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Monday, February 7, 2011

"Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus"




Listening to reactions from across the country to the Chrysler 'Imported From Detroit' Super Bowl ad, I am struck (but not surprised) by the dichotomy of most opinions. The majority of people seem to take heart from the uplifting portrayal of Detroit as a gritty, tough comeback city that still remains upbeat through tough times, while others predictably tick off the same tired cliches about the city that were outdated 20 years ago. Those who have studied Detroit's long, 310-year history know it as the ultimate 'Comeback City'. Those who live here today know what the rest of the country appears to be just finding out- that Detroit's heart is as big as it's tough reputation. Detroiters also know that this city is not just poised for (yet another) comeback, but through determination and hard work ethic is ready to show America once again the path to prosperity.

As usual, the repetetive Greek Chorus of naysayers and misanthropes are determined to find the cloud around every silver lining in the city. Detroiters, have grown tired of all the outdated and misinformed opinions that outside journalists and people who have never even visited here fall back on when describing 'the poster child for post-industrial America'. We also know that it's not hard to find examples of those stereotypes- not only in Detroit, but in every major American city. That one-dimensional view of Detroit is not only erroneous today, but is also at odds with history. Detroit is a city that has been knocked down many, many times- it has repeatedly been written off and left for dead. But Detroit has always remained true to it's motto: "Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus" ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”). That tough but hopeful bit of Latin came from Detroiter Father Gabriel Richard after the 1805 fire that nearly destroyed the city. Like few before or since, Father Richard embodied the Detroit spirit, and for that spirit he was respected by Detroit's Americans, French and even the Native Americans whom he ministered to. When captured by the British in the War Of 1812, Father Richard showed Detroit determination when he refused to swear allegiance to his captors. He was only released when the great Indian Chief Tecumseh, though allied with the British, refused to fight for them until the good father's release.

Since Father Richard's time, the ebb and flow of economic health in Detroit has paralleled, and many times presaged that of the whole of American society. Consequently, many people in other parts of the country were resentful of Detroit's success when it was booming, then expressed almost gleeful shadenfreud when an inevitable downturn hit. True students of history know that when Detroit flourished, wealth flowed not just into the coffers of those in positions of power and influence, but also into the pockets of a growing middle class that conceived of then realized the American Dream- through the Detroit virtues of hard work and determination. Perhaps that is why it's perplexing (and more than a little sad) that so many individuals bad mouth the 'greedy and lazy Auto Workers', and decry Detroit's story as an example of 'American failure'. A minority of EVERY workforce fits that description (hell-O Washington D.C. bureaucrats!), but perpetuating that tired old stereotype betrays a profound ignorance of what it takes is to work hard and sacrifice your body and your life on the factory floor. Anyone who has worked for any time building cars knows that the work is far from easy on the body or the mind. Anyone who thinks auto workers are overpaid for the job they do is seriously misinformed, and obviously have never spent the better part of their health and lives working hard 'on the line' to better themselves and their family.

Then again, maybe this misperception by many of what Detroit is all about serves to point out what's sorely missing in America today: Detroit Pride. Like not being held down by either yourself or the opinions of others when your situation is dire, but pulling yourself up- with the help of your family, friends, community and your own hard work. Or maybe it's not being afraid to be proud of your community- even when the average American's picture of your town is largely formed by short hit-pieces from drive-by national journalists- who only parachute in briefly to find support for their preconceived negative viewpoint. These superficial wordsmiths then predictably scurry off back to their East or West Coast bubble, after failing to perform their job as chroniclers of the reality of their times. They don't even begin to scratch beneath the surface of the city and find the REAL story: of Detroiters' perseverance amidst hardship and success through hard work. This indomitable Spirit permeates the people and institutions of the city and state of mind known as Detroit.

A well-kept national secret is Detroit's stubborn rebound attempt amidst the worst economic climate in over 70 years. Because of the grit, determination and character of it's people, this city perseveres through the most difficult times, and thrives when times recover. That's why so many are proud to call themselves 'Detroiter'. As an aside, (and for those not from the Southeast Michigan area), you are still considered by most to be a 'Detroiter' even if you live in the north, west, eastside suburbs or even Downriver. Many people still proudly call themselves 'Detroiters' long after they have moved away, drawing the sometimes mystified stares of outsiders when they proudly wear their 'D' on their sleeves! Conversely, many people in itinerant professions such as athletes, journalists and entrepreneurs unexpectedly end up calling themselves a 'Detroiter' after the Spirit of the City inevitably percolates up through their heart and soul. Detroit is a place on the map, but also a state of mind. Detroit is the poor neighborhood being fed by the community gardens where rows of houses used to be. Detroit is the artists, musicians and college students living in Midtown, in what used to be warehouse space and abandoned houses, and is now some of the coolest (and most affordable!) loft apartments and restored homes in the country. Detroit is a suburban mother and father, who teach their children valuable life lessons in service, humility and humanity by volunteering in the Capuchin soup kitchen every month. Detroit is the entrepreneur who, though never even visiting before, found welcome in the warm and friendly people, found motivation in the city's generationally-instilled hard work ethic, and found inspiration in the willingness of the city's people who support outsiders willing to take a chance on a once-and-future thriving city. Detroiters are happy to share the fruits of yet another Renaissance in the city that has always come back- no matter how hard it's been knocked down.

Detroit is my town, and I'm proud to call myself a Detroiter.

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