I can’t stand the term “gritty” when it’s used to describe my hometown and my residence of Detroit. It’s empty. It’s lost all meaning. It’s an overused term that, far too often, simplifies this city to an easily digestible narrative when there are several storylines here.
A decade ago, I was a copy-editing intern at the San Jose Mercury News, and my copy chief was from the island of Guam. Being copy editors, our job at the paper was to avoid clichés and help writers find better ways to communicate their stories to readers. My copy chief always said she hated how whenever she read something about Guam from someone not from Guam, it was described as “hardscrabble” — so much so, she cut the word “hardscrabble” out of any copy she came across in her career.
While Detroit in some ways can be gritty, just as Guam in some ways can be hardscrabble, it’s not the only defining characteristic. But sure enough, do a quick query for “Detroit” and “gritty,” and it comes up multiple times. It’s exhausting.
I guess I want people to understand that Detroiters are many things. We’re resilient, meaning that yes, we stick it out through “tough times” — and even that can come off as cliché. I say this because as I, and many others, grew up in Detroit, we had a lot of fun here.
This where we came of age — first kisses, first drivers’ licenses, all of that good stuff. Gritty moments? Sure. If you go to any large American city, few, if any, of those cities been immune to some of the ills that plague urban life. But should that be a city’s sole defining characteristic?
In Detroit, it has been. Here’s my theory.
Detroit is a large city, yes, but it’s one of few that has a majority black population. And because of that, writers and other observers never take the time — the real time — to really dig deep enough into our population here. It’s far more easier to apply a simple label instead of understanding nuance.
Not only that, but there’s an expectation that black people — through the viewpoints of onlookers, mind you — must forever endure a level of hardship. No one can ever see our vitality, our joy, our happiness. We must always wallow in the negative, because it fits neatly into a narrative that black people are always in the position of having to overcome.
Then there’s the narrative of sympathy. By forever branding Detroiters as “gritty,” we’re put in the position of being pitied over. Bleeding hearts all over the place suddenly feel the plight of Detroiters, and what happens when that sentiment arises? Suddenly, the hardscrabble, gritty Detroiters are in need of a savior — someone to rescue us from all this grittiness and strife, because that’s what we’ve been waiting for all this time, right?
I’ll tell you what Detroit is. We’re a prideful people that love our city more than anything — even if we do, in many cases, make the difficult decision to leave the city for somewhere outside the boundaries.
We’re a people who make a way out of no way, something all of our Southern grandparents and great-grandparents passed down to us, and will still marvel at our accomplishment without outside validation. We take Detroit everywhere we go, because this city has instilled something in us that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. And most of all, we’re a city with multiple identities, multiple human emotions and multiple stories that are far too complex to reduce to one adjective.
So, don’t call our city gritty. All you have to do is get to know us better, and you’ll see we’re so much more.