BY LAURA SANCHEZ, Opinions Editor
An out-of-town friend came to visit me a couple of weeks ago. She’d never been to Michigan, and like the proud Detroiter that I am, I was eager to show her around the city and surrounding areas. It was a tad hard balancing my busy life at school, a twenty four-hour stomach bug, and my newfound interest in Michigan tourism, but I somehow made it work, with the help of coffee and appreciation for my friend and the city.
My friend is extremely smart and not easily swayed by media’s depictions of Detroit and Michigan, so I was glad that I didn’t have to spend a good chunk of time telling her that Detroit isn’t as bad as the media says it is. However, cruising down Michigan Avenue in Detroit was such a strange, detached experience, as I tried to observe the street from a stranger’s eyes. I drive down Michigan Avenue on a daily basis on my trek to campus, so I’m so used to seeing the graffiti and abandoned, decaying buildings. They don’t really faze me anymore. However, that week, I got these sudden feelings of anger as I observed this urban blight, this decay that’s a symbol of the desperation and despair that so many feel towards this city. I don’t feel despair about the city; I feel hope and a sense of renewal, but seeing these buildings remind me of my fears surrounding Detroit’s situation.
But then, still cruising down Michigan Avenue, we got to Downtown Detroit. The juxtaposition is impressive. Just one mile up, we have buildings on the verge of falling down. One mile down, we have tall, glistening, silver buildings, symbols of the richness and gentrification in the city. These buildings are great and impressive, but what do they really symbolize in the grand scheme of things? We thus had a fantastic conversation about gentrification and urban planning as we continued to walk our way downtown.
We gleefully took the people mover down to the Renaissance Center, and I got a chance to point out several other landmarks: Comerica Park, Ford Field, and Greektown. But my friend wasn’t too interested in those – she was interested in Detroit’s architecture, which she pointed out was so intricate and fascinating. She was right. I’d never really noticed the Art Deco influences on buildings and how they take you back to the last century. If you tuned out construction noises, the fact that we were on a moving vehicle, and people talking selfies on their iPhones, you could really picture Detroit was the roaring city in the 1950s. To end our journey, we sat on the steps of the Renaissance Center and quietly stared at Canada.
We took a spin down to the Detroit Institute of Arts another day and saw the priceless Van Goghs, Degas, and of course, Rivera’s impressive mural. The DIA is one of my favorite Detroit gems, and I’m so glad that people genuinely appreciate the vastness and importance of this art institute, especially now that we passed the bankruptcy scare. However, one of my favorite exhibits that day wasn’t the traditional Van Gogh self-portrait or Degas’ ballerinas; it was a photography exhibit called “Photographs from Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio” by Corine Vermeulen. This exhibit showed portraits of Detroit citizens, depicting their daily struggles and their engagement to the city. It was such a great exhibit, and one of my favorite parts was the guestbook aspect. People were expected to answer, “What do you see happening in Detroit?” and “What does it mean to the city?” The book was full, and the answers ranged from positive, hopeful images of their Detroit, to more realistic critiques of the city, and of course, the negative comments that make one’s stomach curl up from the written ignorance.
Our tour de Troit continued at the Heidelberg Project a couple of days later, as I drove ourselves to the East Side. I’m just glad that I didn’t get into an accident getting there – I’m probably not the best person to be in the driver’s seat. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this project is an outdoor art project that is supposed to inspire community and energy into the Detroit community. It’s famous because of its multi-colored streets, houses, community involvement, and strong encouragement of the arts. We walked along the neighborhood in eerie silence. It seemed so lonely at first – lots of empty houses, lone figurines like random, floating shoes, and remnants of burned down houses made it seem like we were at the scene of an apocalypse. Later on, we felt more included in the environment, as more people started to approach the neighborhood, and we began to interact with this outdoor art exhibit. It’s inspirational to realize the momentum it has at the moment – inspiring thousands of tourists who visit the exhibit each year, and its strong portrayal and commentary of contemporary Detroit. Take the exhibit as you wish – it doesn’t have a singular, unilateral meaning. It has multiple, and what I took from it was the beauty of community organizing and art as a strong force to unite all.
I also exposed my friend to the delights of Arabic food, an independent movie theater called Cinema Detroit in the Cass Corridor, the kingdom of used books at John King bookstore, the hipster-ness of Great Lakes Coffee in Midtown, the wildly green St. Patrick’s Day parade at Corktown, the typical journey to a coney island at 6 a.m., and wandering about my own corner of the universe, Mexicantown. I can write paragraphs and paragraphs about Mexicantown and its wondrous, ethnically diverse nature, but I’ll just stick to praising the community involvement in Southwest Detroit (as well as recommending the myriad of taco trucks in the neighborhood).
That week was such an eye-opening retreat. Of course I know Detroit, as I live and breathe it every single day, as I rack my brain as to how to get involved in more and more ways in the city. But I feel as if I saw the city through a set of different lens – through a more analytical, yet tourist-y set of bifocals. I rediscovered how the city has so much to offer, yet so much to achieve. It’s important to not only acknowledge the city’s downfalls, but its potential. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to do it all.