Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Detroit is not a laboratory

Detroit is not a laboratory, but we should be scientists. Here's some explanation about where I'm coming from. DETROIT IS NOT A LABORATORY

One of the narratives I've heard about Detroit, especially when stories about Detroit are told to those not currently living here, is that Detroit is a laboratory. It's a blank slate, a place where enterprising folks can experiment and make something for themselves. Detroit, the story goes, is the new wild, wild west and a low-cost place to take risks and try something new.

That's not exactly true because Detroit is precisely NOT a blank slate. The City was founded in 1701. It had over 1.5 million residents at its peak, and there are still over 700k that live within the city limits - not to mention the many more in the metro area. Detroit already has a culture, and monuments, artifacts, and history. It has major sports teams, and Universities. We've started cultural, economic, and social movements in our storied history.

Detroit is the opposite of a blank slate.

I mention this because talking about Detroit as a blank slate / laboratory can make locals feel marginalized - like they're in a petri dish, under observation, and without agency. More and more, I feel that way too when folks talk about Detroit as a "laboratory."


That said, there are lots of people - both long-time residents, and new comers - trying new things and figuring out what works to make life in the City better. And I think that's great. Detroit isn't a city that works for everyone. It can be better, it can "rise from the ashes" as we Detroit's like to say.

The way we get there is being scientists - by observing, listening, trying, failing, succeeding, learning, and sharing. Being a scientist doesn't have to mean treating the city - and those in it - like part of an experiment. What it does mean being curious, humble, and learning by doing.

I'd also say that "being scientists" is part of who we are as Detroit's. We've always been creative people, who work hard and build new things. And so we should.

It's not lost on me that this is a subtle distinction, but I think it's an important one.