As Detroit Transforms, Foley’s Book Teaches Jackasses How to Behave

On Friday night, while delivering late-night fast food to my fiancé at work, I drove around the outer reaches of my Midtown Detroit neighborhood for the first time since I put my bike up for the winter. I felt a bit like a stranger in a strange land as I passed gaggles of young professional types out walking from bar to bar, brand-new restaurants, and soon-to-open luxury apartments in renovated former eyesores.

In just 12 weeks, my neighborhood had undergone yet more changes that made it unrecognizable from the Cass Corridor of the past. (Cass Corridor was what Midtown used to be called before it was rebranded by economic developers; it was known as the city’s red light district for decades but is now a paragon of gentrification with twee boutiques, overpriced retail emporiums, and high-end cafes.)

This new Detroit looks a lot different from the one I moved to in 2009, when we still had abandoned sky scrapers downtown so derelict that actual trees were growing from the rotting roofs. Dan Gilbert was just starting to implement his tech hub transformation plan, but downtown was still a ghost town once the workday crowd headed back to the suburbs. Back then, right as the Great Recession was unfolding, both friends and family questioned my decision to move to Detroit, a place they saw as irredeemably crime-ridden and poverty-stricken. Today, they can’t wait to ask if I’ve been to Shinola yet, or how close I live to the retail district being built around the new Red Wings stadium.

What has happened in Detroit is, in many respects, remarkable. Despite a deafening chorus of white-flight naysayers at every turn and a crumbling municipal infrastructure that made things more difficult than they should be, young innovators fueled in no small part by old philanthropic money have managed to make Detroit exciting and fun again to the outside world. But there are still a lot of problems to be solved here, and the city has never quite been the overhyped hipster utopia that some of the more breathless accounts of its revitalization make it out to be.

Writer Aaron Foley is a lifelong Detroiter who has dependably been a voice of reason and well-placed skepticism when it comes time to discuss the Detroit Miracle in the national press. In various pieces for outlets like Jalopnik and The Atlantic, Foley has beautifully described why Detroit is not a city that was without worth until some beardos from Brooklyn came here and planted their flags in the ground.

When every coastal reporter was hot to trot about Slow’s Bar-B-Q, Foley was there to remind us that a resurgent dining scene is not the same as a thriving city, nor should it be credited with Detroit’s turnaround. He’s rightly mocked the “I’m more Detroit than you” authenticity battles that seem to crop up between transplants and even newer arrivals. He’s also educated an untold number of readers on the long and proud tradition of black entrepreneurship that has kept Detroit afloat even during the leanest, meanest years.

In December, Belt Publishing issued Foley’s first full-length book, the appropriately titled “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” which Belt describes as “a social guidebook for coastal transplants, wary suburbanites, unwitting gentrifiers, curious onlookers, die-hard natives, and everyone in between.” Belt sent over a review copy, which I blew through in one sitting before Foley and I met up for an interview.

Foley said the project came together after he wrote a widely circulated Detroit explainer for Jalopnik in 2013. He successfully pitched the folks at Belt on expanding the article into a book and got to writing, a six-month process that took place largely at Honest John’s, Motor City Wine, and other locations that offer libations and free Wi-Fi.

The book includes chapters like “How to Not Look Like a Dumbass the Moment You Get Here,” “How to Be White in Detroit,” and “How Not to Offend People When Talking About Detroit.” Although it’s focused on the Motor City, his advice could probably be successfully applied to any burg on the rise. (More than one chapter essentially boils down to “How to Be a Decent Human Being.”)

Chapter 13—“How to Do Business in Detroit”—is devoted to entrepreneurial endeavors, and it’s packed with great advice. He begins the chapter comparing two brands associated with the city—Vernor’s ginger ale and Shinola, maker of luxury leather goods, bikes, and watches—and how the thorny issue of legitimacy perennially comes into play in Detroit. A big deal was made when Shinola decided to open a flagship store in Midtown a few years ago. The national press ate it up; the genius marketers at Shinola had managed to equate buying high-end goods from its store with supporting Detroit’s revitalization.

Foley writes, “You would think that Detroiters citywide would be celebrating Shinola as a success, but you don’t know Detroit. Shinola was a darling to outsiders looking in, but was slowly pissing off everyone here in town. … What rubbed Detroiters the wrong way was the very short time it took Shinola to become synonymous with Detroit. … Anyone opening a business should be aware that they’ll meet with some resistance if they try to build a brand on the back of Detroit’s comeback, or the city’s heritage in general, the charisma and mystique that makes this city what it is. Rookie business owners are either going to have to develop some tough skin if they’re going to try to make it here, or develop a skin porous enough to absorb the needs of the community surrounding them.”

Foley also demystifies the process of opening a business in Detroit—it’s harder than you think, what with the relatively high property tax rate and the often labyrinthine permitting process—and he offers a list of local startup incubators and entrepreneurial service providers. The whole book is worth a read for anyone with local business aspirations, as he offers relevant advice throughout. Foley tells aspiring startup founders that, above all, they should realize they haven’t invented the wheel and behave accordingly.

Regarding an article that ran in Crain’s a few years ago about two up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Foley writes: “[They] simultaneously commented that Detroit offered endless opportunity for like-minded business owners because the city was a ‘blank canvas.’ Initially meant as a metaphor for filling in empty spaces, the ‘blank canvas’ idea has taken off like a rocket, becoming a catchphrase for the wannabe hopeful looking for a quick pull quote. Longtime residents bristle at this term, seeing as the city was never ‘blank’ to begin with. There were people in the neighborhoods where these entrepreneurs started opening up shop, and the ‘canvas’ was filled with the history that came before they arrived. To say the city is ‘blank’ is a total erasure of the city’s colorful past.”

He also tackles the democratization of opportunity, an ideal that local economic developers are starting to push: “A regular concern of longtime residents is that minority-owned businesses, particularly black-owned businesses, be included, and even prioritized, in the revival of Detroit. Critics of this ideal, often white, say they are tired of being scolded for their participation in the economic revival and often answer with the retort, ‘We’re all Detroiters no matter what!’ But it’s problematic when black businesses and residents across the country, not just in Detroit, have had a harder hill to climb when it comes to equality.”

Foley talks about the rise of Dan Gilbert’s downtown empire throughout the book, and like many Detroiters, Foley has complicated feelings about Gilbert’s revitalization efforts. “He’s done a lot for Detroit and he should be credited with helping to bring attention to Detroit on a wider scale,” Foley said during our interview. “He’s employing a lot of people in the city, and I absolutely can’t knock that. It’s more about the optics of a white billionaire buying all the buildings downtown in a city of impoverished black people. It makes me and many others very cautious. If Dan really wants to make change, he should go outside downtown.”

When we talked, Foley had some words of wisdom for new residents who want to make a good impression with longtime Detroiters. “Listen and observe. Don’t dictate, don’t assume, don’t think you know what the answer is. Ask, don’t offer.” He said the biggest mistake new Detroiters make is assuming the parts of the city outside of the downtown area are inhabitable. “Not every neighborhood is great, but not all of them are crap,” he added.

And despite a recent influx of white people, 79 percent of the city’s residents are black. “If you’re uncomfortable with black culture, you should probably think twice about moving here,” he said. The ideal traits for a potential Detroiter? “You should be open-minded, resilient, and not afraid to be uncomfortable.”

Aaron Foley will be at a book signing for “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” at 7 pm on March 18 at the Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills, MI.

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