Blog: Toby Barlow

Toby Barlow is co-president and executive creative director of JWT Team Detroit where he oversees work on both local and national accounts. He is also the author of "Sharp Teeth," a novel about werewolves.  Toby lives downtown in Lafayette Park and will be writing about his vision of a better Metro Detroit.

Post No. 3

How to talk about Detroit

Since I moved here from back east and started living downtown, people from New York always ask (with arched eyebrows and cynical smiles,) “So…how do you like Detroit?” I think they expect me to burst into tears or something, because in their eyes Detroit is a really scary burned out place filled with danger, depression and the distant sound of gunshots. 

I’ve discovered a few ways to respond which I thought I’d pass on in case you find yourself in a similar situation. I’m sure you have your own answers, but these seem to work for me:

#1: the Savvy Real Estate answer

Oh, love it. Detroit’s like New York was in the 70’s, back when it was filled with muggers, Travis Bickle wannabees and the Son of Sam, back when you could buy a townhouse in Park Slope for two hundred thousand dollars. Speaking of which, I got my Mies van der Rhoe in downtown Detroit for just over a hundred thousand. Yeah, that Mies. How much do you think it would go for in Manhattan? Three million? By the way, how much did you pay for this place? Ouch."

#2: the Ecological Prophet’s answer

Oh, love it. ‘Cause you know, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this climate change thing but you know New York’s at sea level, right? And since the melting glaciers in Greenland and Antartica will be raising the oceans something between 7 to 70 feet in the next twenty years, that’ll going to make your loft here a pretty nice wading pool. Or maybe it’ll be an aquarium, right? Meanwhile, Detroit’s about 600 feet above sea level, so like Bill Murray says, we’ve got that going for us, which is nice."

#3: the "Everything is Relative" answer

Yeah, well, I love it. I mean, you hear it’s dangerous in Detroit, but I don’t know, depends how you define "dangerous." I tell you what I think is dangerous, all those millions of people living in the middle of the desert, watching as their water tables dry up and their rivers disappear. Phoenix, Tempe, Vegas, those places are actually terrifying. Those cities are living an utterly delusional existence. Vegas gets four inches of rain a year, we get thirty. So, I don’t know about you, but sitting next to a few great lakes makes me feel a whole lot safer. "

#4: the Economist’s answer

I love it ‘cause you know what they say about New York: walk twenty feet, spend twenty dollars? Well, in Detroit we don’t walk anywhere."

#5: the Wide Eyed Optimist’s answer

I love it, ‘cause it’s like a blank slate. You want to do something in New York? Good luck, a hundred people had the same idea and already failed at it. You want to do something in Detroit? Go for it, the rent’s practically free, everybody know’s everybody, and they’re all willing to help. It really is the land of dreams."

Now, I’m not saying these answers are particularly effective at changing minds, I haven’t exactly inspired a mass migration to the motor city, but they are, honestly, solid reasons why I think Detroit is an under sung jewel of a city. 

(Of course, these all pale beside the best answer, supplied by Detroit native Moodymann when asked by Real Detroit if he looks to New York for influence, "Why look there when I’ve got the baddest city under my feet and the most beautiful black women on the planet?")