The largest town nearest to where I am right now is Mynämäki, Finland, which you have certainly never heard of, but which is maybe 30km away from Turku, Finland, which you are slightly more likely to have heard of, but, let’s be honest, still probably haven’t. I am at an artist’s residency program that sits on the former grounds of Saari Manor. It is named for the days when this place was an island surrounded by the Baltic seabed—saari means island—although those days ended over a thousand years ago, when the water receded and the land emerged.
The earliest available historical information regarding what was to eventually become Saari Manor dates from 1295. At that time, the Bishop of Turku saw fit to confirm in writing that the grounds had been donated by the previous owner to his care, part of a reparations deal addressing the church’s illegal acquisition of nearby land some 60 years prior. Things remained relatively unchanged for two hundred or so years, until King Gustav I of Sweden—for there was not yet a Finland—decreed church ownership of land illegal in 1520. There’s a logic there, sure: Perhaps church wealth had become excessive and required curbing. On the other hand, this put former church properties into the hands of the ruling monarch, King Gustav I of Sweden. (I love it when monarchs make decrees from which they benefit materially. I find the same act far less charming when democrats do it.)
The century that followed was a turbulent one for these grounds: in a moment of financial duress, the king sold off his properties to Mynämäki nobles, one of whom is rumored to have been quite a jerk to the locals. When he died (“prematurely,” the Saari Residency Visitor’s Guide notes helpfully), his brother, an advisor to the king, acquired the land without compensation, a move considered an apt response to the allegations of violent misconduct. Shortly thereafter, the king himself reclaimed the estate directly. For the second time in thirty years, the land about to become Saari Manor fell under ownership of King Gustav I for reasons other than legal purchase from the previous owner.
I’m writing from the former kitchen wing of the original manor, built by Gustav’s son John III, Duke of Finland in the mid-1550s, when between 60 and 90 workers were housed on the land in various productive capacities. They labored in a handful of buildings spread across the grounds, and built a few more of them, never overwhelming the birch groves holding court. Over the next century, rulers became ill and died (including Gustav I), but little changed at Saari Manor until Colonel Bernhard Otto von Liewen moved in in 1681. The grounds then became military, which meant building capacity expanded. Major renovations were undertaken then, and more buildings planned, only completed in 1779. The official residence, the deep yellow building with white trim and a red roof that greets me when I step out of my front door, is today considered a fine example of Gustavian architecture. It seems a fitting testament to the king who couldn’t stay away from this land.
The grounds have since acted as a site for agricultural experiments and, more recently, artistic ones. For a while, it was also Russia. After Finland was established in 1917, Saari Manor fell under control of the new state, purchased thereafter by the private foundation that now opens the former island up to writers, filmmakers, circus performers, and comics creators. I am here with all of these, now. No one present is less than fascinating.
My time here has been my only significant break from a summer spent methodically crafting networks and projects with smart, energetic people in a city misunderstood by the world. At the Saari Residency, I am surrounded by beauty, by history, and by some of the most amazing people I know of. There is a sauna here, one herd of sheep and another of cattle, and lush greenery everywhere. Birds make their homes nearby, nestled in coves you can only reach via dirt pathways that meander through forests that inspired fairy tales. Not to mention the wild raspberries, or the bilberries. Bilberries! Like a blueberry, but more exciting. There is something still of an island to this place: rich, adventurous, removed.
Still, when I fall asleep at night, I miss Detroit.
“It’s an interesting place,” the tall blond man standing next to me says. He lives nearby, which likely means his family has been in this area for generations. He may well be descended from the folks who worked this land in the 1600s, or the Mynämaki nobles of a century earlier. But he’s not talking about Saari Manor. He’s talking about my new hometown.
He’s never been there, he says, but he’s heard about it. He’s never been outside of Finland. If he did go outside of Finland, he tells me, that’s where he’d go, Detroit. He’s read about it, he says.
I smile and nod and ask about his family. I have learned from similar experiences that further conversation on the topic of Detroit with people who haven’t been there may soon make me uncomfortable. “Have you seen the places that look like Syria yet?” or “Is it totally bombed out?” or “Is it as bad there as everyone says?” These questions have all been posed of me, too many times to count in the only three months I have lived there. They are difficult questions to answer for those of us who have spent time in war zones, insulting to friends who have survived military bombing campaigns. They also appear, since Detroiters have been responding to such questions for a decade now, to be ineffective. The attempt to highlight destruction and violence in the city by casting it as a war zone has become mere conversational banter, no longer charged with any sense of urgency.
He’s right, of course. Detroit a fascinating place. But more interesting than sheep-filled fairy forests twice stolen by the same king that used to be Russia and before that, was an island?
I think so, of course, but I live there. The vitality of the city, the vibrancy of every otherwise inconsequential interaction with a cashier or neighbor or the man in line next to you at the drugstore—these are the unique qualities of Detroit. The city has captured the world’s imagination for all the wrong reasons.
After two weeks, I crave the easy friendliness and relentless energy of my adopted home. All the talk of real estate and building development in Detroit has downsides, certainly, but conversations that elsewhere tend to remain theoretical turn material in Detroit: OK, but how can we build that? Or, I have skills to offer. Let me help you. Here are some tools.
These anecdotes, and the deep and natural social engagement they signify, are missing from the fascination with Detroit I hear in my travels. Most of what I hear, in fact, is laughably admonitory: “Låt oss inte bli nästa Detroit,” is a phrase I spot in a Swedish magazine. Let’s not become the next Detroit.
My long trek back to that place that inspires fear and awe around the world includes overnights in three progressively larger cities, and takes a car ride, a train, a bus, two metro trips, three flights, four airports, and five days. I pass a medieval castle, a Viking ship, and a town where cars are not allowed. I meet a Japanese woman who hates her own baby and a Red Cross volunteer who asks me—literally—for my blood. I use three currencies, each decorated with famous people I have never heard of before but I learn about opera singers, economists, and the inventors of devices now passed into obsolescence.
A fascinating world greets me around every corner of my journey home, yet on one host’s kitchen table sits a book with a cover photograph shot in Detroit: a rotting building, an empty landscape, and stillness. That city has captured the lurid and fertile imagination of the world, and I can see why. But it is not the city I live in.