By Aaron Foley
An excerpt from How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass (Belt Publishing, 2015).
Political power itself is always in danger when you don’t have economic power… The principal levers of power are basically in the hands of whites.
To save this city is to save the best chance we have at combining political and economic power.
— Arthur Johnson, civil rights activist
Every year on Mackinac Island, a resort spot in Lake Huron, off the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber — something akin to a downtown development agency — holds an annual gathering called the Mackinac Policy Conference. It is a gathering of business leaders, politicians from across the state, movers, shakers, the journalists who cover all of the above, and immigrant service workers who spend a few days on the island discussing exactly what the conference is named for: policy. They discuss social policy. Education policy. Financial policy. Tax policy. Infrastructure policy. Policy policy. It is said this is the site of backroom deals, but lately deals are made out in the open in front of the press. And as the conference has gotten more attention it has morphed into Michigan’s own White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
MPC hasn’t reached TMZ-level coverage yet, but it’s getting there. Each year, reporters have increasingly abandoned journalistic ethics to cozy up closer with sources; look no further than the barrage of selfies pumped out each year by reporters on the island, either with each other or the very subjects they must turn a critical eye toward after the party’s over. And then there are the endless freebies. All the J-school rules are left on the Lower Peninsula when there’s free, Detroit-made bourbon to sip and Mackinac Island fudge to take home to the kiddies.
The crux of the conference is conversation. Conversations about policy, of course, but also conversations about whatever pressing issue is facing the state of Michigan at the moment. Are state test scores low among fourth-graders? Conversation about it. Is there a brain drain as younger residents move to Chicago, as they usually do? Conversation about it.
The Mackinac Policy Conference, despite being hosted by a Detroit-based organization, draws a mostly white crowd, but of late the conversations have turned to race relations in Detroit and other Michigan cities. Being a business conference, the conversations about race have little to do with actual interactions between, say, Latinos and whites or Arabs and blacks, but rather how any one group’s spending power impacts development in the state. And these conversations about race in Michigan, and especially in Detroit, are all based around what’s convenient for white people. I mean, the MPC is held at a resort in a hotel, far away from Detroit’s problems. How are the people there supposed to talk about Detroit’s problems when they’re so removed from it?
More often than not, it seems the proposed solution for white people’s problems — be they problems that impact white people directly, or problems with other racial groups that have ripple effects on whites — is conversation.
Now, I’m a cynic and I’m a skeptic. Maybe I was born with these characteristics. Or maybe they just came to me by circumstance. Being born a minority in this country and realizing your stance later on makes you this way. But here’s how these conversations typically go in Detroit: there’ll be a panel discussion hosted by savvy urbanites, where the panel talks about their experiences. Concerns are aired, but often ignored. Actions rarely result from these conversations, it just makes people feel good that they tried to make an effort. Once these conversations are over, they are forgotten. And it’s easy to remain cynical and skeptical.
Too much cynicism and skepticism can be dangerous, though. They are useful traits to have, but when they cloud your sense of optimism, you can easily find yourself living in misery and wondering how you got there.
I did have an unexpected but fruitful conversation with someone recently. We’re friends, we both live in the city, and we both ultimately want the same thing from Detroit: for it to be a functional, fun place to live. The thing is, we didn’t even set out to talk about Detroit. But you know how it is when friends talk, the conversation can go in several different directions.
It’s not that I don’t talk about Detroit in real life, it’s just that my friends and I are often so cynical and skeptical. We’ve all seen it all before: broken promises from politicians, false starts in the economy, putting faith in this store here or that restaurant there. And sometimes talking about Detroit can be tiring.
[blocktext align=”right”]It’s not that I don’t talk about Detroit in real
life, it’s just that my
friends and I are often so cynical and skeptical … And sometimes talking about Detroit can be tiring.[/blocktext]But now that it’s starting to feel like things are — finally! — changing for the better in Detroit, this conversation felt oddly optimistic, something I hadn’t felt in so long, I actually walked away feeling refreshed. We talked about our personal lives and ambitions, and how they are both tied to the future of the city. Not once did we talk about moving elsewhere, as so often is the case when younger Michiganders start talking about where they’ll be in the next few years. No, we both saw things on the horizon that would make us want to stay.
We were honest, which is necessary. And we were realistic. We both know functionality isn’t coming tomorrow. But we both kept saying, “Man, in a couple of years…”
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this conversation was that the intimacy allowed not only our honesty, but a chance to listen to each other.
There’s a scene in the Jackson family miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream where a young Michael Jackson is invited to sing on stage with Motown grand diva Diana Ross. The two duet on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” Ross’ first solo outing after leaving the Supremes.
As the supposedly based-on-a-true-story TV movie would have you believe, Jackson stole the show from Ross, singing the second verse of the song and refusing to give her back her microphone, causing them to have a friendly tug-of-war on stage. Jackson continued to out-sing Ross on her own song, with his parents and siblings looking on from the audience.
It’s a strange metaphor I’m going to present here, and you kind of have to watch it to get the whole gist. But when you have a newcomer like MJ upstaging a veteran like Diana, and not sharing the stage, it’s reminding me of the narrative here in Detroit right now.
Without taking an official census or survey, I can guarantee that there is no one in Detroit who wants things to stay the way they are. Little old women do not wake up and say, “You know, I really hope they don’t tear down that abandoned house that’s now a dope house.” No one ever says, “We don’t need better schools and police.”
And no one ever says that Detroit doesn’t need more people. Depending on your figures, the city is anywhere between 60% to 80% occupied — both figures way too small for a 139-square-mile city, seeing that there is not a large enough population to support the services that are needed for this land mass.
No Detroiter turns their nose up to new business, either. Everyone here might not have sophisticated financial acumen (I certainly don’t), but people do realize the basics of what investment brings. Some may look at new business as slowly restoring an eroding tax base, and some may have a more simplistic view of having a new place to patronize.
But I can guarantee that what every Detroiter wants is a chance to be heard, and this is where that Ross-Jackson metaphor comes into play. By sharing the stage, and sharing the microphone, we all have a chance to express ourselves. Share our fears, our doubts, our hopes, and our wishes.
Sharing and listening is what can make Detroit better — on both sides. But it’s better if that’s done in a close setting. Maybe that’s why I’ve been cynical and skeptical, because so much of the conversation about Detroit has been led by people I don’t know or recognize. But once you sit down and talk with someone and have that real dialogue, there’s absolutely nothing like it.
Order How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass here.
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.