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Detroit and Royal Oak: It's the people


I don’t live in Detroit. The significance of this fact cannot be overstated. The depths of meaning associated with an otherwise arbitrary 8 Mile span are unfathomable. Confusing your 248 area code with a 313 when speaking with a Detroiter is enough to raise the most sardonic voices from the depths of irony to an almost quixotic defense of their Detroit experience. Turns out, location is one of the final frontiers of authenticity and people will defend it.

I imagine that claiming this city wrongfully would be akin to wearing a Jordan jersey to the Palace when Dennis Rodman was still a Bad Boy. You didn’t do it. Granted, there is something about living in Detroit that is weirdly authentic from the outset. Unless you are the financial progeny of Dan Gilbert, living in this city requires some kind of bizarre choice. And I suppose this is what makes the city sexy.

You don’t just stumble into Detroit in the way that you might find yourself in the suburbs of Chicago with the entirety of your college’s accounting club. You choose this place. And even if your choice was one of willful ignorance, your innocence will inevitably be misinterpreted as a hard-nosed defense of America’s industrial heartland.

Yet I have chosen the inglorious way of the suburbanite, granted, living in Royal Oak is not without its intrigue. Questions of whether or not Buffalo Wild Wings should become the latest chain to establish residence on Main Street keeps locals alert and engaged. Rumors of unruly teens engaging in disorderly behavior incited debate over whether this self-proclaimed “wild” establishment would serve to encourage their tomfoolery in a way that its predecessor, Barnes & Noble, never did. Responding to the prevailing fear that the city’s “Midwest, best west” aesthetic would be tainted, Mayor Jim Ellison assured residents, “[Buffalo Wild Wings] does attract families…and sports teams. It’s not a BlackFinn, it’s not a 526. I would compare it with a Mongolian BBQ.” Naturally, this encouragement coupled with the Buffalo Wild Wings owner’s promise to “limit marketing items such as 50-cent wings that tend to attract teens” prompted my wife and I to choose this city as our home.

Royal Oak finds its identity in providing its inhabitants opportunity to participate in an authentic “across the tracks” experience once reserved only for cinema. The likes of Hookah Joe and Starbucks, separated only by the Amtrak that stumbles through the city every few hours, represent two distinct motifs. To the west, those beholden to the disenfranchised punk gather to play Magic and drink coffee while clutching levers that flow from a machine that looks insanely illegal. To the east, the corporate chic sip lattes and talk about fantasy football while discussing a possible visit to the before-mentioned BlackFinn before night’s end. Renters and homeowners alike can peruse the gambit of the American identity while resting assured that they will not be bothered by unruly teens.

Long story short: Royal Oak is generically attractive. The Music Theater brings in a lot of talent, there’s a Trader Joe’s, and there’s a theater dedicated to Indie films. There’s even a grand finale: a Yelp search for “coffee in Royal Oak” will yield 442 results within a “bird’s eye view.”  It’s an easy choice if you’re looking for a home. No one will question your decision.

This final point is an important one. Literally no one has asked me why I chose to live in Royal Oak. The answer has always been self-evident: grocery stores, coffee shops, etc. There are no questions to be found, only answers in the form of free samples of organic tomato soup and late-night showings of cult classics. An empirical search aimed at distilling the qualities of a home to a list of specific amenities would likely bring you to a place like Royal Oak. It brought me.

Yet the use of “home” seems to overstate things. Last Thursday I taught my students at Cody High School about the idea of an existential crisis. The term came up when the character in our novel described himself as a “stranger” as he drifted between his life on a Native American reservation and his high school in the adjacent farming community. Besides commentary on what kind of transient schmuck would abandon his friends to go to school somewhere else, the conversation turned back on Mr. Andrew who the kids suggested might be having a crisis of his own.

With New Hampshire as my home, Detroit as my place of employment, and Royal Oak as my pied-à-terre, I occupy the liminal space that should encourage questions like, “what’s your deal? Why don’t you just live in Detroit if you work here?” To this inquiry, I’ve even prepared a response: “It’s my wife. She works in Pontiac and it’s unreasonable to expect her to commute from the city.” It’s a legitimate response but one that I’ve actually never given.

Questions about life in Detroit focus on the hypothetical: why would anyone live there? It seems there is no shortage of inquiry here. Everyone asks. Nobody knows. In some fundamental way, my shamefully limited perspective suggests that no sensible response exists. You can find quirky restaurants, hard-bitten sports teams, tangled histories, and bad public transit in a lot of cities. I mean, a lot of Detroiters will get mad or sad and they’ll inevitably say something in defense of their city, but their arguments for “why here?” are reminiscent of Mrs. Larbie’s arguments of why I should love sacrificially as a first grader. You can’t convince a six year old to switch seats in Sunday School when he knows the cushioned chair is more comfortable. We’re all looking for the advantage so why would you choose something empirically worse? Detroit is that metal chair in the corner that crunches against your spine and freezes every bit of exposed skin that touches its surface. So let’s be real. After all the talk of rebirth and new cushions, it’s just business, man: location, location, location.

Yet somewhere between jingoism and depression there’s a kid learning about MLK in his 9th grade U.S. history class at a Detroit Public School. And somewhere between Apple computers bearing stickers that say “Detroit Hustles Harder” and documentaries about blight featuring Elton John’s “Sad Songs,” there’s a grandparent lecturing at a family dinner about the great moralities of a day gone bye. They’ll both tell you that Detroit is home. They’ll talk about family reunions on Belle Isle, and though you may counter with the beauties of Millenium Park they won’t care. They live here.

So this is what I know of Detroit thus far: people do choose to live here. They come for each other. And maybe that’s enough.

train station

Josh Andrew
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Joshua Andrew now teaches English at Cody Medicine & Community Health Public High School on the west side of Detroit. Follow him @joshuadavisandrew.