Irritated by the relentless focus on ruin porn, or pre-emptive stories about the city’s tech resurgence, Aaron Foley will attempt to offer a more nuanced portrait
Detroit’s Irish-American mayor, Mike Duggan, has hit on a new way to remodel the narrative of a city beset by a history of decay, race riots and violence: hire an official “chief storyteller”.
As the city starts to emerge from a long period of decline, the democrat mayor has appointed Aaron Foley, a popular African-American journalist to the new position in a city that at 83% percent African-American – the blackest major metropolis in America.
The $75,000 (£58,000) position, believed to be the first of its kind in the US, was conceived to give Detroiters a way to connect and discuss issues that don’t get covered by the city’s traditional media, and part of a dedication Duggan and Foley share to create a “meaningful and impactful ways to give Detroiters and their neighbourhoods a stronger voice.”
Foley, formerly the editor of Blac Detroit magazine and author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, says local residents deserve better and more diverse stories about the reality of living in the city. Many have long since grown accustomedto stories that celebrate either the “ruin porn” of abandoned auto-factories and urban desolation, or pre-emptively trumpet Detroit’s resurgence as a post-industrial tech hub.
“Detroit is a very diverse city of more than 200 neighbourhoods and a lot the coverage is focused on just a handful. There’s a lot more to Detroit than bankruptcy, and the Detroit media focuses on food, crime and sports,” Foley says. “I wanted to create something a bit different.”
But he is facing a battle. Detroit is in the headlines once again at the moment thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, an effort to dramatise the 1967 incident at the Algiers Motel, in which three black men were killed by a group of white police officers.
The Oscar-winning director said she hoped to start a conversation about race, but many critics have said it mischaracterises the city. Alternet critic Frank Joyce wrote: “Approach [the film] as a case study of the intrinsic limits of the white gaze, combined with the manipulation of facts for political and Hollywood marketing purposes.”
In contrast, the stories, interviews and first-person accounts Foley and his small staff of reporters are producing will be focused on the present and the reality of living in the city, and will be featured on social media, the city’s cable channels and a new locally focused website, The Neighborhoods, which launched last week.
The two stories already up on the chief storyteller’s website include a piece about a visit to Boynton’s RollerCade, the first black-owned roller rink in the US, opened in 1954. In another entry, Foley surveys a Bangladeshi cricket ground in the disused Detroit library parking lot in what is now called Banglatown. The city’s history, he says, is often told simplistically, and often focused on the racial division and 1967 race riots. “They paint it as black versus white, but not all the people in between.”
In recent years, that story has been accessorised with those of tech entrepreneurial drive and the notion of the city becoming a kind of a sub-Brooklyn hipster paradise.
In 2013, a meme called White Entrepreneurial Guy skewing this archetype became a city sensation. It featured a young tech developer Jason Lorimer standing in front of Michigan Central Station, a Beaux Arts behemoth disused since 1988 and a popular subject for ruin porn. The picture produced stinging taglines, including “Detroit is an opportunity to provide popular hipster things to the 10% of white people who live here.”
Foley later wrote a column on the subject titled “Can Detroit Save White People?” in the journal Belt, in which he addressed the city’s gentrification and asked: “What is it like being born into the most spoiled classes on the planet and wanting to move to a city full of black folks who have been ruined by centuries of your tyrannical rule?”
He added: “Why don’t we just make a deal that when you move to Detroit, you just move here and shut up about it? Buy your abandoned building, build your lovely studio space and make art to your heart’s content, but at the same time, keep that maudlin B.S. to a minimum. Get off this endless spiel of trying to ‘save yourself’ and just pay some property taxes. Welcome to Detroit.”
Speaking to the Guardian about his new appointment, Foley said the media’s general focus on non-black people moving to Detroit was, in a sense, a distraction. “A lot of the natives were wondering, ‘hey, when do we get to see stories about ourselves?’ That’s where we’re trying to fill in the gaps.”
While the city has a long way to go in terms of solving crime and fixing public education, Foley says, one major issue facing Detroit’s sense of integration is its sheer scale. “Because Detroit is so big, people on the west side just don’t know what’s going on on the east side. We’re trying to say, ‘don’t be afraid to cross those boundaries’.”
That sense of dislocation perhaps is also part of Detroit’s tribalism in which identities are forged within narrow geographic realms. Foley’s own projects include the recently-published “Detroit Neighbourhood Guidebook”, a showcase for voices, he writes in the foreword, of a “complicated city”.
In practical terms, that sense of continuity is confounded by clear inequalities, such as the high rates of car insurance in Motor City, the home of the US auto industry, that has been described by watchdogs as a form of discrimination since it is based on a number socio-economically disadvantaging factors that could also be read as racial discrimination. “Until that’s fixed with legislation, no one is going to want to call Detroit home because they can’t afford to drive here,” Foley says.
“Detroiters need to get to know their neighbors better. Wait – maybe that should be, Detroiters should get to know their neighborhoods better. It seems like everybody thinks they know the neighborhoods here, but because there are so many, the definitions become too broad, the characteristics become muddled, the stories become lost.”
His role will be to recover them, and it’s clear his enthusiasm for his city is enduring. “There’s a certain level of culture here that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and there’s so much that’s unique to Detroit, that you almost don’t know you’re a Detroiter until you leave,” he says.
“It made us who we are, and we can take that anywhere in the world.”
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