How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley
Aaron Foley is the City of Detroit’s chief storyteller, a new position created by Mayor Mike Duggan to tell the stories of Detroiters citywide. Most recently, he was editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine, a 35,000-circulation monthly glossy in Metro Detroit. He is also the author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass (BELT, December 2015), a social guidebook for Detroit residents, old and new, and editor of The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, also released through BELT in August 2017.
E Martin Nolan: You’ve written one “guidebook” to Detroit—How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass—and you’ve edited another—The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook. I’ve added scare quotes to “guidebook” because these aren’t typical guidebooks. The latter contains fiction, poetry, history, and very little for the tourist reader. For instance, this isn’t typical guidebook material:
In the summer, Delray smells like the shit that burns
and under the I-75, it rains exhaust all year.
But you’re not using the term “guidebook” just for the ironic possibilities. You’re doing more than a typical guidebook does. A guidebook usually frames a place in such a way as to make a tourist happy, but you’re telling or giving space to narratives that get to the reality of the city—the good, the bad, the obnoxious, and the difficult things that need to be said. I’d argue you’re putting some real, reliable, and complex guidance into the “guidebook” genre.
I’m curious to know why the books took on this form. It allows you to jump around a lot with short sections and discreet pieces, and thus to cover a lot of different ground and feature a diversity of voices, as in The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook. In How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, it allows for humour-laced sincerity, as when you warn people about the “Madonna” type you might meet at a Detroit party, who “swears that living in the Detroit suburbs was the worst thing on earth.” It also allows you to shift gears to more pressing matters, such as when, in “How to be Black in Detroit,” you remind the reader that “even in this city, where blacks are the majority, your blackness can come under attack.” Elsewhere, you directly warn white people to not presume to speak for black people. Again, not typical guidebook stuff, but the form does in the end serve to carry the message well.
How did these books come to take on a guidebook form, instead of more traditional essay or anthology formats?
Aaron Foley: It’s interesting, because I actually didn’t realize that I had applied the “guidebook” form to each book until now. With Jackass, I always referred to it as a “social guidebook”—something you could easily refer to social situations in Detroit. But with the neighborhood guidebook, it was deliberately meant to be ironic. You might expect a map or a list of locales and things readers might need to know when selecting a place to live in Detroit—which is actually what I first envisioned early on. But as the spirit of the book evolved, it had to be more than that. I see this book as being a spiritual sibling of A Detroit Anthology, except honing in on specific neighborhoods rather than specific themes around Detroit. So yes, I might be redefining “guidebook” a little, but mainly because I think Detroit is a city where you can’t boil it down into lists or typical guides; it has to be contextualized depending on the situation. And with the neighborhoods book, there are definitely different situations.
Detroiters are fearless in describing their surroundings.
EMN: In How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass you say “there are several competing narratives in Detroit.” That’s absolutely true. But I’m writing from Toronto—where I meet many people fascinated by Detroit. So I want to suggest a re-frame, and look at the narratives about Detroit, from the outside.
When I was growing up, and until pretty recently, the main narrative seemed to be that Detroit was a warzone/hellscape. This is the “Devil’s Night” vision. In 2004, to take one of many examples, Jimmy Kimmel was shamed for playing into that with a crack that Detroiters would “burn the city” if the Pistons won the championship. Recently, another narrative has emerged: Detroit as an urban farmer and artists’ utopia, where any dream can be realized.
I’m interested in what these two narratives share: they are both so oversimplified that they play into what, in the Guidebook, Jeff Waraniak calls “the inane argument that Detroit is empty.” Elias Khalil, in his essay “Cass Corridor,” puts it well: “A place derives its meaning from the people who inhabit it.” That seems obvious, yet still people persist in talking about Detroit as if it’s some kind of objective, macro-phenomenon that exists on a conceptual level, forgetting that real people live and suffer and feel joy there.
What kind of advice would you offer here? How should someone be interested in Detroit from afar, without being a jackass? For, surely, there is many a reason to be interested in Detroit. It has a rich history, a present in flux and an unpredictable future.
AF: I would say read my books, but yeah—read my books, and the works of other writers: poetry, essays, fiction. It’s all about listening to Detroiters, because we are the only ones who can detail our own narratives.
The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, edited by Aaron Foley
I think there’s something to be said about Detroit’s population and how people interpret it from the outside looking in. They see a city filled with black residents, and generally black people anywhere are painted with a broad brush. But rarely does anyone look at the nuances of black people, or Detroit for that matter. It’s how we end up stuck with the Devil’s Night label, because people just think it’s a “black thing,” and, therefore, a Detroit thing. Writers like me try to push back against this every day by imploring you to look deeper. It’s starting to happen now, as America begins to explore their curiosity about the Rust Belt. But we’re not even close to getting people the full story.
EMN: I want to finish on an ambiguity the Guidebook brought to life for me. In “Long Live the City of Trees,” Marsha Music lays out “the contradiction between our great memories of growing up in the city and the reality of the crime, poverty, decay and craziness that afflicted much of our town in the decades since.” She’s talking about Highland Park, a city within Detroit that I only ever knew as that dead stretch of Woodward halfway between downtown and the suburbs. But she calls it “idyllic.” She describes growing up in “unusually large, beautiful homes on lush, green streets,” a description that could describe my own childhood in North Rosedale Park, or a number of other Detroit neighborhoods that are thriving today. Highland Park’s prosperity was interrupted by racism and disinvestment, but I’m struck by how strongly the memory lasts, for Music, of Highland Park as “the living embodiment of the American Dream” and the faith she has that the city “will carry on.”
On the other hand, we have the short poem, “Plymouth Rock Landed on Me,” by Lhea J. Love, which paints a bleaker picture:
Things aren’t perfect
in the hood
there are more abandoned
houses than bodied homes
there are more squatters
and that woman asking
for spare change
is a friend of mine.
These two pieces really seem to get at something important about the city, something more particular than the grand narratives of the city’s rise and decline. Perhaps it’s that their particularity supports another kind of grand narrative: not an overarching one, but one built out of each of Detroit’s 677, 116 residents’ individual experiences, and the range that exists therein. So this is my question: what did you learn about the city in collecting the stories for the Guidebook? And what have you subsequently learned from your position as Detroit’s chief storyteller?
AF: I think the one thing I learned from the book is that Detroiters are fearless in describing their surroundings. It’s one thing to be a product of Detroit, to live here and to have the way you navigate through life as a result of it. But to break down the reasons why Detroit makes a person the way they are, and to also connect all of the Detroiters (and Highland Parkers and Hamtramckans) in their orbit and how we all are interconnected, that takes a special kind of courage. I was surprised at how many writers were willing to put it all out there—we do live in this time where people often choose not to reflect on what may be called the “negative” parts of Detroit. But here, it’s not necessarily negative or positive, it’s just Detroit. As chief storyteller, I’m seeing the same thing. Most people think my job is to only tell the positive parts of Detroit. That’s not true; I’m here to share all parts of it. If I’m selective, then I’m not telling the whole story, and that’s doing Detroiters a disservice.