[Urbanstudy] Detroit redefined: city hires America's first official 'chief storyteller'

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Wed Sep 13 05:35:26 CDT 2017


Detroit redefined: city hires America's first official 'chief storyteller'

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
[image: An image from Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, which some
critics say mischaracterises the city.]
image from Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, which some critics say
mischaracterises the city. Photograph: Francois Duhamel/eOne
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[image: Rockefeller Foundation]
this content <https://www.theguardian.com/info/2016/jan/25/content-funding>

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Edward Helmore <https://www.theguardian.com/profile/edwardhelmore>

Tuesday 5 September 2017 12.00 BSTLast modified on Tuesday 5 September 2017
13.02 BST

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 <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/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.”
[image: Aaron Foley and his small staff of reporters will focus on the
present and the reality of living in Detroit.]
 Aaron Foley and his small staff of reporters will focus on the present and
the reality of living in Detroit. Photograph: Kwabena Shabu

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
hoped to start a conversation about race, but many critics have said it
mischaracterises the city. Alternet critic Frank Joyce wrote
<http://www.alternet.org/culture/detroit-not-movie>: “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 <http://www.theneighborhoods.org/home>, which launched last

'A lot of the natives were wondering, ‘Hey, when do we get to see stories
about ourselves?'
Aaron Foley

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
<http://www.theneighborhoods.org/story/cricket-field-their-own-banglatown> 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
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.”

Catie Leary ( ಠ_ಠ)(@catieleary)

Hilarious new meme: White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy http://t.co/gm4fibvFYe
 pic.twitter.com/44iNBXWGLr <http://t.co/44iNBXWGLr>
April 12, 2013 <https://twitter.com/catieleary/status/322813022064222208>

Foley later wrote a column on the subject titled “Can Detroit Save White
People? <http://beltmag.com/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

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

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’.”
The two Detroits: a city both collapsing and gentrifying at the same time

Read more

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”
<http://beltmag.com/detroit-neighborhood-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
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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