Friday, January 24, 2014

Brooks Was Here…But He Didn’t Stop for Gas

L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s Executive, is the center of a media circus for hateful comments he made to the New Yorker about the city of Detroit, comments that I condemn. The articles I have read quote him as saying, “The truth hurts, you know? Tough shit.”

The biggest problem I have with Mr. Patterson’s statements is that I knew too many people who said similar things when I was growing up. Hell, to some extent, I once was one of them. I never would have said anything as racist as Mr. Patterson’s Indian reservation comment, but I never gave Detroit a real chance until I moved away and started reading and hearing (and then writing) about the wonderful things happening in the city.

Like Mr. Patterson, I am a white guy. I was born in Detroit but raised in Oakland County. During the 1980s and 1990s, Detroit was a place for me to go for a Tigers game, the Detroit-Windsor Freedom Festival fireworks, the auto show, or maybe a Coney dog, but I never went for much else. When I was in college in Ann Arbor, I drove into the city a couple times to catch a band play, but I otherwise ignored the city of my birth.

My maternal grandma used to always say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Although I love and respect my grandma, I do not agree one hundred percent with that statement. Sometimes constructive criticism is necessary, but using the truth (or what you perceive as the truth) as a dagger to twist into someone’s heart is not constructive.

Mr. Patterson, Detroit knows it has problems. Every time Detroiters turn on the television news or go online, they can find numerous hurtful descriptions and inflammatory images of their city. Living in the D.C. area, I hear negative comments all the time from people who have never been there. I have to unclench my fist and take a deep breath sometimes before I open my mouth to defend my city.

The truth is that Mr. Patterson’s statements are the epitome of an old way of thinking about Detroit. Some would say his generation abandoned Detroit while others might say Detroit abandoned his generation. In the end, who cares who did what thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Finger-pointing, harsh barbs and lingering suspicions and prejudices only obscure the real question of what can be done now.

Mr. Patterson’s old way of thinking crosses racial lines, religious convictions and political parties. It is based on fear, and fear is the truth that hurts all of us. Mr. Patterson said it himself: “…get in and get out… You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.”


A new wave of Detroiters, many in their twenties and thirties, are not afraid to tackle Detroit’s problems. People decry hipsters and entrepreneurs moving in. They laugh at those well-meaning people who mow empty lots and tear down blighted houses. They think that CEOs are crazy when they move their corporations back to Detroit.

Those working to make Detroit a better place are met by these naysayers at every turn. Their mothers and fathers may have even said things that sound as if they came from Mr. Patterson’s lips. Maybe they are immature and unrealistic to ignore all the warnings, or maybe they understand that if you want to accomplish anything in life, the most important people to ignore are the naysayers.

Someone else’s “truth” only hurts if you accept it as your own. Visit Detroit and stay a while. Build a business there. If you fall in love with a neighborhood, move there. 

Make your own truth. Ignore fear. Ignore L. Brooks Patterson.

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