Last Saturday I went to a Tigers game with two friends visiting from Ann Arbor. As we exited Comerica Park, it was tough to see some of Detroit’s homeless clustered together and begging for money. It was tough to recognize that they comprised most of the few black faces present in the midst of tens of thousands of white visitors. And it was tough to see that for some of the visitors, these homeless faces were some of the only ones of Detroit they would see.
As we turned right and continued up Woodward Avenue after the game, I correctly guessed some of the thoughts of one of my friends. Like many others, and quite understandably, he was trying to make sense of his surroundings by piecing together the experiences he was currently having with the stories and media reports he had previously heard. But if there is anything I have learned during the past three weeks, it’s that it’s nearly impossible to break down lifelong preconceptions of Detroit in a mere few hours before or after a Tigers game, let alone accurately understand it or make a judgment about it.
If most Michigan residents come into Detroit only to see sports or other entertainment events, many of the black Detroiters they encounter are probably the beggars outside of the venues, some of whom may seem intimidating. And with the backdrop of numerous abandoned buildings and the (likely) wailing police sirens, who wouldn’t be scared of the city?
Any brief visit to Detroit, such as going to a Tigers game, will provide ample views of the undeniable effects of the economic emergency in the city. As a result, these views are what most people first notice. But what about the rest of the city? Its people and culture? Its politics? Its history? Many of these visitors won’t ever experience these deeper cultural gems nor will they encounter the many Detroiters in positive social and economic positions.
It’s a cycle of negative reinforcement – many visitors come to Detroit with certain negative preconceptions (that Detroiters are lazy, poor, violent, asking for handouts, etc.) and thus avoid spending substantial time in the city. Their subsequent “Detroit experience” consists of driving through seemingly 3rd-world streets with abandoned buildings and interacting with homeless beggars and hardly anyone else. Hence, they leave with their preconceptions reinforced, damaging Detroit’s reputation and revitalization efforts.
Detroit’s image matters. This vicious cycle matters. But can it be changed? How?