One City, Many Voices: ‘Like Encountering A Long-Lost Relative’
One City, Many Voices: Stories of Jews Living in Detroit
I came to Michigan as a Californian with considerable pride for the city of Oakland, my hometown.
I love Oakland and have always felt enormously blessed to have been born and raised in such a dynamic, complex place. In fact, Oakland’s complexity is the thing about the city I value and enjoy most. The meaning of this complexity and its implications, however, are the subjects where I find myself in greatest conflict with others.
Like Detroit, a lot of myths about Oakland are circulated on a national scale and, in turn, are told or repeated by those who encounter them. People read a headline about violence, crime and the poor state of public schools in Oakland. What they do not hear about is the communal culture and diversity of Oakland, the openness, acceptance and willingness to learn from others that characterizes the majority of Oaklanders. I often receive strange, quizzical looks when I disclose I am from this much mused-about city. I am used to being questioned or judged, stared at in disbelief and even occasionally refuted, told I cannot possibly be from that place because “there are no white people in Oakland.”
When I encountered Detroit for the first time last year, it was like meeting a long-lost relative. A cousin perhaps who, though very different from my beloved Oakland, possessed enough similar qualities so that the family resemblance was more than apparent. All of the squeaks and squabbles I had heard about the city of Detroit, its own overwhelmingly negative portrayals continuously called to light in the mainstream media, the disparaging remarks, hurtful stereotypes, and publicized sense of futility and despair lay themselves at my feet like a familiar welcome mat. This was a place I could get used to because in some ways it was a place I had always known. I was elated! Ecstatic! I had found a city that spoke to me.
I wanted to know the city. I had an immense desire to sift through what I had heard and seen portrayed by others and develop my own perspectives and experiences. I decided to complete my summer internship, a required component of my graduate program at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, at JVS Detroit. I moved into an interfaith-intentional community on the city’s lower east side, on the outskirts of Indian Village.
My neighborhood was pleasant; my neighbors considerate and kind. At 26 years old, I finally learned to ride a bike. I will always remember the moment I gained my balance and took off down Field Street, my housemate and bike-riding guru throwing his hands up in triumph as our neighbors cheered me on from their front porches. I was fascinated by things as seemingly inconsequential as the ice cream truck and the whimsical, childhood songs it blared through my neighborhood each long, hot summer afternoon. I had never lived in a neigh- borhood serviced by such a charming anachronism, nor would I have expected such a symbol of innocence to exist in a place as rough and wizened as Detroit.
At JVS, I worked in the Career Initiative Center with homeless Detroiters on job training and employment issues. I engaged my co-workers, Detroiters and non-Detroiters alike, in conversations about race, identity and the ways my physical characteristics and presence in the city were perceived by others. From these conversations, I gained additional perspectives on the city, its landscape, resources and politics. I also became familiar with the feelings of some community members who saw the current city as hopeless and dangerous.
When unsolicited advice from those of this perspective began to pour in, I, as an open-minded outsider, was not deterred by assertions that I’d be wise to “get the hell out of the city.”
I actually found myself comfortable challenging those I respected when I disagreed with or was disturbed by their rhetoric on the city. It may now seem obvious, but I had been prepping for these moments for a long time. I was and am used to adamantly defending the places I love.
I was not raised here. I grew up 2,397 miles away in Oakland, Calif., where Detroit was just a faraway city in an awkwardly mitten-shaped state. Yet, looking back now, it is difficult to imagine my being on a forward course that could have led me to any other city.
At its very core, the city of Detroit is infused with soul and spirit, contagious passion and compelling community. In experiencing the city, one understands the meaning of divine inspiration. Detroit is a place of revelation and courage, of fastidious visions toward a bright future and, even on a scorching summer day, a place to grab a cold treat off the ice cream truck.
Ariel Pearl-Jacobvitz is a graduate student studying Management of Human Services and Interpersonal Practice at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a par- ticipant in the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. She is currently enjoying her secondary field placement at Kadima in Southfield.