September 8, 2017

Detroit now has a chief storyteller because we all keep getting it wrong


Detroit is perhaps the quintessential American city. The birthplace of our automotive industry and Motown, the city was a beacon of American work ethic and prosperity until about a decade ago, when its failing economy and tense race relations helped illustrate the much larger debate of our country’s stymied self. At least that’s what the mainstream media paints it as — nothing more, nothing less.

But a city is constantly in flux, and Detroit’s mayor Mike Duggan hopes to change that persistent stereotype, Edward Helmore writes for the Guardian, by hiring a chief storyteller,” a local citizen whose job will be to shed light on the varied and diverse neighborhoods and residents of one of America’s oldest cities, a city that is “83% percent African-American — the blackest major metropolis in America.”

Duggan’s decision is in part a reaction to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, a film that depicts the horrific events at the Algiers Hotel in 1967 Detroit, also known as the “12th Street Riots.” An often-difficult and sometimes gruesome display of race-related violence, the movie garnered few fans, with Jo Livingstone at the New Republic commenting, “the problem of Detroit is that it uses phenomenal rather than systemic violence as its core.”

That’s exactly what Duggan hopes to fix. Aaron Foley, the former editor of Blac Detroit who will serve as the city’s first “chief storyteller,” has always lent an ear (and virtual space) to Detroiters, many of whom feel they’re rarely represented within a larger, national context. Foley told Helmore, “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.”

Foley’s created a new site, “The Neighborhoods,” which is already acting as a bridge between the over 200 neighborhoods and communities within this black metropolis. The two inaugural posts focus on RollerCade, in Boynton, the first black-owned roller rink in the US, and the Bangladeshi cricket field atop a disused library parking lot in the city’s recently-formed “Banglatown.”

We all know American cities are comprised of more than evening news headlines, so it’s heartening to see this shift in attention. Fifty-year-old roller rinks and the continued legacy of Detroit residents are, after all, much more enlivening than gentrification stories and white guy memes.



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.