I went to the funeral of a Detroit man today. Born and raised near present day University of Detroit Mercy, he lived, worked, raised his family and ultimately died here.
There are those who would quibble that during his adult years he technically did not live in Detroit but in one of the close in suburbs. Nevertheless he was a Detroiter. We paid our respects and said goodbye to him in the Episcopal Church he attended downtown in the shadow of Comerica Park. The beautiful 1859 church was packed with 550 people. I know this because I asked the usher. On this gray, chilly, rainy day in Detroit, in an architecturally stunning church with several genuine and breathtakingly beautiful Tiffany glass windows, we gave thanks for the life of a good and decent man who loved his wife, his family, his church, his country and his community. Ironically, this is a community and a city that many keep writing death notices for over and over again.
But while our friend has passed on to a better place, the people and the city he left behind are still alive and kicking. This is all in prelude to a documentary set to air tonight on BBC called a Requiem for Detroit. When I first heard of the film my initial reaction was enough of the requiems and dirges for Detroit! As Mark Twain would put it, the reports of Detroit’s death are greatly exaggerated. We’ve seen and heard it all before.
I didn’t even need to read the rest of the article to know how the story goes — a decaying and dying city with a bleak chance of a deathbed intervention and revival…. The only bright point to those of us tired of reading, watching, and listening to death knells for our city is that in this case the filmmakers are very talented. So I am sure the documentary is well crafted and it evidently does offer a bit of hope at the end by featuring young people who have come back to the city eager to bring new life to it with urban farming and other endeavors.
However thoughtfully shot, I am not going to watch it tonight. I know too often that the picture one sees and the impression one gains from a place depends on the lens through which one looks. As one friend put it, Detroit for many has taken on a Lindsay Lohan train wreck appeal. It fascinates people. So many who come see what they want to see and find exactly what they are looking for. But their impressions paint a distorted and incomplete picture.
This city and region face huge and in some ways unprecedented challenges. There are parts of this city that look like a war zone and there are streets that I would never venture down. We are facing, perhaps more extremely, the problems and challenges of many urban industrial cities. However, this is also a city and region with incredible character and determination and we have assets that many can only dream of. Just this week a group of four talented young social media pros gave us all a vicarious and victorious ride to Austin. They left teams from seven other cities in the dust as they successfully, creatively, and humorously completed challenges in a Chevy-sponsored race to the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) going on right now in Austin, Texas.
The vitality and talent this team showed, but even more importantly the support this community gave them throughout their entire journey, was a powerful testament to the resilience I see each and every day in Detroit. So I won’t be tuning into BBC tonight. Instead, the lens through which I am going to view Detroit is in the sense of deep community I witnessed at a moving funeral and one amazing race.