I became a fan of Detroit by leaving

Sometimes you just have to take a break. I didn’t realize that until after I had taken that much-needed time away from defending my home town. I define my “home town” as Detroit, even though I grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb just north of Detroit, back in the 70s and 80s. Royal Oak was a ghost town with a few die-hard businesses like Frentz and Sons Hardware, Hagelstein’s Bakery, the Kite Shop and a lonely Baskin Robin’s 31 Flavors on the corner.

Political corruption and economic downturns had grown a huge helplessness in me.

“I can’t change anything.”

So, after years of thinking that way, we decided to leave, and “go where the jobs are.” Unfortunately, with strong automotive backgrounds, we naturally and subconsciously followed the automotive industry. From that view, the move didn’t work out so well, as the most recent downturn left no automotive town unscathed. Greenville, South Carolina, weathered that downturn well because it’s core business is not automotive. But, all that growth has basically contracted, leaving Greenville where it was a few years ago, which isn’t a bad place at all. But, for all of us “automotive people,” we’ve had to move on in one form or another. We spent two years in Greenville, and we learned a ton. Mostly, that we love Detroit.

We love Greenville, definitely.

The public schools are the best I’ve seen, handling the drain that poverty creates and accelerated programs in the same buildings gracefully. Greenville schools know how to recruit and retain excellent teachers, young and old. They’ve also mastered a way to bridge between “regular” public schools and charter schools with a “magnet” concept that overlays a specialization for a school that’s at risk for losing students to other schools-of-choice initiatives. For example, our local elementary school was also a magnet school with a fine/performing arts focus. Being an urban school, it was losing students in the 90s, and downtown Greenville was growing a strong performing arts center that partnered with the school to develop ways to integrate the arts into everyday lesson plans; the school district secured funding for a drama teacher and a dance teacher. Now, students compete for the magnet slots each year. The school still has a “residency area” it serves, like any other public school, so the number of new magnet slots offered is calculated after the residency requirements are met.

Downtown is a model for revitalization. They started with a 20-year plan, and executed. It didn’t go perfectly, but they kept at it. I won’t pretend to know what planners and the community went through to do so much of this work, because we were only there for two years. But, from what I understand, it took many people to transform what used to be what we’d call “downtown Pontiac” or “Flint” into a thriving community with a strong arts community and developing business community. The downtown park is spectacular. If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve seen pictures of the Reedy River Falls, which run through downtown. The Liberty Bridge spans the river, and the park surrounding all this is a constant in downtown life. A local theater group stages summer Shakespeare performances for free.

Okay, so why do we still love Detroit? Because for how enamored we are with all the great things in Greenville, we realized that Detroit has them. It’s just more spread-out geographically. And, frankly, after taking a break from defending Detroit and the automotive industry, I’m ready to actually do something. It helps that I learned that no matter what the situation is, I can do something.

Stuff I did that I didn’t think I could do:

  • Invite neighbors over for Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Become a Library Clerk and help kids develop a love of reading.
  • Serve on (and chair!) a School Improvement Council.
  • Coach a LEGO robotics team.
  • Be a backstage wrangler of child actors.
  • Knit baby booties to be auctioned to support school funding.
  • Help promote a new chiropractic office by creating a place for local artists to display their work.
  • Help Cinderella do a quick change into a ball gown in under 30 seconds.
  • Lend a good word to support local businesses and products.

Now I know I love this city and I know I can do stuff. Normally I would want a plan. Tough. I didn’t have a plan for the things I did in Greenville. Heck, I don’t even really remember how I got involved in most of the things on that list. I knew I wanted my son to have a LEGO robotics team; one didn’t exist, so we created one. I think I had a moment of madness during the PTA meeting when I volunteered to chair the School Improvement Council. But, at least I was at the meeting, right? Maybe the geography made it easier for me to dive in. After all, we lived one mile outside of downtown. The elementary school was four blocks away. But this is the Motor City, right? Let’s use those motors! Insert all the motivational crap you hear every day, and put it to use. I don’t need to repeat it, right?

I’m not sure what changed for me, specifically, that moved me to start doing stuff.  For sure, the less excuses we have, the better. But, there were still obstacles in Greenville, too. Sometimes that fabulous school district drove me nuts by stonewalling the effort to get a Mandarin teacher into my son’s middle school. And do you know how long it took the city to figure out that they should put recycling bins downtown? Too long. And now there’s a fight over a Waffle House that’s being built in an area that doesn’t want it. Not to mention the people scoffing up the property surrounding the developing Kroc Center, driving up taxes for the people who haven’t sold their homes.

When you stay long enough in paradise, you realize it has flaws, too. And maybe that’s at the root of the lesson I had to learn. I can pine away for a more perfect city in which to live, but it’s not going to bring me that satisfaction I seek. So, Detroit, you’re stuck with me. Except, this time, I have some ideas and some motivation.

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2 responses to “I became a fan of Detroit by leaving

  1. I adore Greenville. I was in Charlotte for 1 year – and we visited Greenville often as we have some friends there. The zoo downtown is the best for my preschool kids – not too big – not too small. I did not realize that their downtown used to be not so nice – it was so booming when we were there!! And gorgeous!!

    I relate completely to your reflection here – although I was not there long enough to get involved, especially since my kids were not in school yet. Every state, every city, every town has its issues. It feels like to me (and I admit to being bias) that we weather the storm a little better here. I had just arrived in Charlotte two weeks before the banks tanked and the world crashed down. The job market was still better there than here, but because they had seen nothing but growth for so long – they did not know what to do. Everything is relative, I guess. (just like when they used to tell me it was humid – what? – this is NOT humid – was always my answer).

    All that being said, I have no use for winter. So maybe one day I can join the snowbirds. Taking full advantage of the summer here, and the winter there! But until then, it’s time to join the fight and turn it around for Detroit!

  2. I love all you write. I am so glad you are feeling (were or are) so empowered. You are a great person. Call me when you need help doing anything. xo

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