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Becoming a Detroiter

This is the third installment of the Detroit Stories series. If you haven’t already done so, check out the background of Detroit Stories  and the the first two installments: an interns take on Detroit and Motown to Manhattan.

This is a guest post by Craig Hennigan. I met Craig through his comments on this site, following him on Twitter and connecting in real life.

I’m Craig Hennigan but on here or on twitter you might know me as Toka313. I feel honored and privileged to write to you my story of coming into the city of Detroit. I am presently a PhD student and debate coach at Wayne State University, and before I came into the city proper, I was a city councilperson in Madison Heights.

After the Madison Heights city council meetings, most of the councilmembers and the Mayor go out to dinner at the Master’s. As I sat at the table thinking about my near hopeless re-election prospects, I was deciding about what my future would hold.

“If I don’t win this election, I think I’m going to move to Detroit.”

The councilmembers stared at me, almost aghast, and one chimed in,

“Good God, why?”

And my reply was quick:

“Because none of you are gonna do it, and somebody has to.”

It turns out that it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve been here a year now, and “Becoming a Detroiter” has been an adventure in learning about a very unique culture.

I was rather anxious being the ‘new guy’ in the neighborhood, but the place I moved into was quite possibly the perfect opportunity for someone new to the area to live. I live in a house with 4 others, the owner and his girlfriend being two of them. She works at Inside Detroit, so every weekend—every day even—I had the opportunity to know something more about the city that I never would have known otherwise. I thought I knew Detroit when I lived in Madison Heights. I had only scratched the surface.

Another roommate worked at the Hub of Detroit, so getting a bicycle was a first priority upon moving in. The bicycle culture here in the city is larger than I had imagined. From Critical Mass to Tour De Troit, to the Bikes and Murder Slow Ride to Slow Jams, to the Full Moon bike ride from Fender Bender, there is not a lack of people who are willing to take a ride on a nice day (or a rainy/snowy one!)

When does one “Become a Detroiter?” It’s a question I had asked myself over and over again during the early time I was here. “You aren’t a Detroiter because you haven’t been here long enough.”

So I thought giving myself an arbitrary temporal milestone would give me justification and I changed my twitter and other online ID’s from Toka248 to Toka313 only after I lived in the city for one year. But it wasn’t the in timing that made me a Detroiter.

I had one of the kids I work with tell me, “You aren’t a Detroiter because you don’t live in the ‘hood.” This was funny because she lived in Saline and considered herself a Detroiter.

Others can say “You aren’t a Detroiter because you grew up in the ‘burbs.” I just have a hard time believing that only those who grew up in the city have exclusive rights to the term Detroiter.

I think the real turning point for me is showing genuine concern for the community around you. That is how you “Become a Detroiter.” Whether it was volunteering for urban debate leagues, protesting to save the Catherine Ferguson Academy, farming and shopping locally or participating in local events; it is in those moments that I felt truly invested in the city and became the real Detroiter that I am today.

Detroit isn’t just a place where you live, it is a place that you are. Now that I am a Detroiter, the only focus is to become the best Detroiter that I can be. Yes, I'm a booster. No, I am not blind to problems in Detroit that are similar to problems in many aging cities. But when you start doing your part to keep this city the best in the world to live in, you also will know what it means to “Become a Detroiter.”

What do you think makes someone a Detroiter?

Follow Craig Hennigan on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (17)

Nice Post Craig!
What do you think makes someone a Detroiter? I think you have the right mind set already. You are a "Detroiter" if you love and care about the City regardless of your zip code. If you spend a significant amount of time there, do all of your shopping there, spend 3-4 nights out of the week in Detroit at your bar of choice, volunteer there, work there or live there, etc... You are a "Detroiter" when you find yourself defending the City to your last breath. I recently had an experience like that when I was explaining to someone why I am house hunting in Detroit and not the "Burbs". They just didn't get it, but that is their loss not mine. =)

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEliza

I hesitate to say it's 'regardless of zip code'.. I think to truly be involved in this community for the most part one has to be here. I was expressing how being outside the zip code I 'thought' I knew Detroit, but realized later I didn't until I arrived. The post was when I started to think of myself as a Detroiter after moving to the city proper. I don't intend to start a city v. suburbs brawl though, cuz it just ain't fair to y'! I recognize the symbiotic relationship between us, but I would not have called a Detroiter a Madison Heights-er(?) because they hung out at Augie's...

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToka313

I agree. I also got to know Detroit on a different level when I moved there 9 years ago. Been in love with her ever since!

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEliza

Your whole exchange with the Madison Council peeps reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a bunch of Mad Hts Chamber folks after a meeting (I was on the Chamber board at the time). It turned out to be some sort of contest as to who had managed to go the longest amount of time without going south of 8 Mile. I "lost" because it had only been a day or so for me, while everyone else was bragging about it being a number of -years- or -decades- since they last set foot in the city. I've been a fan, and regular visitor to, Detroit for years...long before this welcome resurgence of interest in the D in recent years. Yeah, I'm in 248, but we're all in this together.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

@Dominique I think your experience is very interesting to me. I recently spoke to a long time resident of Detroit about this "riff" that exists between the City Proper and the suburbs. Being here for several months now I think it's ironic how so many (Burbers) claim to be Detroiters when it's convenient (e.g. when the tigers win). Just a little observation.

On a similar note...

@Craig I love your feedback for lady from Saline. It's funny now living in Detroit (from Ann Arbor) how people claim to "be Detroit" but have never even set foot in the city. That's a bit inconsistent to me.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMRW

@MRW - you'll appreciate this then.. From local band Zelda and the Unibrows, it encapsulates your thought in a humorous way.

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToka313

> I think the real turning point for me is showing genuine concern for the community
> around you. That is how you “Become a Detroiter.”

Well said, Craig. And thanks for bringing what you have to offer to the city.

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteralysonsee

Thanks for all the comments! Soon this post will appear in the online freep! I will link you to it here!

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToka313

What moxie? The city has nothing going for it except beer gardens and sports. Luckily it has a decent university in mid-town. If Detroit had any real moxie it would have reliable mass transit, classier places to shop, clean streets and the bums put to work.

October 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterliddlesan

^^ Troll fail. Try reading the blogs here and then come down yourself. I would recommend the "41 things to do in Detroit Before you Die" thread..

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToka313

Great story Craig! I miss the D big time, I'm gonna get back soon to see my teams play and watch some Go Detroit Lions football!!!

May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMikel

a year and a half later and this post looks so naive...

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