The Fear: Are You Afraid of Detroit?

A few weeks ago, I signed a one-year lease on a home in Detroit. The signing was a culmination of a long search — of both Craigslist and my soul — to decide where I wanted to plant my roots in Michigan. So, when I put my signature on that piece of paper, I felt relieved. And excited: The house was gorgeous, the price was right, the neighborhood was charming and yet not gentrified, and the city was anything but boring. What an interesting place to start the next chapter of my Michigan life.

And then, not even two days later, someone proceeded to meet my elated news with a story about someone getting shot. In Detroit.

“God, Detroit,” the girl said. “Ugh.” We were standing on a beach in northern Michigan, where this girl had just moved after living for a year or so in Ferndale — the closest northern suburb of Detroit, located nine miles out of the city center. This girl was a friend of a friend, which is how we happened to end up together on a beach picnic, discussing my apparently terrible decision to move into the city.

Ferndale Girl kicked at the sand and continued.

“My friend’s friend who used to live there had his truck stolen three times. And then I heard about this chick who was robbed at gun point; they grabbed her out of her car, made her take off all her clothes, and then they shot her.”

I was so taken aback that I didn’t even respond, and someone quickly veered the conversation in another direction. But for days afterward, her second-hand stories gnawed at me.

See, I had to get over my own ideas about Detroit before ever signing that lease. I grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s in the northern suburbs of the city, and for as far back as I remember, I understood Detroit as somewhere you didn’t go unless you had to. As a high schooler, I’d drive downtown to see friends’ bands play at Jacoby’s, and I knew the unspoken rules: You traveled into and out of Detroit with your car doors locked. You didn’t make eye contact with anyone between the car and the door of your destination. And you didn’t have to stop for red lights past midnight, because you might get car jacked, and no one was policing the streets anyway, right?

Embarrassing in retrospect, but that was my reality as a suburban teen.

So it was kind of a big deal when, a decade after my days of frantically locking the car doors whenever in Detroit, my boyfriend Lou and I started looking within the city limits for a home. We originally thought we wanted to live in the suburbs, someplace like Ferndale or Royal Oak — communities that were considered safe, cool, walkable, and still a short drive from the sports and entertainment in the city. But after a month of searching and one too many tours through overpriced, scuzzy rentals (including a parade through three slumping, peeling, molding homes owned by a landlord driving a Mercedes SUV), we revisited our plan. And we realized we might have to open our minds to the possibilities that lay within 8 Mile.

As much as I loved the idea of more reasonable rent and proximity to places like The Joe and Belle Isle, the thought of actually living — like, actually living, walking, sleeping, grocery shopping — in Detroit really scared me. Over the past five years, I’ve lived in three different cities where I never had to lock my doors and could walk alone at night without thinking twice about it. Things would be different in the city, no doubt. Talking about it with friends didn’t help, either: Most had at least one second-hand horror story about Detroit. You can’t walk around anywhere, even in the day, they said. You can’t keep nice stuff in your house. You’ll have to get pepper spray. And a big dog.

But none of these warnings came from people who actually had a Detroit zipcode.

So I set up dinner with another friend of a friend — this time, a twenty-something named Kim who’s been living on her own for more than five years on the southwest side of Detroit. Over beers and barbecue in Corktown, I asked her things like Do you feel safe? and Have you ever had anything happen to your car? while simultaneously apologizing for my ignorant anxieties.

“It’s okay,” Kim said after soothing each of my worries. “I’ve known lots of people like you; people who have, you know … the fear.”

And there it was: over pulled pork and secret sauce, a diagnosis.

I don’t know how or when I developed The Fear; no one ever sat me down and told me what to think about Detroit, least of all my parents — one of whom is a born-and-bred Detroiter who spent most of his life in the city, even after witnessing tanks rumbling past his street during the ‘67 riots. But somehow, somewhere along the line in my suburban youth, I had become afraid of Detroit.

After my meeting with Kim, I began noticing how many other people exhibited symptoms of The Fear, too. I heard it every time someone shared yet another “I once heard about this robbery/shooting in Detroit” story, each so improbable and sensational that all I could think of was that telephone game — where someone whispers a story into one person’s ear, and then that person whispers it to the next person, and so on, until the final person repeats the story aloud only to have it be mangled beyond recognition.

Only thing was, this wasn’t a game. Detroit has a reputation, yes, but this is a real place where real people live. What purpose did it serve to perpetuate The Fear without foundation?

So I asked myself: What am I really, truly afraid of?

I thought, I’m afraid that my car might get stolen or broken into. The ol’ “smash and grab,” as Kim had put it. I decided, No biggie; there are ways to deter theft, and ways to deal with it should it happen.

I thought, I’m afraid of my house being robbed. But of course, robberies happen everywhere, all the time. I decided that getting renters insurance would ease my mind, as well as knowing our home has an alarm and watchful neighbors on the block.

And then I thought the very worst thing I could come up with: I’m afraid of getting shot — for real. All those second-hand stories going back all those years had seeped into my subconscious, and that’s what I was truly afraid of. But then I took a step back. Where did I picture myself getting shot? At home? While I’m sleeping? Out on the street? And who did I picture shooting me? For what reason? Would I really be walking around somewhere it’s likely I’d get hurt in that way? As in, likely enough to actually worry about it on a daily basis?

The answer to those questions of course was no, not really. But that’s the funny thing about fear: It doesn’t necessarily listen to reason. So in the interim, with our move now just a month away, I’ve been engaging in what Lou calls “exposure therapy” as a way of reconditioning my feelings about Detroit. I’ve been driving down to the city, but not to see a concert followed by speeding back to the suburbs with my doors locked. I’ve walked around my future neighborhood. Eaten at some great places. Spent afternoons on Belle Isle. All while focusing on the stuff in Detroit that’s easy — and rational — to get excited about.

As a recovering surburbanite, I’m still not totally comfortable in the city. But I haven’t felt unsafe, either. I’m taking with a grain of salt the “I once heard” stories and I’ve stopped thinking something bad is going to happen to me the second I step out of my car. And I’m starting to see the city as somewhere lovely to live — like, actually live, walk, sleep, grocery shop — and as a place I’m looking forward to calling home.

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