By Cornelius Fortune
Detroit might be the ultimate Rorschach test.
Everyone sees something a little different, depending on his or her angle.
When Aaron Foley looks at Detroit, he sees a city that “black history defined.”
A thirtysomething writer living in Detroit, Foley is a Michigan State University graduate who has contributed to such publications as Jalopnik Detroit, The Atlantic, Metro Times, TheHUB, B.L.A.C Magazine, CNN and others. He spends his days crafting advertising copy. His nights are devoted to blogging about the city he loves.
Foley contributed an essay, “We Love Detroit, Even If You Don’t” to “A Detroit Anthology,” which was an assembly of writings by Detroiters published by Cleveland-based Rust Belt Chic Press. Foley wanted to expand the concept of his essay to a larger canvas. It would be “in the vein” of the anthology, a spiritual sequel. Rust Belt Chic Press (and his editor) enthusiastically signed on.
His book, “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” is slated for release Nov. 30, is a guidebook for new Detroit residents. But don’t think of it as a book on etiquette.
“It’s geared more towards people who are moving here from anywhere that’s not Detroit, as far away as New York or L.A., or as close as the suburbs,” Foley says. “And there’s such a divide between the city and the suburbs. I talk about that a little bit. I don’t want to be this healer. It’s not going to fix anything overnight.
“I do think there needs to be a bridge between people who have lived here, whether it’s five years, or 50 years, and the people that are just now moving here. I don’t think those lines of communication are always open.”
It is a line of communication that has been sorely missing over the decades, Foley adds. The tensions are still there. Take, for instance, Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, which were destroyed when the freeway came in, Foley says. You have people around who remember those days and remember them well.
“There are some very hard truths that I touch on,” he says. “A lot of it does revolve around race, because Detroit has such a complicated history with race. When you have an influx of mostly white residents filling in spaces, on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it. What newer residents don’t understand is why that tension’s there. Just racism in general, how the suburbs treated the city, people who are moving to Detroit have to understand that. They remember things being taken away from them. People living in Detroit are trying to hold on to what they have. That’s where we have to start having these conversations.”
According to Foley, the majority of the books coming out about Detroit are written by white guys in their 40s. “I just want to raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, I’m a black guy, I’m younger, there’s a lot younger people here – black, white, Latino, Arab American – who have a voice too. Here’s what I have to say. Here’s a different perspective.’”
In fact, he’s experienced two perspectives on Detroit: His father’s side of the family who lived in Ypsilanti, and his mother’s who lived on both the east and west sides of Detroit. Foley’s spent some time living in Lansing, but has recently returned to the city.
“I explain the basics of Detroit, but there’s not much in the way of explaining to someone who may not be familiar with Detroit – everybody doesn’t own a gun,” Foley says. “Anytime I would visit in Ypsilanti, people would have these negative perceptions about Detroit and I wanted to dissipate those.”
One great-grandmother lived in Black Bottom, and the other in Conant Gardens, where she was one of the first black people to move into the neighborhood.
“I’m blessed that my family’s timeline intersects with a lot of major things in Detroit,” Foley says.
As for the neighborhoods, Foley says Detroit is in a better position to build off the success of a Rosedale Park or Brightwood.
“Instead of trickling down or trickling north of Woodward, why not build upon stable neighborhoods?” he says. “Springwells is an example of how you take that nucleus and build outward from that. That’s what I’d like to see.”
One critique he has regarding the new Detroit migration is that people tend to live in a bubble: They rarely stray too far from Midtown or downtown. They don’t explore other places or neighborhoods because there’s such a negative perception of what the rest of the city looks like.
Growing up, Foley said his mother had friends on both the east and west sides of Detroit.
“You never know what’s out there because you’re sticking with these particular neighborhoods,” Foley says. “I want people to know there’s a world out there outside of Midtown. I talk about restoring a house outside of Boston Edison (in the book). People won’t go there because it’s off Dexter. That’s the neighborhood I grew up in. I came out fine.”
He sees a lot of people moving into Detroit with an expectation of a warm reception. Like they’re doing Detroit a favor by moving in. “I want people to let go of that.”
Readers of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” should know that Detroit was a city where the black Middle Class thrived. Where civil rights unfolded, whether through the riots or the knocking down the segregation laws.
“We’re still making history,” Foley says. “I think there’s a Renaissance of black artistry and creativity going on that we’re not talking enough about. I would love to see if they’ll be talking about the Detroit renaissance like the Harlem Renaissance.”
Detroit has an amazing past, but its future is evolving and changing with the times.
“I think there’s lots of stories about Detroit and they all need to be told,” Foley says. “I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.”
For more information, visit www.aaronkfoley.com.