Well over 300,000 Detroiters have moved out of the city since I moved to Hubbard St. in Southwest Detroit during the summer of 1995. This is not a news flash, of course. Detroit's population has been falling since 1953, and, during some periods, quite dramatically.
Why did I choose to move to Detroit back then -- before Avalon Bakery, Slows, Comerica Park, and the Detroit City Futbol League? Well, mainly for the reasons people move anywhere: 1) to live close to where I had found a job (as a youth counselor at La Sed Youth Center), and 2) because I knew some recent U-M college graduates who had also settled in the neighborhood.
Also, I could speak Spanish pretty decently and was looking for a place very different from Jenison, Michigan -- the lily-white suburb where I had grown up. Yes, I was a white dude from western Michigan who was sort of a wanna-be Latino in my early 20s. By moving to Detroit back then -- in ways both conscious and unconscious -- I fancied myself different from the average white, middle-class male who had graduated from U-M. I could speak the language, and even salsa dance! I took Latin rhythms for guitar classes from a Chilean; I bought conchas from my local Panaderia every day (two of them) on my way to work!
It really wasn't an act, even if it sounds a bit so. I was genuinely committed to my work as a youth counselor at Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (one of the two oldest social service agencies in Michigan founded by and for the Latino community.) I wanted to be a high school teacher. I had turned down an offer in 1993 to become a 4th-grade teacher in the Bronx through the then-young program, Teach for America. I figured working with middle- and high-school youth in SW Detroit would give me some solid groundwork to build on as a future teacher.
At my job, I had an office right next to the gym where basketball was played non-stop from the moment the Center opened until the waning moments before we closed. One kid nicknamed me "Gary" soon after I arrived because he thought it was a really white-sounding name. Another kid dubbed me "Craig Mack" after the early 90s rapper.
I was pretty much considered a freak for the first few months there by most of the teenage youth (which included a pretty evenly diverse group of Latinos, blacks, whites, Native-Americans, and a few Arab-Americans). No one really understood why I had chosen to live and work in SW Detroit. In fact, after meeting me for the first time and realizing that I wasn't from the neighborhood (it was quite obvious, after all), most would ask: "Why did you move to Detroit? The first chance I get, I'm outta here!!"
I remember this question giving me great pause inside my head: "Why DID I move to Detroit? What, am I CRAZY? Do these 14-year-olds know something that I don't?"
Now, surely, people have moved in and out of Detroit (and every other community on this planet) since the dawn of civilization. Yet, here in Detroit, who you are and where you are from all really seem to matter more than in most places on this planet. Why is this?
I don't know everything about anything, but I'm pretty damn certain this dynamic is so thick in Detroit because of the twin-roped devils of race and class. And they're both totally intertwined, so forget about ever trying to untangle them.
Here I was, a middle-class white dude from suburban Grand Rapids moving into Detroit with a newly minted bachelor's degree from the elite University of Michigan. Who the hell did I think I was moving into the 'hood? What were my intentions? Why was I here?
Latino Southwest Detroit was not my neighborhood; and Detroit -- mainly black -- was not my city. I did not grow up here. I did not know the history -- both the distant and recent past. I didn't know the cultures, the working class, the social and ethnic dynamics, the people, the challenges. I was an outsider, a stranger, a newcomer. And to most of the young people I worked with I was also "Gary," that slow, clumsy freak with the occasionally lucky jump shot.
Sixteen years, two kids, one dog, a wife (I was advised by a very beautiful "editor" to add this) and an underwater mortgage later (one street over on Vinewood now), I still feel a little bit like an outsider, but not nearly as much. Those kids were right to question me and my motives like they did -- this is only a natural response to something one does not understand. I didn't understand (still don't) why I had moved to Detroit. I had some ideas, of course, but did I really know my true motives? Do you?
So, do I have some sort of lesson to underline here? I don't know, maybe. And, yes, I'm mainly writing this to the white 20-somethings who have increasingly sprouted up around me in recent years (many right here in my Hubbard Farms neighborhood.) Why have they moved here? Who knows, probably for lots of different reasons; after all, humans are complicated creatures.
Surely some have moved here because it is "cool" and "sexy" right now to be in Detroit -- especially if you are white and upper-middle class. As an added bonus, the rent is cheaper than in most major cities; and moving to Detroit is an especially easy way to piss off your racist relatives. Of course, I'm certain there are several other blurry categories of young adult outsiders moving into Detroit: the art and music crowd, the social entrepreneurs, the emergent radicals, the urban professionals. Indeed, there do seem to be many.
If it sounds like I am writing about someone like you, then be prepared to answer some challenging questions about why you are here. If you haven't yet, you will soon enough. Try not to take the questions personally, they have been asked of others long before you. You may not have a convincing answer, for the questioner and even for yourself. Time will bring answers, so try to stick around for a while and let them bubble up.
Why we (us "outsiders") are here in Detroit matters -- today and always. But for those of us who have chosen to move here -- to Detroit of all places! -- let's pursue a deeper understanding of our motivations for being (and staying) in this wonderfully bizarre and charismatic place.
But also, please, let us turn to an equally important matter: the what. What are you doing while you are here? What communities are you building? Who are you befriending? Where are you hanging out? What are your contributions? What principles are you following? What is your purpose? Try to answer these questions. And I will too.