12/13/2011 07:15 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Detroit Music and Mayhem City

Tension is an interesting concept; seemingly its only benefit is providing an instant relief when the inevitable snap happens. Think of a taut string, stretched to an inch of its tensile limit.

Hold the string long enough in this position and soon SNAP! The poor string breaks into different pieces, dismembered at a point; its individual parts are now lesser than its prior whole. Though the outcome is messy, with string pieces strewn about, there is no more strain. The mayhem that follows the snap comes with relief, because tension is absent.

Recollect that same stretched string; envision it prior to its unfortunate split. Now strum that sting, gently pick at it. Look and you see a beautiful wave, mathematics in motion; listen and you hear a sound. Organize and arrange of a succession of these sounds, which are caused by your plucking the string, and music is birthed.

Detroit is not unlike our string; stretched to its financial, infrastructural, capital, racial, communal, social (reader insert your "al" suffixed word) limits. Detroit's tension can produce either music or mayhem, but for melody, we need the right balance of pressure and care when plucking that string.

Unlike our string however, a snapped Detroit is more pitiable than its whole because its most vulnerable residents suffer. They lose... they snap! When people snap, they are unbound from everything that holds them together and to; they curl back flying through the space of their environments, flailing and dangerous, damaging everything in their recoil. They blunder along in a daze of destruction, absolved of all responsibility because this is the expected outcome.

Families, friends, colleagues and neighbors will be wounded, communities will implode as broken fragments of what once was shiver helplessly in the corners of a formerly whole city.
How do we find the sweet spot between music and mayhem? My answer is tension.

Tension is the striving for better while acknowledging a bleak reality. Even more paradoxical, tension is the understanding that the "better" we strive for is not a particular result but rather our efforts. That Detroiters exert themselves to create value is the only victory we have available to us. Consider, in Detroit the amazing amount of resources (capital, time and emotions) expended to balance the scales in favor of equity... yet poverty still prevails, unimaginable violence and the accompanying grief remain.

Maybe if Dan Gilbert divested his entire fortune, all the foundations liquidated and distributed their assets, governance was unified and effective, suburbanites all moved back, and the Lions, Tigers, Redwings and Pistons all won championships, maybe then Detroit might become "quantitatively better" (more schools, more city services, more police, more tax dollars... more, more, more). Maybe...

But we can confidently we can assert that in the next 30 days or 30 months, poverty, crime, high unemployment and the other myriad challenges Detroit faces will not be extinguished. And in this time people will lose their lives, their homes and hope as a consequence. And in this time as well, other people will devote their entire lives to prevent this loss. In some cases they will be successful but ultimately their actions will not divest from death and disappointment the majority of its victims. This is the bleak reality.

So if our future promises not a quantitative betterment, then we must accept that reality. Instead of working for a progress we can only access in the cinema of our imaginations, "a fantasy of more," we should embrace our station as a struggling city and exert ourselves towards making it better. And "better" is... to be content with where we are even as we move forward. This is tension.

Better is to be like a string open to music and open to breaking. The above is an analogy, not a physics experiment, where answers (and questions) are nuanced, pimpled with possibilities, populated by what ifs? The underlying premise remains unchanging; in a city where opportunity and calamity are divided by a whisper thin line, "what is the most dignified way to live?"