Ann Arbor, MI II

Detroit isn't exactly lively, but it is alive. A small number of people walk around downtown and many of its skeletal buildings appear to be in use or, at least, not on fire. Outside of downtown, in the neighborhoods, the picture is bleaker. Every inhabited house has its abandoned, charred counterpart. Empty lots are commonplace, their surplus of weeds and trash flowing over curbs and into potholed streets. Commercial buildings with shattered windows and collapsing roofs expose their plumbing and wiring to the world, architectural autopsies, bodies without skin. But many houses—many beautiful houses—are still inhabited.

When Detroit isn't being ignored, it is generally trotted out as an example of catastrophic urban failure, discussed in the past tense, its collapse treated as a fait accompli. These may be fair characterizations, but they make it easy to overlook the large number of normal people who are still living in Detroit and, quietly, fighting to keep the city from degenerating into a no-man's land. On this swampy, overcast morning, they are out with weed-eaters and sun hats, ladders and paintbrushes, wrenches and spare parts. Some neighborhoods have pooled resources to hire private security guards who patrol select streets in tiny white cars. Others have invested in wrought iron bars for their windows. Retail stores and restaurants are hardly common, but the few that exist are doing a brisk trade. This is not the result of gentrification. While Detroit has its contingent of affluent, artistic young whites seeking the ever-elusive "real," the only urban revitalizers visible today are middle-aged and black.

"You've probably heard a lot of things about Detroit," the Dad says, "hopefully you're seeing that the picture is a little more complex." The Dad stands in front of the counter of The Black Whole, a shop owned and operated by DJ Blackman, one of the biggest names in Detroit's hip-hop scene and also the man who named Kid Rock. A gold album hangs discreetly on a back wall accompanied by a small plaque attesting to the DJ's crucial role in launching the star's career. Blackman sits behind the counter, eyes peering at the screen of his MacbookPro through oval glasses. He faintly shakes his head and his flowing black and silver beard waves slightly. The Dad is a producer, too. Like the DJ, he appears to be in his early forties but, unlike the DJ, he has not launched any gold-selling artists. Perhaps things would have been different, he speculates, if he had made his hardest decision the other way.

The Dad's hardest decision wasn't being a dad—that was a mistake—it was being a dad who stayed. He was eighteen and had just left Detroit for college. Getting out of town was a big deal, attending college even more so. Then a girl he had been dating back in Detroit called him... pregnant. He could have easily remained in college, evaded her, contested his parenthood. This would hardly have been an unprecedented move. He knew other men, both friends and family, who had ducked parental responsibility. His own father was one of them, a virtual nonentity in his life. And he missed him, resented him, didn't want to be like him. Eventually, his need to be different outweighed his educational and career aspirations. So, with little fanfare, he dropped out and moved home. Maybe he would have made it as a big name producer without the kids, he muses, but he has no regrets. They are out of the house now, young adults, and he couldn't wish for a better relationship with them. His immense pride in his children is obvious as he speaks, "and here I am, doing music anyway." A tune chirps out of Blackman's laptop and fills the incense-heavy air of the store. "Alright, so maybe a little more recognition and money wouldn't hurt," he says with a laugh, "but that'll happen."