Opinion
10:18 am
Thu December 19, 2013

Finding the hidden and fascinating stories in Detroit

Lessenberry commentary for 12/19/13

A few years ago, I had a student named John Carlisle who graduated and got a job as a reporter and then editor for a bunch of weekly suburban newspapers. He was very good at it, and he was also bored. So in his spare time, he began roving around Detroit, boldly going to places where nice suburban white kids have almost never gone before.

He met a guy called Jay Thunderbolt who had his own personal strip club in his house. He met a blues musician who kills and eats raccoons, and a civil rights icon who runs her own chicken farm in the old Irish neighborhood of Corktown.

Carlisle was fascinated. These stories had no place in the little newspapers he edited, so he began writing them for the Metro Times, an alternative paper in Detroit. To avoid any conflict with his day job, he wrote them under the pseudonym “Detroitblogger John."

Before long, he gained a huge following. He published a book called 313: Life in the Motor City, and won an award as the area’s journalist of the year. Soon the Detroit Free Press hired him to rove around the city full time and write about his kind of people.

The last time I saw him, he told me he didn’t expect to run out of material any time soon. He didn’t need to compete with mainstream reporters to cover bankruptcy, or even chase down the city council president who was paying a teenager to make naked videos for him, and fled town when the boy’s mama found out. Who needs that when there are guys who live year-round in tents by the Detroit River?

Last Sunday, he wrote about a man who lives in an abandoned house without heat or lights, squats in the cold in an old car and operates an unlicensed brake repair shop. Detroit is filled with stories like these, and I have a hunch you will be hearing a lot more of them.

Michigan Radio has received a cooperative grant to cover the city as it moves through bankruptcy, how that impacts the community‘s life and its future.

The quarter of a million dollar grant is actually going to something called the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which besides Michigan Radio, includes the Center for Michigan‘s Bridge Magazine, Detroit Public Television and radio, and a coalition of ethnic media outlets. My guess is that there are more than enough good and significant stories to go around.

Much of what they will be doing will likely center on the politics and economics of the bankruptcy and post-bankruptcy, and that’s as it should be. But I hope they don’t lose sight of the zany, too.

I used to think of the kind of stories Detroitblogger John does as fascinating diversions. But they are just as much a part of the fabric of this city as the bankruptcy judge. And there are a seemingly endless number of them.

Today, in fact, the Detroit News has one about a tidy Dutch woman who voluntarily moved into one of the city’s worst neighborhoods to start a honey bee and goat farm.

If it took an economic crisis to discover fascinating stories like these, well, bankruptcy may not be all bad.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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