The catalyst of my experience with Semester in Detroit was a U-M program that I participated in last summer called GIEU (Global Intercultural Exchange for Undergraduates). For four weeks I lived, learned, and worked in the city of Detroit, somewhat like a shortened version of SID. Before then, I knew nothing of Detroit, had no personal connection to the city, and had traveled here less than a handful of times. That summer I set the foundation of my love for this city that continues to develop through SID. Now that I am here again, I often reflect back on last summer, thinking about how that experience shapes and affects my SID experiences. Today I came across a journal entry I wrote on July 19, 2011 in response to some forgotten thing that had happened to me that day. I want to share this entry because, for the most part, I am still in the same place that I was that day almost a year ago…even though I’d like to think I am completely different.
“I often think about culture on grand scales, where huge differences in values or way of life divide groups of people. I was disappointed, to put it mildly, when I first crossed over from my life in the suburbs into the Detroit city limits. I was disappointed because I kept playing over and over in my mind all the adventures I was missing out on in some far away “third-world” village where I would have seen real cultural differences. How could I find this difference in Detroit, MI? Little did I know at the time, but that simple act of crossing boundaries, which often has contributed greatly to the culture of the city, was my first step toward learning about what the city has to offer, about myself, and about what the definition of culture and difference really is.
To think about the culture of Detroit is a loaded question, because there is so much history behind what has brought the city to where it is today. Often the dialogue and imagery on that history is unfair and one-sided, and it is unfortunate that it is from those ideas that I based my initial concepts of the city. I came into my time in the city ready to learn and change, but I did so on an unlevel playing field. Slowly but surely, through experience and exposure, I was able to chip away at my preconceived notions of the Detroit and the people who call it home. I realize now that the city is not broken and falling apart amidst poverty and crime, but that there is this amazing energy running through it that is full of creativity, innovation, and hope. While I do acknowledge that Detroit has its problems, which are the same challenges that many of the other rustbelt cities are currently dealing with, I cannot ignore all the great things that are being done and the people who are seeing them through.
So, I’ve come to understand the culture of Detroit as a series of paradoxes. It has this sort of gritty elegance; the city and its people are so welcoming, even as the media and the outside world presents it as a terribly unwelcoming place; in a city where there really isn’t an abundance of wealth or outright privilege, there is still a sense of community with a network of community gardens and neighbors who look out for each other. It also seems to be a culture where anything goes, which fosters a creative spirit. Anyone who has a big idea can go for it, and if that idea succeeds, there are visible, large-scale results. I’d like to hear of another place that is like that.
I would say that from this experience I have started to figure out what it means to live and work in the city of Detroit. I still have my doubts and questions. Like, how is the future of the city going to affect its current residents? Who are the city and the people with decision-making power working for? How can I get more young people like myself to be interested and invested in Detroit? Is that really in the city’s best interest, to bring in a specific set of people; how do you balance that with investing in the people already there? I think it will take time to answer those questions, and with time my understanding of the city will continue to evolve. And maybe this stems from my idealist roots, but I think this idea of evolving, change, and innovation, is what is keeping people going. The city is not broken, as so many people would like to propose, but it is trying to move forward. One only needs to spend some time in the 313’s streets to understand that.”
I realize that I still have many of the same questions and inspired feelings that I’d felt in my initial weeks in the city, and the more I learn in SID classes and at my internship, the more I add to my arsenal of questions: How safe is the city? Where is my place and what is my role here? Do I want to grow roots in Detroit or leave the city behind after all? How much do I really understand about race? Is it really fair to judge (white) suburbanites when they come into the city for a single evening; how am I any different than them? In asking these questions, I have also come to the realization that I probably will never find the answers…but for the next month I can try.
A sampling of photos I’ve taken over the past year: