As Detroiters go, Aaron Foley and I are basically the same, except that he is black and gay and grew up in Detroit and lives in Detroit. Other than that, our philosophies on the city — what he writes about in his book How to Live in Detroit without Being a Jackass and my daily attempts to avoid jackassness here — are substantially similar. Also I introduced him to Hygrade Deli, so that’s got to count for something.
- There are no Detroit experts, including either of us. Whenever I give a tour of Detroit, I start with — exclaiming as much as disclaiming — my non-expertise. Aaron opens his book noting that, despite some posturing otherwise, “no one can ever be an expert on Detroit. The city is just too large for anyone to do a comprehensive analysis of life in this city.”
Detroit isn’t just changing; the rate of change is changing. Rather than dueling facts and figures, newcomers and long-time Detroiters are better served sharing (and actively listening to) each other’s perspectives.
- Detroit is a lot like a lot of places, except for all the ways it isn’t. One of the best things about Aaron’s book is that it is grounded in the banalities of everyday life here. In a city that has seen high highs and low lows, laws — as dictated by government and physics — still generally apply. Most people manage to lead ordinary lives in sometimes extraordinary circumstances.
In Chapter 3, “Difficult Questions About Detroit With Simple Answers,” he writes, “Is Eight Mile dangerous?” The answer: “Sure, if you put yourself in danger on Eight Mile, like attempting to rob a bank on Eight Mile or sell drugs to strangers on Eight Mile.”
- Everyone is a jackass in Detroit sometimes, including both of us. Aaron and his partner bought a house near Boston-Edison and learned firsthand how inherently difficult it is to enter, let alone join a community with all due respect and humility: “But there was always that awkwardness of us having just moved in. We lived among people who sent three generations to Central High, the school up the street … I grew up thinking Central was one of those bad-kid schools where fights broke out every day.”
How have I been a jackass in Detroit over the years? Let me count the ways! Once, I proposed to an Arab American center that we paint a mural of a cross, Jewish star and crescent — on the side of their building on Seven Mile. When Summer in the City bought the house adjacent to its headquarters, we considered turning the entire thing into an apiary (bees). To say nothing of our regrettable experiments with Quikrete and bottlecaps.
- We can neither simply solve nor afford to ignore race in Detroit. My family and I are white. Or, as Ta’nehisi Coates proposes in Between the World and Me, we have been brought up to believe we are white in a “dream” that separates — and imperils — communities of color.
Aaron writes, “Detroit and blackness are interwoven; they can’t easily be undone. And you are told constantly that you are monolithic, that you are worthless, your existence is incomparable, you had it worse off, you didn’t make it out, you did make it out but you’re nothing more than an affirmative-action case, you are too defensive, you are loud, dirty and unkempt, and that you are a malady.”
To borrow from him borrowing from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, “Only when we are honest about our issues can we truly solve them.”
- The future of the city is not yet written. Both encouraging and daunting when you consider the challenges of co-authoring something so epic. I often close my Detroit spiel asking volunteers and visitors to, yes, say nice things about Detroit — and, as importantly, to distinguish between being critical and cynical, sympathetic and empathetic. Between opportunity and opportunism, pity and solidarity.
Aaron’s admonition to Detroit’s newcomers is simple: “If you have read all this and want to learn even more about the history of the city and don’t consider yourself a savior, well, then you will do fine here. Welcome to Detroit. Don’t forget to pay your property taxes.”
How to Live in Detroit without Being a Jackass is an invaluable, imperfect book. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Aaron will be reading, signing and shmoozing at the Repair the World Workshop (2701 Bagley Ave. in Southwest Detroit, ample parking) on Thursday, Dec. 10, at 6 p.m.