Nothing can ever prepare you for being told that you’ve just won a house. Nothing ever prepares you for moving to Detroit, either. It is not the kind of place you can understand from afar. It’s not the kind of place many people want to take the time to understand, anyway, whether they live 15 minutes or 1500 miles away.
If you need proof of that, all you have to do is visit the Facebook comments section of any article that remotely mentions Detroit - it is the messiest place on the internet.
I had no expectations when I arrived in Detroit last February. The last time I had made such a dramatic, long term geographic shift was when I came to the U.S. with my parents almost 30 years ago as a refugee from Iran.
A wave of disappointment had come over me when we left the plane. It was my birthday, I was 3 years old and not amused.
“We’ve come to such a dark America,” I said, looking out of the car window as we drove from the airport to a relative’s house. I hadn’t realized that the darkness was temporary, that in a few hours, the sun would come up and that’s when the real work of rebuilding our lives all over again would begin.
It was getting dark when I walked up the stairs to my new house in Detroit, too. It was the first time in years I would be getting a space to call my own, a place that would have room for both the seriousness of being an adult and the frivolousness of being a child, a bill-paying person who could eat whatever they wanted and walk around in underwear (except not in winter because I don’t think a Californian can handle skin to air contact in February in Michigan)
In between celebrating with champagne and eating a box of Velveeta macaronic and cheese out of a sauce pan, the reality of being in Detroit set in. It was like those first days in America - I had to focus on rebuilding again, and I had to do it in a place holding so much weight and history, so much negativity, so many expectations.
One year on from that first day, Detroit has taught me what I thought it would: that stories are not simple, that in fact, they are very complicated, that they can hold both good things and bad things at the same time, and that’s perfectly ok.
To understand this city - and appreciate it - you have to be here. You have to be gardening with your Bengali neighbors, you have to be going to the Michigan’s oldest blues bar on a Thursday night - the only establishment that seems to be holding down a devastated street full of empty building every which way you look.
You have to be eating at coney islands peppered throughout the city, you have to be visiting cemeteries and the African-American mosque after Friday prayers. You have to be attending the soccer games of the city’s underdog team, or hanging out for weeks with the crew of the only mailboat in the world with its own zip code. You have to drive your car over the pot-hole ridden streets, and recognize that the new, hip and cool Detroit is only contained in less than 10 miles and that this city still has very serious, visible problems with infrastructure and water and perhaps most important of all - schools.
You have to be the kind of person who cares enough to explore the complexity of this place. When I start to have panic attacks about the state of journalism fueled by overthinking, reality and copious amounts of tea, I try to remind myself why I start writing in the first place: journalism has always been my excuse to get the know the world.
That curiosity has helped me out before. Now it’s helping me understand the most misunderstood city in the country, which I’m still slowly getting to know.
But I also want to tell you that it has been the most challenging year of my life. I’ve had to figure out not just how take care of a house but also feel comfortable in it, build relationships with neighbors despite language barriers, adjust to snow, navigate unfamiliar spaces, make new friends, decipher how I can fit into the landscape of the city while also respecting everyone who calls this place home and find stories to tell that matter to me.
Like the early years of my family’s relocation to America, the days after I declared how dark it was, I’ve had to rebuild, find some kind of light and perhaps most important of all: grow up.
— Liana Aghajanian, March 2017