UPDATE: Please read Andre Ventura’s response to this post for more information about the signs
Last week a friend took me on a drive down 8 Mile Road, which separates Detroit from its more affluent (and historically white) northern suburbs. I’ve been on 8 Mile before — I live a few blocks away from it— but this was the first time I saw the anti-Detroit signage posted alongside it on the Detroit side. I went back the next day and took some photos and posted them to my social media accounts without really commenting on them or providing context.
After hearing some of the reactions to the signs from Detroiters and friends and family who were understandably concerned for my safety after seeing the signs, I decided to write this post about what the signs mean to different people and some of the issues and tensions they represent.
The signs are made by one person, Andre Ventura, who has lived on the city’s east side for over 10 years. He started making them in 2011, when bullets from a gun fight ricocheted off the metal frames of the swing sets of a community playground in the State Fair-Nolan neighborhood. Some news sources say that Ventura replaced more positive community signage with these warnings, which are posted around the disused playground. The “Enter Detroit at Own Risk” sign (which, if you look closely, has “DPD” written under it) echoes the name of a 2012 rally held by the Detroit Police Officer Association (DPOA) to bring attention to the city’s understaffed, overworked police department. During the rally, police officers gathered to warn visitors that the city was unsafe to enter due to this lack of adequate law enforcement.
The frustration represented in these signs and at the DPOA rally is real, and many people in the city feel it, but these are some of the most visible expressions of it I’ve seen. My take on the signs as a researcher and resident (and a Michigander who grew up hearing about Detroit) wasn’t that they’re threats–if I’d felt that they were, I wouldn’t have been out photographing them. They’re pleas for attention and help made by someone who is frustrated with what he sees happening in his neighborhood; indeed, Ventura refers to them in one news article as “international distress signals.”
The issues he’s bringing up–gun and gang violence, drug use, lack of funding for public services and protection, and corruption and lack of accountability and responsibility in city governance–are all very real problems here, as they are in any city, but Detroit can’t be reduced to its problems, and I think this is the issue most people have with these signs…they see them as reductive. There are so many people working for the good of the city and trying to positively represent it to non-residents, and they view these signs as actively working against those efforts. Similarly, the city’s own police department warning visitors that the city isn’t safe to enter felt like yet another betrayal to many Detroiters.
Residents are understandably concerned about how their city is represented to “outsiders.” There are so many negative stereotypes about the city circulated in mainstream media, and the continuing (some say growing) divide between the suburbs and the city is still a concern (see photos below), and so who gets to talk about Detroit is a critical issue here. Signage like this, visible as it is from a physical and cultural boundary between the city and the suburbs, reinforces many of the negative associations people have with Detroit: that it’s never safe here, that outsiders aren’t welcome (and will likely be shot if they come into the city), that the whole city is full of drug users and dealers, that the city doesn’t take care of its citizens and citizens don’t take care of their city, etc.
But there’s also an element of tone-policing to the critiques of the signage from other Detroiters, as if the “harsh,” “extreme,” and highly visible mode of expression invalidates the feelings themselves. Residents know what the city’s problems are and talk about them among themselves, but Ventura is negatively portraying the city in such a public way, directly targeting outsiders, who are already taught to be afraid of Detroit. While I have rarely felt unsafe in the city and Detroiters are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I know, there’s no question that different people have different experiences depending on a range of factors (e.g. their race, their class, wherein the city they live, what public services they have access to, etc.). When I talk with residents living in some of the city’s most blighted and removed neighborhoods, I hear and see the same concerns, anger, and sense of betrayal that I see in Ventura’s signs…they’re just expressed differently. For example, I’ve spoken with neighborhood leaders who felt like their only option for reducing crime in their neighborhoods–in the absence of adequate law enforcement and funding for demolition–was to burn down some of the houses on their block where criminal activity was taking place. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to feel that your best, your only option is to destroy parts of your community in order to protect others, but I see what that looks like every day. (For more info on arson in the city, check out the acclaimed documentary “Burn,” trailer below.) So yes, Ventura’s signs are “extreme,” but so are the challenges that people here are facing.
My questions are: Who has the right to speak negatively about the city, and in what contexts/under what circumstances? Whose concerns and opinions get amplified and supported in the city, and whose are censored or downplayed, and why? And lastly, how do you balance the fact that these feelings of anger and frustration are a valid reflection of Detroit’s problems with the need to counter the many negative representations of the city that circulate locally and in national and international media?
I’ve been following campaigns like Say Nice Things About Detroit, which began in the 1970s and has been revived and supported by Shinola, and Don’t Be Afraid of Detroit, founded by Salvatore Aiello, which aim to start conversations about the more positive aspects of life in Detroit. I also know of many, many local businesses and organizations working to improve the city itself while also helping non-residents to view it in a different light, and I would say that by and large, Detroiters love their city and they’re proud of it. Though I wholeheartedly support these positive campaigns, I’m also wary of dismissing Ventura’s signs and other expressions of frustration and anger by residents (and civil servants) who feel marginalized and oppressed by and within their own city.
The people I work with in Detroit often ask me if I’m going to portray Detroit in a positive way in my dissertation. It concerns them, and it’s something I worry about every day–as a researcher and a person who loves this city and wants to see it flourish (and wants to be a part of that), how do I (how can I, how should I) represent my perspective on life here to other “outsiders,” and what exactly is at stake when I do that? I have been overwhelmed by the positive aspects of life here and the way Detroit is always changing, and I want to represent that–I want to say nice things about Detroit, and I do it all the time. But I also know my personal experience here is very different from someone like Ventura’s, who’s living in one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods and feels like Detroit has betrayed him and his community. One of the hardest things I’ll do will be to figure out that balance: how to address the city’s problems and provide perspective on them based on my research with residents, while also representing the positive changes I’ve seen and experienced. I’ll need all the help I can get.