By Hanae Mason
Since my childhood, I have spent significant time in and around Detroit. I attended kindergarten in Beverly Hills, one of the city’s 100+ suburbs. Over the years, my father has moved amongst these various suburbs and the city proper, in which he has been settled for the last several years in the historically affluent and predominantly black University District neighborhood. I come and visit a few times each year.
Seeing the city through fresh eyes
Despite my familiarity with the city, through this learning journey, I experienced and learned things I never had before. Being somewhat of a tourist in a city that you’ve only ever experienced as somewhat of a local grants great perspective. For instance, I distinctly remember attending a youth day on Belle Isle with plaits in hair and Shasta soda in hand. I could have never imagined I’d return decades later to meet the people of the Belle Isle Conservancy, who curate and plan such programs.
Belle Isle; photo credit: Nadir Ali
Not all of the trip brought about such warm and nostalgic feelings. Even with my prior knowledge of the disproportionate amount of reinvestment and revitalization in the downtown and riverfront areas in comparison to many of the neighborhoods like Fitzgerald, experiencing this contrast so intensively and intimately made me feel a little overwhelmed and frustrated. You cannot help but empathize with the cynicism of residents, like the man who drove past our touring group on 6 Mile and yelled out of his truck window, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Visiting the Fitzgerald neighborhood; photo credit: Nadir Ali
Grappling with the dynamics of power and privilege
This does not discredit the amazing work being done in those areas by Live6 or the civic commons and the Fitzgerald Revitalization team or any other organizations. It just made me wonder what can be done so the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our respective cities and communities are more than merely engaged or involved and have actual agency. How are we ensuring that our processes and planning, even with good intent and real or perceived improvement, are challenging and changing existing power and privilege dynamics that created such inequity instead of reifying them? I believe our ability to grapple with and answer this question is key to lasting change and progress.
Fitzgerald resident, Michael Dones shares Mo-Flo Community Garden; photo credit: Nadir Ali
Just when I was feeling discouraged, my final evening in the city I witnessed my first Slow Roll. Its simplicity, inclusivity, and diversity exemplified everything that I know Detroit to be. The organic energy and resilient spirit of this event is what we all hope to replicate in our civic commons. Something as simple as thousands of people coming together each week to just ride their bikes is what helps build community and trust and hope.
It will always be the Motor City, but whether in cars or on bikes, Detroit moves forward…even if just slowly.
Hanae Mason amidst the Slow Roll pre-ride gathering; photo credit: Bridget Marquis
Hanae Mason works in nonprofit programming and creative placemaking in Philadelphia. She writes, cooks, and consumes massive amounts of media in her spare time.