Detroit redefined: city hires America’s first official ‘chief storyteller’

Irritated by the relentless focus on ruin porn, or pre-emptive stories about the citys tech resurgence, Aaron Foley will attempt to offer a more nuanced portrait

Detroits 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 dont get covered by the citys 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 Detroits 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. Theres 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.

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 Bigelows 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 citys cable channels and a new locally focused website, The Neighborhoods, which launched last week.

The two stories already up on the chief storytellers website include a piece about a visit to Boyntons 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 citys 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.

Catie Leary ( _) (@catieleary)

Hilarious new meme: White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy

April 12, 2013

Foley later wrote a column on the subject titled Can Detroit Save White People? in the journal Belt, in which he addressed the citys 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 dont 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 hearts 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 medias 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? Thats where were 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 Detroits sense of integration is its sheer scale. Because Detroit is so big, people on the west side just dont know whats going on on the east side. Were trying to say, dont be afraid to cross those boundaries.

That sense of dislocation perhaps is also part of Detroits tribalism in which identities are forged within narrow geographic realms. Foleys 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 thats fixed with legislation, no one is going to want to call Detroit home because they cant 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 its clear his enthusiasm for his city is enduring. Theres a certain level of culture here that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and theres so much thats unique to Detroit, that you almost dont know youre 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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