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On Leaving Detroit

On Leaving Detroit

 

By Aaron Foley

I have a dear friend who is planning to leave Detroit very soon to move West. After living in and around Detroit all his life, he is taking a new job in sunny California.

He is, by definition, the very demographic Michigan wants to hold on to: Young, educated, highly skilled, upwardly mobile. And yet, it wasn’t the political climate of the state, the lack of opportunity, or problems with Detroit itself that made my friend want to move. Rather, he just wants to live on a beach — a beach that’s warm almost year-round — and advance in his career while doing so.

Not that long ago, he was a typical Detroit diehard. Unaware of how much the city had to offer when he first moved from the suburbs, he quickly fell in love with its charm and opportunity. There were the occasional complaints, usually revolving around how frustrated people can be when Detroit does them wrong. But overall, he never had a negative thing to say about the city or its people.

Now he’s leaving. And I think that’s fine. I have a feeling he’ll be back in a few years, but if he doesn’t return, I’ll still think that’s fine. Not everyone will be convinced, though.

A few weeks ago, I met a college student from Detroit now attending a campus far away. He told me he wanted to come back to Detroit after graduation, but he knows there’s a very real possibility that his degree will take him elsewhere.

It’s fine, I said. “As long as you keep Detroit in your heart.” But then he told me that he was worried that people might look at him as a sellout for not coming back to Detroit.

I usually throw some jabs at overly enthusiastic Detroiters who wear combative, emphatic T-shirts to do relatively harmless things like, I don’t know, ride a bike on the Dequindre Cut. I’ve tried to lighten up, because we need them here in Detroit, too. But now I’m afraid that we’ve created an aggressive culture of Detroit defenders that has made the idea of leaving Detroit taboo.

Most recently, someone asked how I could defend Detroit, but my office is in Ferndale. Seriously?

I remember once talking to a friend who owns a business in Hamtramck, but has “Detroit” in the business name. He gets flamed every now and then because Hamtrmack is not technically Detroit, even though Hamtramck is in the city’s bounds and 90 percent of his business is done in the city anyways. I remember talking to another friend, who’s fairly well-known as a ride-or-die Detroiter, about what would happen if one day, we wake up in our 40s wondering if it’s time to move to Birmingham — and would we be sellouts? Most recently, someone asked how I could defend Detroit, but my office is in Ferndale. Seriously?

And I’ve noticed a few more trends the more I talk to people across town. People who live in the suburbs — I’m finding that “suburbanites” is increasingly pejorative, by the way — are more and more self-deprecating. Talk to someone who lives in Clawson, for example. It’s never just, “I live in Clawson.” Now it’ll be something like, “I live in Clawson — I know, I know…” Even more depressing are people living in Detroit who are faced with the prospect of possibly moving to the suburbs. They’re the ones whose faces turn pale and distant when they start talking how big their kid is getting.

Has Detroit pride turned into jingoism? When we plant a stake here, are we not allowed to move them? In our collective quest to make this city the best it can be, we’ve accidentally developed an arrogance toward anyone with extenuating circumstances. It’s no longer “we’re sad to see you go.” Now it’s “don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

I’m not sure who’s more guilty of this attitude. Is it the New New Detroiters, this third wave of eager residents who argue with the second-wave New Detroiters over who’s more Detroit? Is it the do-gooder executive types, who think since they straddle the line between community development and corporate investment, they know exactly what will fix Detroit? Could I be guilty as well? I’ve said out loud that I think the suburbs are cool, but what if the Detroit Authenticity Police dig up an old Facebook comment from 2007 making fun of Taylor?

You can leave L.A. You can leave New York. You can leave Twitter, for goodness sakes. You should be able to leave Detroit, too.

There are obviously a lot of blatantly missing pieces to Detroit that keep the city from being whole. (Schools. A stable housing market. Schools. Affordable car insurance rates. Schools. Schools. Schools.) One of the things I’m realizing we’re missing is the freedom to leave without being judged for it. You can leave L.A. You can leave New York. You can leave Twitter, for goodness sakes. You should be able to leave Detroit, too.

It’s true that decades ago, people left Detroit for all the wrong reasons. They gave up on Detroit. That’s not the reason why many people are leaving now. People are leaving because…well, why should this even be justified? It’s none of your business.

I keep going back to what I told the confused college student about the possibility of leaving Detroit, and how he should always keep Detroit in his heart no matter where he goes. Detroiters know who they are — and people definitely know who we are — because of our love for this city. It’s a love you can take anywhere. That’s what makes it OK to leave.

Aaron Foley writes the On Detroit column for Belt and is the author of How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass, published by Belt.

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3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 18, 2016

    You have really touched on something important. I left Detroit in 2011 after living in Detroit for 13 years. Some “friends” in Detroit started putting down my decision to leave and finding fault with my new city. When I visit, some even can’t be happy for me that I am happy in my new city. I joke that leaving Detroit is like leaving a cult but there is some truth to it. It’s a personal decision and doesn’t reflect negatively on the people who choose to stay.

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  2. Avatar
    May 13, 2016

    Very nicely written piece. I left Detroit in 1978, after being born and spending 25 years there. I left for opportunities elsewhere, plus Detroit’s depression was dragging me down. I’ve never felt guilty about my choice. There are so many fascinating places in the world to live, why must someone stay in a place just because a geographic luck planted them there? I teach urban geography and am well aware of the background of the Detroit story, and its place as a vital link in the rust belt, aka deindustrialization of our country. I visit frequently, enjoy it, and respect those who can make a life there. I wish you all the best.
    Allen Andraski, Pershing High 1972

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  3. Avatar
    April 25, 2017

    Yes, this article is the epitome of my life. Soon to be graduate, I have always loved to travel and learn different cities. My dream is to at least live and work in two cities outside of Detroit before settling down. I hope to move to California as well next year, without as much backlash (hopefully) I love my city but it’s time to explore lol.

    Reply

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