Motown is deserted downtown.
It is snowing.
There is a gentleman’s club round the corner from my hotel.
It is called Legends.
Which is about the best name for a strip club ever.
It shut down because of a fire last year, and even though it was the premier gentleman’s club in Detroit (oh yeah- I’ve DONE my gentleman club research), it hasn’t opened its doors again.
The sign out the back is faded.
The car parks are empty.
There is steam coming up from the sewers.
The guy playing his trumpet in Greektown last night was playing the star wars theme. I mean he was good. But ya know.
It was the star wars theme. And this is Detroit.
The thing about urban decay is that although the ironic photo opportunities are overwhelmingly great, it is mostly pretty sad.
There’s stuff HAPPENING here of course.
Midtown is being revived.
Young people are moving into loft apartments and opening vintage stores, and artists are doing cool things with abandoned houses.
But it’s harder to see the renewal in the poor neighbourhoods. The places that people who go to prison come from. And return to.
Viewing cities through this lens – this community sector, people coming out of prison and jail lens – is such a weird and weirdly perfect way to get to know a city.
The vague menace that scares outsiders like me gets given shape and form when you meet the people that live or work in the neighbourhoods that are broken. And fear gives way. In the beautiful way that fear usually does. When another human is sitting in front of you, drinking bad coffee and talking about their kids, and the 23 years they spent in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
And you get to ask dumb questions. What did you guys actually DO on those corners? What do you DO when you get your bus ticket after 15 years in prison and you don’t have a home to go to? How do you keep working in this area without dying of heartbreak?
Poverty is not the same everywhere. Here poverty comes with no access to social security, it comes with snow, and guns, and a whole generation of young black men lost to incarceration. It comes with infrastructure so broken that the water supplies get poisoned. It comes with burnt down houses and abandoned skyscrapers. And it comes with the seduction of the ‘if-ya-try-hard-enough-you-can-be-who-you-want-to-be’ narrative that is all at once true and without a doubt the biggest lie America ever told.
We want so much for stories of success to be stories of individual tenacity and personal courage, and determination. And when stories ARE all of that, it is easy to assume that succeeding after prison should mostly be a matter of drawing on untapped internal resources.
But that’s actually all kinds of steam coming out of sewers.*
Poverty here is overwhelmingly black. And overwhelmingly criminalised.
And if there is a thread that runs between systems of incarceration in Australia and the US, it is surely the fact that we manage complex disadvantage and social and racial inequality in criminal justice settings.
I mean building individual capacity is obviously wildly important when helping someone coming out of prison, but what is very clear from visiting services and speaking with the stack of super smart people that work in this area, is that individualised programs can only work on any significant scale, if at the same time pragmatic structural barriers to re-entry and reintegration are acknowledged, and challenged, and addressed.
Oh. And the picture. THAT is me hanging with the ridiculously amazing Andre L Johnson. CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project. His own story is remarkable. And the work of his organisation is off the charts. Walking alongside people. Building communities. Addressing the structural barriers. All of it. They’re doing all of it.
*NEW COOL DETROIT EXPRESSION I JUST MADE UP!! IT’S GOING TO CATCH ON!! JUST YOU WAIT….