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Essay: Redefining Detroit

John Roney/Flickr

At 5:45 a.m. on the morning of my last day in Detroit, I groggily emerge onto the street outside the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

I love cities in the dawn light before they become populated for the day. Everyone is toeing up onto the starting blocks. Expectation. Potential. What might be possible in a day?

As I wait for the light to change - I hear him before I see him - a smiling man walks toward the heart of downtown singing at the top of his lungs. He’s dressed for work - work somewhere - with an apron, black pants, white shirt and gleaming black shoes. His arms are pumping as he walks, and occasionally he punches the air to emphasize a line in the song. He’s on his way with enthusiasm, and he’s got a song sending him there.

There goes Detroit, I think. Singing on its way to work. Again. Nothing’s open this early on a Sunday, nothing, except the world famous American Coney Island, a Detroit institution open 24 hours a day, and only one block away.

Two guys in paper hats are working the place, a young industrious guy barely out of his teens paired with a white-haired veteran. Both welcome me in and ask me what they can do for me. I look over the menu on the wall and confess that I am a first-timer, so I suppose I should opt for the Holy Article. The older guy laughs and asks me if I want tomatoes, chili, onions, ketchup and mustard. I ask him if I do, and he says yeah, I do, so I do. What he presents me with is so iconically American it should be on the money: a hot dog on a white-bread bun in a paper cradle with the works.

I find a chair and set my breakfast down on a plastic laminate counter to briefly consider this simple thing that everyone in Detroit thinks they personally own. At Rodin, my wife and I had chatted with a local couple over shared small plates, and at one point, I asked the man about the fabled Coney dog.

“It’s just a hot dog, right?” I said, “I mean, all hyperbole aside, it’s just a hot dog.”

He had laughed, perhaps a bit self-deprecatingly, and owned that, yeah, it’s probably just a hot dog. But the way he said it, it was as if he was admitting that the Labrador he’d grown up with was “just a pet” or that his father or his grandfather was “just a guy.”

What particular thing we choose, as a community, to identify with, at the end of the day, doesn’t really matter. It could be anything: a hot dog, a well-made watch or bike, the way we like our pizza, a company, or the fond gathering places where we see our friends and drink together. Why, it could even be something as trivial as a square of brightly colored cloth that we hang from our porches on summer holidays.

Whatever it is, it’s us. It’s Who We Are. It’s our neighborhood, our little place on Earth. The Humble Thing becomes the signifier we use to declare ourselves to the universe. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter what we rally around, so long as we rally. And Detroit is rallying. And reinventing. And reincarnating into something worth visiting again. It’s going on right now, right as you read this.

But as cool as it is, even the locals can’t really define it for you. You’ll have to do that yourself. Why don’t you?

Rob Bundy is our Travelers Roundtable contributor – he writes about travel for Third Coast Daily.

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