Whenever I am asked to describe Detroiters, I always tell the same story.

It was 16 years ago, and I had just arrived in the Motor City. I had not yet written a column for this newspaper. The only knowledge anyone here had of me was a small item in the Free Press announcing my hiring.

I came to the office.

I already had mail.

A half-dozen letters. Handwritten to me. They could pretty much be summed up this way:

Dear Mr. Albom:

Welcome to Detroit. It’s a great sports town. We’re sure you’re going to do a good job. We hope you like it here before you move on to Los Angeles or New York like all the other good ones do.

Best of luck …

To this day, I am both amused and perplexed by those letters. Their words say so much about Detroiters. We expect the best. We are proud of where we live. And …we have a bit of an inferiority complex.

I never understood that last bit. Why do we think that Chicago or Boston or Los Angeles is somehow superior? Is it because those cities are portrayed by the news media as more charming, while we are only shown on network TV if a car is on fire?

I don’t know. But our attitude is part of our charm. We don’t snarl at new arrivals; we ask where they’re from, we’re grateful to have them.

Detroiters are welcoming people. We value basic things: our kids, our families, an honest wage, an honest day’s work, a local sports team, a local tradition. We do not seek the latest trends from Paris or New York. If we did, we wouldn’t cling to coneys, the boat races, the auto show, paczki, Sweetest Day, the Woodward Dream Cruise, or fireworks a week before Independence Day — all things that make no sense to people who don’t live in our city.

We do things the way they have been done for a long time. Yet, happily, we don’t consider ourselves quaint.

On the other hand, we don’t appreciate how worthy a place we are either. We make too big a fuss when the odd movie star comes through. We overdo the
“local” angle in a TV show or a book.

We accepted casinos into our midst at least partly because we didn’t believe our city was worthy a status that was above that.

I regret that, because we are. Worthy. This is a terrific place to live, a pleasing blend of big city and small town. Maybe the years of the news media dissing Detroit have taken a toll on our people, and we drop our chins a bit too quickly.

We shouldn’t. I’ve seen the other places. I’ve lived in the other places.

Part of those early letters did come true: the chances to go to New York and Los Angeles.

I turned them down because I know something about Detroiters. We seem grateful that people with something to offer chose to live here. In truth, it should be the other way around.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or by e-mail at albom@freepress.com.

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