THE BLOG
07/17/2010 03:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I'm Rooting for Detroit

Last month, I attended the US Social Forum in Detroit. I applauded the forum committee for being intentional about bringing 20,000 people to spend their dollars in the Motor City, if only for a week.

Detroit has the highest unemployment rate of any major city in the country -- 23.2 percent. This horrifying statistic only factors in those who are actively seeking employment and does not include those who have abdicated all hope of finding a job.

Moreover, Michigan has had the highest number of unemployed people in all 50 states for nearly four years. Thousands of living-wage jobs have been permanently lost in the automotive industry and related sectors.

The well-documented collapse of the automobile industry and its impact on Detroit and surrounding areas overshadows Detroit's social significance historically. Adjacent to the hotel where I stayed was the Second Baptist Church.

From 1836 to the end of the Civil War, Second Baptist Church served as a final "station" on the Underground Railroad, receiving some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to the liberation of Canada. By providing food, clothing and shelter, the church stood in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws, boldly living out the Augustinian creed that an unjust law is no law at all.

Detroit was also one of the Great Migration destination points for African Americans. Desperate to leave the suffocating conditions of the Jim Crow South, African Americans sought the refuge of opportunity in Northern industrial cities.

The Northern economic boom was caused mostly by Henry Ford's Model T automobile and his innovative assembly line method that ensured affordability. The Ford Motor Co. lured African Americans and other immigrants on the promise to pay $5 a day to all employees.

It was a manufacturing base that provided a gateway to the middle class, regardless of education or lack thereof. But the migration that once fueled Detroit's growth has methodically reversed over the decades.

In 1950, Detroit was the fourth largest city in America; today, it's 11th. Like other urban cities, Detroit is now famous for its perception of being infamous. Crime, failing public schools, economic downturn, and corruption at City Hall have become the public faces to many of a city once critical to America's industrial growth.

A Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard University poll found that "sad" "rundown" "trouble" are among the first words that came to mind when residents of Detroit thought of their city.

But I'm rooting for Detroit. I found the city and its people to be much more than the sum total of articles and news programs that highlight its social pathologies.

I spent the majority of my free time at 1701 Cigar Bar and Lounge. Taking its name from the year Detroit was founded, it was an establishment that made me feel welcome from the moment I walked in.

Its clientele was a mixture of political ideologies, education levels, and tax brackets that shared an abiding hope that Detroit's best days still lie ahead. Undaunted by CNN's characterization that Detroit is "one of the most dangerous cities in the world," there was a sense of pride from those I encountered that was infectious.

Detroit of the past will obviously not be its future. The good old days of migration and economic growth spawned by the automobile industry are permanently enshrined in the pantheon of Detroit's glory years.

But Detroit is quintessentially American. There is a toughness that refuses to concede to the labels that those others wish to bestow.

This is not to gloss over the problems that plague Detroit, but the same Washington Post poll also revealed 63 percent felt optimistic about Detroit's future. That should be amended to 63 percent, plus one outsider -- me.

I don't have a tangible reason to share in the optimism for Detroit. It wasn't the new cars that General Motors rolled out or a yet-to-be realized major hiring influx.

It was the pervasive feeling that existed. From those working in the hotel that I stayed to the taxi cabdrivers to those who worked the US Social Forum, there was no giving up on Detroit despite myriad exterior reasons to the contrary.

Therefore, Detroit, you have a fan in the Bay Area -- an honorary Detroiter. I'm rooting for you; I'm cheering you on, except when your Tigers play my Giants in the World Series -- this year!

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site byronspeaks.com.