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Detroit, Detroit

Drawing of Detroit's Packard Plant by Stephanie Buer

Drawing of Detroit's Packard Plant by Stephanie Buer

For days I ’ve had the lyrics of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight running through my head. Once a part of the soundtrack to windows down, summer sing-a-long nights during my high school years, those words have found a new relevance to my adult life. Perhaps I am being sentimental, but the words still won’t leave my mind:

You can never ever leave,

without leaving a piece of youth. And our lives are forever changed,

we will never be the same

I moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was 18 years old. Before that I had not spent much time in Detroit. As a child we would come every few years to attend a concert, or visit the DIA or the science center. On these occasions we never spent much time experiencing the city. Our destination was always a cultural institution, never Detroit in and of itself. At that time I recall feeling envious of the University of Michigan students fortunate enough to be moving to Ann Arbor for the first time, as opposed to leaving it behind.

Like many other experiences, moving to Detroit was riddled with firsts. The first time I was a minority — a white person in a grocery store. The first time I ordered Subway through bulletproof glass. The first time I saw a prostitute on a street corner. In those early months at CCS Detroit taught me something invaluable despite the likely perceived negativity of those firsts.

It is important to note that while my address remained in Detroit, I had the option to remove myself from these surroundings. I did not have to shop at the Food Pride a few blocks from my school; I had the luxury to grocery shop in the suburbs. But looking back I am glad that I did shop at Food Pride, even if it was only twice. I realized then why everyone working and shopping stared at me as I entered that grocery store. I couldn’t blame them; they did not have the freedom I had, to leave.

As my time at CCS wore on, the thought of leaving Detroit grew ever more enticing. In a way, staying in Michigan felt like failure. Teachers advised me to avoid getting too comfortable in Detroit, as though my design sensibility and drive would expire over a few short years. A CCS portfolio day happened to connect me with a job opportunity in a small local firm with excellent bosses and great coworkers. A full year of working after graduation I realized I had begun to get comfortable. Despite being employed as a designer — the occupation I had spent four years of my life incessantly working toward — I felt as though because I had not left Detroit, I had somehow failed. It was easy to get comfortable here. I had an established a group of friends and was familiar with the local restaurants and bars, the waitresses knew me by name.

If I were to be transplanted, to New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco, who would I be? Because people here know me, Detroit provided me with opportunities I never would have encountered on the coasts. In Detroit, I can have an active voice in the design community. At the age of 24 I can hold a chair position on the Detroit AIGA board. In larger cities the AIGA boards are made up of people already known to the national design community, and have contributed twenty or more years to the field. Not to discredit seasoned professionals in any way, but that hierarchical atmosphere is not what Detroit needs now. Detroit needs people to believe in it. Detroit needs new ideas, new energy, and it needs vigor. Detroit needs its youth.

As I watch more and more close friends and acquaintances slip into unemployment I realize that rather than leaving, the difficult part is staying. When I moved to Detroit I thought I was leaving my youth behind in Ann Arbor. Certainly parts of it I did. It never occurred to me that with that loss I would gain a youthful optimism for Detroit, one that I am scared to abandon six years later.

In the words of Billy Corgan, “I believe in the urgency of now.”

Detroit, I believe in you.

*This entry was originally posted on pixelgawker