We just had a birthday. Our 313th. It was a bit of a big deal here, but I am guessing it makes no sense to you. Many things from Detroit do not.
So let me explain. Our 313th was significant because 313 is our area code. Yes. Our area code. It has been since they invented area codes. The whole city of Detroit. Even some adjacent communities, like Dearborn, Gross Pointe and Inkster.
It hasn’t changed for nearly 70 years. If you had a Detroit phone line during the Korean War, you could still have the same number today.
Now, in places like New York, this may seem ridiculous. You get new area codes as often as new suits. In fact, there are so many area codes for New Yorkers, I just assume I’ll get a recording when I dial one. (“We’re sorry, the area code for that number has been changed …”)
But that’s you. And this is us. And lately there’s been a lot of chatter about us. First it was about how downtrodden Detroit was. Broke. Unemployed. Decaying. Corrupt. Scandalous. Bankrupt. Deserted.
Then, more recently, the chatter has changed. Coming back. Upswing. Renewal. Investment opportunity.
The truth is, we’re still the 313.
And we’re somewhere in between.
Our tradition, our pride
We were never the frozen wasteland our harshest critics told you. Never as dangerous as urban legends warned, never as on fire as Devil’s Night suggested.
And we are not as upright as some breathless media now claim. Yes, we have some revamped office buildings, some new places to eat, some young folks taking loft apartments and some plans for a glitzy hockey arena. But our schools remain a nightmare, there are few thriving neighborhoods, unemployment is high, we are wildly underpopulated, and we’re technically still in the bankruptcy woods.
What we are – what we remain – is a place that celebrates things like its 313th birthday. A place that immortalizes an annual car cruise down Woodward Avenue. That treats Opening Day of the baseball season as a religious experience. That considers walking around new cars in tuxedos and black dresses the biggest party of the year.
We are resilient in our traditions. Fiercely proud of own. We act as if Tim Allen still walks down our streets and Bob Seger is releasing a top 10 song this week, as if Motown is a thriving business, not a museum, and Gordie Howe could lace them up and play a few shifts if he wanted to.
We cling to things, foolishly sometimes, even naively. We write stories about Paczki Day every year, as if it’s a new tradition. We refer to some pro athletes who have long since left the area as “Birmingham Brother Rice graduate …”
We are provincial in the eyes of others. Quaint. Even amusing. Rust Belt Romantics.
But that’s what keeps us going.
And it’s the part – unless you live here – that you will never understand.
Hard work and hope
Some cities pulse with the new. In Los Angeles, billboards shout the latest blockbuster movie, and you can feel the town breathe harder on Fridays when they’re released. In New York, it’s big when shows “open” on Broadway, and tabloids gush about new celebrities occupying the latest multimillion-dollar penthouses.
That’s not us. Like the assembly lines that once defined this city, Detroit pulses not with change but with continuity, another after another. It is our strength. Our underpinning. Maybe even our flaw.
We embrace our traditions. We don’t like it because it’s new; we like it because we’re used to it. We celebrate TV anchors who have been here for years, not the hotshots who just arrive. We adore the captains and lifers – Steve Yzerman, Joe Dumars – not the free-agent rent-a-stars.
We may be slow to get out of our own way, sticking with cars over mass transport, manufacturing over technology. But we stay. We believe. And we foresee our future because it is our past, when Detroit was the kind of thriving place we – and many of you – now hope it will become.
So we celebrate a 313th birthday because it’s ours. And what matters to us doesn’t always matter to the rest of the nation. American cars. Physical labor. The middle class. Doing things our parents did.
Is it quaint to celebrate an area code birthday? Maybe. But this is Detroit. We know who we are. In a world of fake bodies, false advertising and anonymous bloggers, isn’t that worth a few hundred candles?