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Detroit’s blank canvas offers a chance to talk about...sorry about that

Detroit’s on its way out of bankruptcy. Huzzah! And just as fast as out-of-town journalists began hopping on flights back home, we started getting laundry lists of all the things that will happen now that the books are closing.

There are the obvious changes – new streetlights and increased public safety – and things that still have to be addressed, such as the future of pensioners who will have to make do with less. But what about the things that were lingering before bankruptcy?

Call me a cynic, but I won’t see a “new day,” “fresh start” or any other inevitable buzz term that’ll be overused by the next wave of overly excited creative classmates until several other issues are rectified. And it’s a real possibility some never will.

So in no particular order, here are some things that also need to change in Detroit:

The “blank canvas” mantra. In 2007, two members of Crain’s “20 in their 20s” club described Detroit as being a “blank canvas.” The next year, two more “20 in the 20s” honorees used “blank canvas” when describing the city, and the region’s entrepreneurial class has affixed the label to Detroit’s comeback ever since. The actual term “blank canvas” has actually begun to fade, as people started to realize that the canvas rests on an easel built by prior generations. But now that the city is undergoing a “fresh start,” I have a fear those sentiments will re-emerge under a new name.

Neighborhood rebranding. Apparently “West Corktown” is a thing. I’d never heard of the neighborhood until I read about it on a local real estate blog, but supposedly a few new residents of the area – west of Detroit’s popular Corktown neighborhood, natch – decided to start calling it that. It follows the the pattern of other neighborhoods being named after Corktown, including North Corktown and Corktown Shores (no waterway in sight). I have to question if any of these areas had names prior to their new neighbors arriving, and whether any respect to history was paid when it came down to deciding to what to call it. The answer to the latter question is probably no, which leads me to wonder how much more of Detroit’s history can be erased as we move into the future. The excuse for this is that if someone invests in an area, they have naming rights, so pardon me while I put up signs declaring my neighborhood as “Aaron Foley’s Mystical Neighborhood of Wonderment – East.”

The Old Detroit vs. New Detroit debate. The situation goes like this: A native Detroiter, regardless of race, asks an innocuous question about Detroit, or makes a sly crack about a new restaurant or whatever opening, and suddenly every white person under 35 piles on that person, making all sorts of justifications for their “choice” (it’s always a choice, never a wish or desire) to live in the city, ask things like “do you not want things to change?”, and generally make life (or at least their social media feed) a living hell for that person who dared to show some concern about the place they called home for much longer than any of their detractors. I still think there’s room for black people in the New Detroit, but I don’t think there’s room anymore for black people to ask questions about it without being called a burdensome traditionalist.

Racism across southeast Michigan. Speaking of black people, how about those suburbs, eh? It’s been pounded in our heads that a successful region depends on its core city. Unfortunately, discrimination and prejudice still manifest in many different ways, be it something overt like a mentally challenged homeless man being harassed in the Grosse Pointes or something more subtle, like a young student being expelled due to a zero-tolerance policy. Not good enough examples for you? Just check the comment sections of your favorite local news outlet and then say that racism doesn’t exist.

The public schools. Oh, gosh, the schools. Where do we even begin? Without getting too political here, I’ll be fair and say that both the 2014 gubernatorial candidates had their pros and cons. But I question why so many of my Detroit friends seemed to be more confident in Gov. Rick Snyder and voted for him despite the numerous issues arising with the Educational Achievement Authority, the public school district under his watch. So many people said Snyder “saved” Detroit because of his role in its bankruptcy, but I wonder if the children in the EAA – and still-under-state-watch Detroit Public Schools, while we’re at it – were part of the Detroit they wanted to be saved. But aside from any political involvement, schools always seem to be an afterthought when it comes to Detroit’s future, and I’ve always said that no family will want to live here unless they’re up to par. I don’t want to live in a city full of DINKs; I’d just live in Ferndale if I wanted that. (That’s “double income, no kids,” for the acronym-challenged.)

Food access to all. Is Detroit a food desert? No. We’ve got Whole Foods now! Are all grocery stores welcoming to their neighbors? Quiet as its kept, not really. I talked with a local statistician recently who noted that some Detroiters shop in the suburbs because customer service at local stores is just as bad as the limited amount of items for sale. And speaking of food selection, many grocery stores still struggle with providing healthy food (at affordable prices) to their communities. But who’s got time to think of that when Selden Standard just opened in Midtown, right?

There are so many more issues that need to be talked about, but some of these are conversations that we’ve had prior to bankruptcy, prior to the auto industry collapse, prior to any other recent shift in the region’s history thus far – especially the racism one. So are we ever going to get around to these? It’s hard to be optimistic, and it’s hard to be patient.

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