis of manufacturing, from the lingering role of race and class in our society to the struggle for better health care and education, it’s all happening at its most extreme in the Motor City.
I was happy to see somebody finally get it… but surprised to see that it was a media outlet making the effort. I’m drawn by these stories though and I hope that Time can present them in a respectable way.
Detroit is a city filled with optimism and pessimism (sometimes by the same people at the same time). It is a city filled with hope and with despair. It’s a city you have to be in to understand though, which is why I think it’s often misunderstood. Some of the videos I’ve watched so far from the Assignment Detroit project are interesting and candid. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Kid Rock and Michael Moore… both had a very different understanding and vision, but both still seemed to represent the essence of the city.
When something enters your consciousness your awareness of it becomes more heightened, so having lived for a short time in Detroit and then moving to a different part of the world that’s sort of what has happened with me. I don’t know where I came across it initially, but a few days ago I was reminded of Detroit’s motto, it started with one of my typical snarky comments about the city’s flag (on twitter)… but after the snarkiness wore off and I considered the motto (errr, well I realized I could use in this blog post which I had already started weeks ago anyway).
The relevance of the flag and the city motto is described on the Detroit Historical Society’s website:
The official Seal of the City of Detroit is the centerpiece of the flag. It commemorates the great fire of 1805 that burned Detroit to the ground. The seal shows two women. The woman on the left represents Detroit at the time of the fire. She is weeping. The woman on the right, who is comforting her, represents hope and the future. The background scene shows the city in flames on the left. On the right, a new and brighter city is shown. On the sides are Latin words which translated into English read “We Hope for Better Things…It Shall Arise from the Ashes.” This motto captures the real spirit of Detroit – one that meets challenges and evokes images of Detroiters working and building together.
Of course I focused on the burning part, Detroit has a habit of catching on fire, a lot. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes on accident. The motto is what the city is really all about though. It is a city that burns, it is a city that weeps, but it is also a city of hope. Detroit did rise above the ashes after the 1805 fires, it became the center of industry in the US, a large and prosperous city… it was a city that immigrants were eager to travel to because they could find good work there, it wasn’t always the city we see today. The prosperity wasn’t enough to sustain it through modern times though, so it burnt again, but in spirit.
I’m pretty confident the city will rise again. It’s a slow and painful process there though, like many places in the world it is fearful of change and stuck in tradition. It’s a tradition that the city cannot sustain, and many are aware of it… though painful to watch, maybe the city needs to burn to be good again. Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus.