In Detroit, you don’t have to go looking for devastation. It’s around, and chances are, you’ll probably come across it during a walk down the street, or a drive around the city - the abandoned buildings, the boarded up houses, the empty lots where the houses used to be, the cars that look normal until you notice that two of our four tires are deflated, melting endlessly into the concrete they’ve been left on for what you can only guess is a very long time.
Sometimes, you don’t even have to leave your house. Sometimes, the challenges that this city and its people are dealing with - challenges that much of the U.S. is dealing with - comes right to your doorstep in the form of a $6,000 gas bill from a collections agency. And then when you try to set up internet service, the cable company informs you over a week-long saga that your address has been blacklisted for years and the charges are so high, the only way to unblock it and get services running again is to basically go in person to the nearest office and try to convince someone there that you are indeed a new resident and that yes, you will be paying your bill on time.
And then you run into a neighbor who has lived his entire life in this neighborhood, who grew up on your block, and he tells you that he remembers every one who has lived in the house before you got here, including the really nice man who worked for the postal service, but took a wrong turn when life got too heavy. You think about this man for a while, and then forget about him, until during a search for car insurance, an old truck linked to your address pops up. It has to be his car. You wonder what exactly happened to him, to the family who owed thousands in uncollected gas and internet bills, to the people who left their car on the side of the street and disappeared.
During my first few days in Detroit, when I was still dealing with attempting to get internet up, I took several long walks around my neighborhood and beyond. The juxtaposition of the decay with the amount of friendly, open people I met and spoke to reminded me of my travels while reporting and living in the Caucasus. I’ve stood countless times in once grand cities with immense artistic and industrial output in both recognized and unrecognized republics, in cities that had been devastated by economic decline, massive political change, by catastrophic natural events that have wreaked havoc on not just the scenery but the people, too. I’ve walked on the streets of these cities, knowing that many of these life-altering events took place 10, 20, 30 years ago. I’ve walked on those streets, amongst all the desolation that was still there, little glimmers of greatness hidden amongst rubble and trash, trying to remind myself of those facts, while looking around me and feeling like they could have happened yesterday and I wouldn’t know the difference between 24 hours and 24 years.
Those cities have nostalgically stayed with me ever since I visited. Lately, they have been on my mind a lot as I attempt to make Detroit feel like home, a concept that is tangled in a complicated web of history, politics and identity for me that I’m still trying to unravel, which isn’t that different from what Detroit is trying to do, either. We both have a strange relationship with “place” and what that really means.
Just like the cities tucked away in a part of the world that many don’t know about or care to know about, there are actual people who live here, people who are living Detroit’s reality every day, a reality that is more than just ruin porn and The Great Hipster Migration of the 21st Century. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t actually here, in the city, the complexity of this place. Simplified narratives do not work here, but it’s easy to fall into that trap if you just parachute in and out. To get the real, complete, beautiful, messy, sad, wonderful story, you need to hang around for a while - you need to look beyond the numbers and statistics, beyond the $6,000 gas bill, which came addressed to a name, a name that as a journalist, as someone who is constantly looking to document life, I could not resist looking up online, a name that led to happy family photos of children and parents and toys, and more contemplation on the important nuances and context newcomers to this city need to be mindful of.
I am still settling in, still trying to make sense of my surroundings and my place in them, still trying to get used to more space than I’ve ever had, and how I am now tasked with the challenging of not just living in it, but filling it with things I never knew I needed after being on the road for so long. Last week, I exchanged smiles and conversations with more neighbors. Their energy was so magnetic that I had a very small inkling that there was potential for me to be as much as part of the landscape as the blight. Then, it snowed yesterday. I stared out the window into my backyard and beyond, trying to remember what was hiding underneath that clean, thick white, glistening blanket with not even as much as a single footstep in it, and thought about how landscapes and lives have the potential to be rebuilt, again, if you let them.