Can Detroit Save White People?

2017-09-05T09:36:19+00:00 July 16th, 2015|

By Aaron Foley

OK, so, all you white people coming from Brooklyn (or L.A., or Portland, or Austin, or Chicago, or London, or whatever) to Detroit looking to “save” yourself: What, exactly, are you saving yourself from?

I’m curious! What is it like being born into the most spoiled classes on the planet and wanting to move to a city full of black folks who have been ruined by centuries of your tyrannical rule? Serious question here.

Alright, maybe that’s being a little harsh. I didn’t mean to call you folks spoiled. Because as we all know in New Detroit, we have to get along and pretend racism doesn’t exist anymore. Just ignore all those elderly black people being pushed out of downtown. It’s really just a class issue, don’tcha know.

[blocktext align=”left”]What is this desperate need for people to fix themselves in a city that’s broken?But back to this issue of “saving yourself.”[/blocktext]What is this obsession? What is this desperate need for people to fix themselves in a city that’s broken? You may heal, you may find your emotional center, but your surroundings remain the same.

Why is it that the Detroit I know is so drastically different than what all these starving artists think it is? The city that made me, that made us, who we are: Driven to succeed, dressing to impress, never saying die, forever against the odds, is now becoming the Island of Misfit Toys? Is this your pilgrimage to Mecca? A journey through the universe to the softest place on earth? Who are you misguided strangers who aren’t even close to having your life together in a city where we’ve constantly been told that we’d never be worth anything if we weren’t on your level?

Yes, we were told that. Us eastside and westside kids were always told to not even think about going to the parks in Grosse Pointe, to drive slow in West Bloomfield, to just ignore those stars and bars on the back of Taylor pickup trucks and to outperform the kids in all the rest of the suburbs so that we might have a chance to get a scholarship to a U of M, an MSU or a CMU, only to be told on the first day of orientation that we are only here as pitiful affirmative-action cases and that our Detroit/Highland Park/Southfield/Inkster educations would never be enough to make it in the real world, so we go back home to make sure that the next generation would never have to deal with the kind of stuff we had to put up with, only now we have to deal with not only these overcrowded schools, these abandoned houses, these unpredictable summers but on top of all this, these armies of confused Williamsburg rejects who simultaneously have all the answers on how to make it in Detroit after living here for five weeks but don’t even know how to fix their own lives because they need to be “saved.”

What are you looking for here that you can’t find elsewhere? Can’t you just admit that you came for the cheap rent? Because that’s what it all boils down to, right? And that’s fine. Perfectly fine, and I’m not being cynical or sarcastic. I love the fact that there are still places in Detroit that rent for the same as what my mom paid in Lafayette Park in the ‘90s. I don’t love how the “cheap rent” excuse is fine for the newcomers but not the longtime business owners. But I’ve seen Brooklyn prices, and you’d be a fool to not take advantage of what we’ve got here. And we could certainly use more (live) bodies here. But can you at least be up front with your intent, and not cover it up with this hippie malarkey about “finding yourself?”

[blocktext align=”right”]What are you looking for here that you can’t find elsewhere? Can’t you just admit that you came for the cheap rent? Because that’s what it all boils down to, right?[/blocktext]I’m not sure what else you’re looking for, or what exactly you’re trying to get away from when you say you want to save yourself. Again, save yourself from what? The unbearable guilt of feeling like a gentrifier, perhaps? Well, guess what? When you’re moving here, that guilt will manifest in different ways. Sure, we’ve got plenty of empty space for you to not push anyone out because there’s literally no one there. Telling people that your former hometown has “lost its sense of adventure,” however, lends to this idea that Detroit is just your personal safari, filled with dangerous twists and turns and the unknowing of what will happen next.

That’s the rub. That’s what gets me, because we’ve lived here in Detroit all this time and we know how to get along here. But if I were to pack up and move to Montana tomorrow, of course I would be forced to grow up and mature a little and be prepared for the unknown, because I don’t know where I am. I’m out of my comfort zone. And, just like the rest of you 20- and 30-somethings, I’m at an age where I really haven’t figured things out yet, either. But that’s sort of the thing that happens to all of us at that age, living in Detroit or not. Talking about Detroit in these wildlife terms is just as offensive as those of you on the opposite side doing all you can to erase the history – remember our “blank canvas” phase, everyone? – of the people that have been here. And, yeah, there’s also that subtle undercurrent of racism when you talk about “adventure” in a city that’s mostly black.

Why don’t we just make a deal that when you move to Detroit, you just move here and shut up about it? Buy your abandoned building, build your lovely studio space and make art to your heart’s content, but at the same time, keep that maudlin B.S. to a minimum. Get off this endless spiel of trying to “save yourself” and just pay some property taxes. Welcome to Detroit.

Aaron Foley writes the On Detroit column for Belt as well as authoring How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass. Order a copy here.

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  1. true Detroiter July 16, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Good one Aaron….one if your best yet…as far as I am concerned. thanks for keeping it all the way honest & real!

    • Cara July 23, 2015 at 2:53 am - Reply

      “Thanks for being honey and keeping it real” Ok, please do me a favor and keep it real with yourself. This guy is saying “Us Detroiters have always gotten along here.” Ok, now turn in the nightly news or better yet use your Google to search “Detroit” and then click news. “Ahhh I remember the good old days before the hippie self-centered whites were flocking in from Orange Co. Kwame and Friends- it was my very fav. After school special…a story of cohesion and harmony!” Is this considered journalism or is this supposed to be satirical? I don’t get this article at all. It just seems a little too much like the author is really painting a strange picture of Detroit as some sort of magical CandyLand only fit for some sort of delusional elitists.

  2. bobby July 16, 2015 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    I think this is where the turn of phrase came from

  3. Rob L July 16, 2015 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    This entire piece is based around a premise that anyone white moving to Detroit is a “spoiled,” “misguided stranger” looking to “save” or “fix” themselves, but it doesn’t even try to support the claim with examples, quotes or facts. Aaron Foley begs these white invaders to “just admit” that they’re only in Detroit because of cheap rent, as if only blacks deserve to pay less. Foley’s full of faux outrage that these “gentrifiers” think Detroit is “just your personal safari,” which offends the him, but he’s the only one using this language. This is insulting to everyone that wastes the time to read it.

  4. pants July 16, 2015 at 2:18 pm - Reply

    “The unbearable guilt of feeling like a gentrifier, perhaps?”

    This is perfect. I’m white. Born in Detroit. Raised in the Eastside suburbs. Left for college. Moved to Downtown Detroit in 2000. Rented for the first 5 years. Bought a place in 2005. It’ll be 15 years in the City next month. The changes have been significant in those 15 years. But it’s the past 18-24 months that scare the shit of me. The vibe of entitlement, and for lack of a better word, “douchebaggery, has increased exponentially in the past 2 years. The people coming here to save themselves…and save the city, are basically turning our old Detroit into any other city in America. The Cass Corridor (I refuse to call it “Midtown”…just as I’ll refuse to refer to the Wings new arena area as “The District”) is beginning to look like a larger Royal Oak. For anyone who thinks that’s a step in the right direction…you probably actually enjoy Royal Oak. Which again, scares the shit out of me.

    We bought a home here 10 years ago because we wanted to be a part of the City. A small part of the neighborhood. Something to build on. We didn’t attempt to change the existing neighborhood with our vision of what white suburbia might enjoy.

    While walking around “Midtown” yesterday I realized that we’re just living in an area like the areas we hated in the first place. Royal Oak gentrified in the early to mid 1990’s. Once gentrification ruined RO, and it became expensive…everyone moved to Ferndale and ruined that town. Now…it’s on to Downtown Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods.

    Yesterday was the first day in 15 years I had a hard time looking long time residents and inhabitants of Downtown in the face as we walked around. I once felt part of something special and close knit. I now feel like one of the new intruders in my own backyard.

    It was a great run, but I don’t think I’m cut out for the New Detroit.

    • DetroitJB July 16, 2015 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      Sounds like someone’s mad….lol.

      • pants July 17, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

        Disappointment and anger are completely separate emotions.

    • Adam July 18, 2015 at 8:14 pm - Reply

      Wait, you’d rather Ferndale (or RO) have lots of empty store fronts and depressed property values? Because that is what it was like before the changes you lament turned Ferndale into a vibrant and exciting place to live. I have a hard time understanding why you would be nostalgic for the old shitty state of things.

    • Cara July 22, 2015 at 3:57 pm - Reply

      When I moved to Detroit in 2008, it was because I graduated college and all the social service jobs were in Detroit or the very nearby suburbs. I’m from a small farming community. Every time I went anywhere, people would ask if I was there to “save Detroit” how are you suppose to respond to that? I definitely didn’t feel that the housing was cheap downtown– but then again I was making 26K a year and paying city taxes. My response would usually be- “Detroit doesn’t need to be saved, maybe somebody can save me.” because I was broke as hell, becoming an alcoholic and hating my tiny ass cubical desk job and tiny ass overpriced studio apt. “We hate the hipsters” & now “We hate the Williamsburg rejects” Who do you want to move to Detroit? Who is good enough? People who just keep their fucking mouths shut right? Should we just leave it a barren ghost town with empty store fronts that are turned into art displays by Wayne State students? You would think you want people who pay taxes and can bring in an adequate police department and public transportation. I also recently read that you shouldn’t say you “braved” moving to Detroit. How would you put moving to one of the most notoriously violent cities in America? Is that politically incorrect to state a FACT? DETROIT AND FLINT MICHIGAN HAVE OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN BEEN VOTED TWO OF THE TOP TEN MOST DANGEROUS CITIES IN OUR NATION. FACT. Based on statistics. But you’re supposed to be like “weeeeeee there’s so much opportunity in Detroit!” No. People who open shop there are taking risks. Yes. Yes they are. I was laughed at and mocked by my black co-workers for even living downtown. Then roughly half my check went to a tiny studio apt. Then I was accused by the extreme left-wing of gentrifying downtown. ARE FUCKING SERIOUS? If my rent would have been raised my ass would have been the first to have packed up and left my building. Why don’t you write a fucking article on some REAL PROBLEMS Detroit has besides stupid shit white people say that really don’t fucking matter?

  5. Lame July 17, 2015 at 2:26 am - Reply

    Seriously? Black people. White people. You both offend me with crap like this. I’m so sad I moved to Michigan. In 20 years this is the first time I heard someone talk about affirmative-action. Seriously? WTF?

  6. Tom July 17, 2015 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Aaron’s rhetoric on this subject is getting tiresome. And I don’t understand who exactly is saying that they’re coming to Detroit to “save” themselves. It also seems like he is exaggerating the amount of young, hipster, white people from the east coast that are coming into Detroit. Overall, I expect better from Belt.

  7. c from Cle July 17, 2015 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Actually White people (and Native Americans) were in Detroit (and the Rustbelt generally) well before Black people. But how anything like that line reasoning has ever or will ever build a city I have no idea.

    Americans did not build America. Migrants (including Black migrants) did. Bring ’em on.

  8. trina July 17, 2015 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Racism has always been alive and well in Detroit even in your major hospitals I was asked by a white women who was head of our Recovery department at Harper Hospital if I was Going home to get my gun just because I told a racist young white women she need to grow up and be a women just because of the way she spoke to me and yes i’m putting hospitals on the front line in my 18 years of being in the medical field i have experinced it all now, I want to open up my own business because i always said I’m tired of working for the white man because your not fairly treated right you bust your ass your for the job. They can look you straight in the eye and stab you with a dagger in your back just like downtown getting back to basics their only concern is to keep money flowing down their so whites can put money in the out skirts of town what about the people in the inner city I never liked Detroit it has never did anything for me but cause me heartache and when i get my chance to break I’m gone ni looking back and besides the people here are not friendly i don’t know how people will except this i really don’t care this is my opinion on jobs,white people coming back to Detroit it was all about them anyway right and yes I’m bitter but we suppose to people as a whole right not.

  9. RhymeOrReason July 17, 2015 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    This article hurt my feelings a little. Let’s try to understand. First it starts with a quote:

    “I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me.”

    I always interpreted this in a positive way, moving from the “Savior cliche” to a person who allows themselves to be changed by a city. Aaron seems to be interpreting this more literally. And as such begins to ask questions like “What are you saving yourself from?”

    Let’s face it, if you met a religious person and the said “God saved me!” and your response was “What did he save you from? TELL ME!” The person would be like, “Chill out it’s a figure of speech… Jesus” (that’s a little religion humor for you)

    So from line one of the article, we were already in completely different places, with him asking peculiar questions like “What is this desperate need for people to fix themselves in a city that’s broken?” and me being like, wait what’s wrong with having a city change you for the better?

    There may be something behind Aaron’s interpretation of the quote – like, “well while you’re standing here having this spiritual experience bad shit is happening all over the place, so enjoy that.”

    And fine. I guess I can get that. But I don’t think I’m seeing anyone really doing this, so this outrage feels false to me. Like how can you be that angry at a group of people you’ve never met because they don’t actually exist and you’re just misinterpreting them into assuming a silly strawman position?

    But false or not, this article still struck a cord with me.

    Like. I was so careful to not walk into the cliche of being an outsider trying to “save Detroit” that I walked right into the cliche of being someone whose experience in Detroit has been completely life changing.

    It seems the only way to win is to arrive in Detroit, look around, and be like, “Meh, it’s okay.”

    But that would be a lie. This has been the most life changing time of my life. Why is someone trying to make me feel bad about that?

    But that’s the wrong question. This article hurts me because it brings back that fear, that no matter how thoughtful you are about what you write, you’ll get labeled as something. And then suddenly you’re a meme.

    And that’s probably true. I’m lucky I haven’t been labeled yet. But it could happen. I’m not invulnerable from it. One day someone will take something I’m saying, and no matter how careful I am, how thoughtful I think I’m being, it will not matter.

    This article brings back that fear. The fear that says, “Just. shut. up.”

    But fuck that. Yes, seek to understand. Make sure what you write isn’t some hastily written Detroit boosterism, or Detroit ruin porn, or Detroit Saviorism, or lazy white supremacist bullshit, but beyond that, find your truth, and write it down, and get it out there.

    Just write true.

    P.S. Thank you for helping me work through my feelings.

    • Bassmom July 19, 2015 at 6:34 pm - Reply

      Thank you, RhymeorReason. Your thoughtful comments helped me think more deeply about the article. You respected that someone took the time and made the effort to express themselves, and you had the courage to explore the subject and the reactions it triggered in you more deeply. I really appreciate knowing you are on the planet, and also that you are a Detroit resident.

      • RhymeOrReason July 20, 2015 at 12:32 pm - Reply

        Hi Bassmom, thanks!! I’m glad someone read it – I appreciate your appreciation. Glad to be here 🙂

  10. Reality July 17, 2015 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    No. Welcome to Detroit. I’m Detroit born, and raised (DPS all the way), and left. I love Detroit, there are great people there, and my family still lives in the house I grew up in. But GET. REAL. We’ve gone from 2 million to 700 thousand and falling. I love our spirit, but we don’t have time for attitude. No, don’t let the plaid-wearing, soul-patch having Brooklyn boy take over. Roll your eyes if you want. But if he’s in, he’s one of us. Give him some shit, buy him a Faygo and some Jay’s, and get to know your new neighbor.

  11. Pauly July 18, 2015 at 1:16 am - Reply

    Wow. This kind of unjustifiable cynicism is better off alone in a place like Montana. Do you think black people brought Detroit to ruin? Why then do you think any new culture in the city will infect and ruin it? Detroit is beautiful because anyone who knows it knows there are so many different kinds of people living in harmony and Detroit is awful because many people felt they needed to live in neighborhoods with other people that look the same. I think his prejudice and lack of perspective is the sickness my hometown needs removed like a malignant tumor. Love your neighbor even if they are self centered- you don’t have to do more than smile and wave hi. Here’s another thing I hope all of those ‘white kids’ bring to the D along with their money, entrepreneurial spirit, social/political awareness and community building: a live and let live spirit.

  12. Norton July 18, 2015 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    I grew up in Dearborn, and spent loads of time all over Detroit. I’ve lived in San Diego for twelve years, and plan to move back to Detroit soon with my wife to start a business. Gentrification has its downsides, but I can’t wait to start a business with low overhead, reasonable wages, and low taxes. I can’t wait to buy a cheap house and improve a neighborhood (with the support of my neighbors). Detroit used to have 2.4 million inhabitants, and at the time was considered one of the richest cities in the world, and offered an extremely high standard of living. White flight happened and now the city is almost 2/3 empty, and those that do live there hardly contribute to the tax base. God forbid employable, skilled people move in and develop an economy in the city, as residents then might have to deal with mainstream concepts such as reasonable response times from adequately funded police, fire, and EMS. There is plenty of room for tons of people to move in and build a life for themselves, however they want to. That is what built 20th century Detroit in the first place. The economic forces of supply and demand outweigh the author’s petulant resistance to accept different types of people in his city. I wonder if he is supportive of Detroit blacks moving into Dearborn, which is an even more radical concept than white suburbanites moving into Detroit. Being sealed off from the rest of the world breeds the type of closed-minded ignorance that has allowed Detroit politicians and landlords to fleece their citizens for decades. I have as much affection for this mentality as I do for Detroit’s lack of public safety, and my current neighborhood’s $700,000 median home price (we’re talking 1000 square feet here). Can’t wait to move to Detroit with my mixed-race marriage and thriving small business to pay taxes and fix up a dilapidated old neighborhood. Then again, the locals might not approve of that lifestyle, but it’s a free country.

  13. Jude July 19, 2015 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Of course you see the gamut in these comments and it comes as no surprise that the most offended are the very ones the article seeks to indict. White privilege shrouds their every move and insulates them from even having to examine themselves and their motives. As in male privilege, they consistently exonerate themselves. I see it and I am actually white. Why do they refuse to? Entitlement and lack of empathy would be my guess. It is amusing to me that in their self-centeredness, they are actually proving this author’s very premise.

    • Norton July 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm - Reply


      Most of us have learned the same words you use in the same bullsh*t Sociology classes that you learned them in, but I guess any sense of entitlement you detect is coming from those of us with our own opinions based on real world experience, not just regurgitating overused, politically correct concepts we absorbed in SOC101.
      The whole article (look at the title) is designed to be offensive. This is done to generate page views, links, and comments. I have an adequate amount of empathy, and yes, an appropriate amount of entitlement. Enough empathy to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and enough entitlement to tell them that they’ll just have to suck it up and deal with it anyway.

  14. lp September 20, 2015 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I am from CLE not Detroit, but I get the rust belt irritation at others coming in and taking over when things are maybe on the upswing and being self-righteous about it when we have lived and struggled in and identified with a place for years of depression and hard knocks. I’m not black, but I would think the racial differences would make it even more irritating if I were.

  15. Jimmy February 4, 2016 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    Welcome to Detroit attitude.
    Translate Detroit privilege to entitlement. I am poor so I am entitled to hate you or rob you. If I manage to be successful, I deserve to continue to steal and help my friends to do the same. I am entitled to resent your attempts to rehabilitate my broken environment because you caused it in the first place. This is my city now. It’s my turn now. You think a few Condos, some delusional painters and some chef wannabes can change fifty years of theft, cronyism and systematic corruption. Well thank you for your support. I still hate you, but bring money to keep the wheel turning. SARCASM?

  16. David N May 6, 2016 at 5:31 am - Reply

    You want to save Detroit? Simple. Make it a no government zone. If you live in Detroit, you receive no government benefits. None. But, you pay not taxes and are subject to no regulations (except environmental laws). You provide your own security. In five years, the crackheads leave, the job creators move in. Problem solved.

  17. Evil landlord January 10, 2017 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    Moved to the Cass Corridor 40 years ago and bought some apt bldgs for nothing. Payday Keep coming folks….Any color….Long as it’s green. Love “MIDTOWN”. ,Please pay the rent.

  18. JG September 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    All I know is it would surprise me when we would dig up wooden water mains still in use from (the 1800’s) in Detroit back in my construction days
    Downtown (late 1990’s)..the problems with the city have more too do with decades of crooked mayors like Colman young-Kilpatrick and not investing in infrastructure and public buildings like schools..and less too do do with the people living in the city (or the color of their skin)…and more too do with the lack of keeping the infrastructure modern and high business taxes that eventually ran all the industry out..everything suffered, the economy crashed in the city and was unable too bounce back..Detroit is a city that was once the envy of the world as an industrial leader, and my hope for Detroit would be new investment and growth.
    And the same goes for Pontiac, flint, and many of the other city’s that also lost their industry when Detroit lost its’s was like dominoes..Detroit and it’s success was and still, is very important too all of the surrounding citys…in a city that can’t even afford fire trucks, who would be concerned with people investing, moving there, and bringing up the tax rolls..?

  19. Nick October 20, 2017 at 9:44 am - Reply

    Wow, I am offended by this article on so many levels. WTF is “white privilege”? I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of Detroit. Being white did not open doors of opportunity. I opened those doors with hard work and perseverance. In high school I worked 2 jobs 30-40 hours of work. Hell according to this article just being white should have been enough. My life was perfect without struggles just because of my whiteness. Give me a break stop blaming the “white man” for your troubles. Everyone has opportunities if the seek them. I went on to serve 22 years in the Marine Corps. There was no white Marines, Black Marines, Asian, Hispanic etc we were just Marines. My formative years 18 to say 25 I lived in a world where race didn’t matter we were just Marines. After 22 years in The Corps I retired. Entering the civilian sector was a shock to say the least. Everything became a race issue. Pretty scary stuff. Race isn’t an excuse, race isn’t a reason, race doesn’t matter, if you feel the “Man” is keeping you down I feel sorry for you. Look in the mirror that’s the “Man” who is keeping you down.

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