11/17/2011 02:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Locating Myself on the Mitten

A couple of days ago, I was up in Traverse City and somebody asked me where I was living. I surprised myself raising my right hand at him, and pointing somewhere on my palm, southward: "In Detroit!" I said. Real Michiganders are used to doing that to help you locate their city: Michigan is shaped like a mitten.

While I had my hand in the air, I realized that this small gesture somehow gives Michigan a symbol -- and gives its residents an intimacy with their environment. It might explain the strong sense of belonging you find here. Detroiters are pretty much the same way with their city.


When you walk down the street here, people acknowledge you: if you don't get a "How're you doin'?" you'll at least get a nod. If you don't respond or initiate it, this is when you become suspicious. Word.

Whenever the sun shines in the D, the "porch culture" is on. Detroiters hang out outside. Even passing by on a bike or car, you gotta wave at whoever walks by. Whenever I wave at someone I usually get an even more enthusiastic wave back. By now, not waving at someone on the street feels downright impolite.

This is a big change coming from a "big city" like L.A., Paris, or Budapest, where even in the subway you avoid eye contact at all cost. Maybe it's because you know you'll probably never see that person ever again. But in Detroit, meeting a stranger's gaze soon becomes a game.

Despite all this friendliness, I'll be honest; I wouldn't walk around my neighborhood all by myself after midnight like I did in Paris. Here only a few streetlights work. And yeah, we have four friends on the block who've had their car broken into or stolen within the last year -- even though our neighborhood is known for being one of Detroit's safest areas.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking. Until now, I'd only say "hi" to a stranger if I were hiking past them in the mountains -- and only at an altitude higher than 4,000 feet. Now, I always try to be the first one who says Detroiters' mantra: "How're you doin'?" Because we all exist, and here we don't let each other forget it.