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Why I refuse to say nice things about Detroit

Say Nice Things

Tell ’em I’ll remove the curses

If you tell me our schools gon’ be perfect

Jay Z, Say Hello

Detroit has the world’s attention right now. It is a self-proclaimed comeback city, an American turnaround story.

More importantly than the national and international interest, the suburbs have shown a level of investment in the city and acknowledgement of its importance. That’s unprecedented in these parts.

At this fragile moment, when people whose parents told them to avoid Detroit are finally giving it a chance, there is a feeling, expressed in some corners, that we need to pull out the good china for our guests. That we need to hide what’s ugly behind the curtain and focus on the good. Meijer! Whole Foods! Another Meijer! Slows! (Always Slows) Downtown! Midtown! DIA! RiverWalk!

So when someone posts a photo like this, as seen on Joy Road (2 Mile), it’s perceived as ruin porn. It’s a flagrant violation of a longtime policy of the Detroit Deniers, to Say Nice Things About Detroit.Say Nice Blight

If images of Detroit’s blight annoy you, they should. They annoy me. The thought that a photographer would fly to Detroit from some far-flung location and come back with a bunch of pictures of burned-down houses infuriated me. Not only is it not creative, it’s a poor use of resources.

That’s why I created my photoblog, Down I-94, because I felt Detroit’s story could be told better by yours truly than anyone who comes in with a set agenda could tell it.

I would shoot the good, the bad and the ugly, and I would post it for you all to judge. I would show the blight, but also the creative spirit that expresses itself despite the blight. I would put a spotlight to the never-say-die attitude that causes people to make Grand River a creative corridor, or Grand River and Lahser an artist’s village, or to turn a rotted-out area of the east side into a global attraction.

What I will not do is pretend that a city that’s one-third blighted is A-OK, if you just look at it in the right light, and tilt your head just so. It’s not. Detroit is broke, troubled and violent. It will not educate your child and it will not keep your child safe.

Say Nice Things About Detroit is a consumeristic approach to being part of a community.

Like most great slogans, including my personal favorite Detroit slogan, Where Life Is Worth Living, Say Nice Things About Detroit was created to move customers. In the case of the old slogan, to compel them to buy a home in Detroit. In the case of the new, to compel them to buy the shirts and mugs and bric-a-bracs that would, in theory, preempt negativity toward Detroit.

What that slogan didn’t do and doesn’t do is urge you, the consumer, to go fight the blight you find troubling. To volunteer with the kids who need teaching. To tell the side of the story that needs telling. To advocate for Detroit at any deeper level than a person who needs to feel they didn’t make the wrong choice in cities.

It assumes that if only we can get mean people like Oakland County Exec Brooks Patterson to stop badmouthing the place, we’ll be fine. Say Nice Car Culture

It’s telling that one of the more prominent displays of the Say Nice Things moniker in Detroit is at the Whole Foods at Mack and John R, a symbol of the Detroit’s that’s now worthy of having nice things said about it. Walk around inside that place and you’d never know you were in one of America’s most troubled cities. Walk two blocks east and it becomes abundantly clear.

Detroit, let’s remember, is a city with serious problems, including:

  • At least 300 homicides per year. Which is to say, every year, in our city of about 700,000 people, 300 of them are killed at the hands of another person. This is 11 times the homicide rate of New York City. Despite what some will tell you, these weren’t all “people who know each other,” and they weren’t all killed while fighting for drug turf. (Even if you accept those premises to be true, do you want to live in a place where people who know each other kill each other at Third World rates each year? And unless you know where all the drug turf is in town, how can you be sure you’re not standing on it when the bullets start flying?)
  • Massive water shutoffs due to non-payment, which have attracted the attention and condemnation of United Nations
  • A school system that’s been state-run for 15 years, with no sign that the end of its financial woes is approaching
  • At least one-third of the city is abandoned. At least half of the city is of a quality that, if I were to photograph it, I’d be inviting charges of ruin porn.

There aren’t enough curtains or enough Wizards of Oz to stand behind them to maintain this fantasy that Detroit’s biggest problem is its critics. Or in honest portrayals of what anyone who surveyed this city would find.  Say Nice Detroit MapThe whole of Detroit’s story is certainly not its blight. But it’s also not found at Whole Foods. Both are part of a complex whole.

Let’s be honest about where Detroit is — the good, the bad, and the ugly of it — and get about the task of improving our small corner of it. Any energy spent telling people to say nice things is better-spent making it nice.

I want to extend a challenge to my fellow Metro Detroiters. We all live here. We all drive and walk and bike around here, and we all have smartphones. If ever you feel Detroit is being misrepresented by others, make a contribution. Shoot the images you want seen. Tell the stories you want told.

Or make sure to support those who do.

Down I-94: My blog about Detroit