Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Search of Identity

Michigan Expats - Commentary - See All Commentary

By John Galt

In the same way that one can be surprised at a child’s growth spurt after a few weeks
away or the growing grass after a rain, you can’t always see changes if you watch it every
day, but if you go away for a while and you are given the chance to immediately compare
your memory with the reality, the change becomes more apparent.

I think the same is true of Michigan. When I go back home every six months or so,
I always see something that surprises me, and I get the feeling that the people who
live there day in and day out might not always see it because change is gradual. The
good and the bad are more apparent with the fresh eyes of an expat than a resident.

When I returned home in mid July this year, most things looked comfortably familiar. A
few stores had changed, to be expected, but in general, I recognized my hometown as the
place of my memory, the scene of my childhood. But, there was something different. I
couldn’t figure it out at first. Oddly, it struck me on a desolate 2am road returning from a
friend’s house. Where are all the people? Only then did I realize that during the previous
day I hadn’t really experienced the general density I remembered from only a year or two
earlier. The town just felt… empty. Five lane main thoroughfares of the city fed only a
dozen or so cars along the city’s arteries. It was only then that I could palpably feel the
population flight that I had read about in such impersonal terms in the Detroit News or
other online publications. Now, those numbers felt real.

According to a 2009 series in the Detroit News, Michigan lost 109,000 people in 2008,
and the numbers are accelerating every year. That’s one family every 12 minutes.
Staggering. I can’t help but think that a good number of those numbers come from the
hardest hit areas such as Detroit or my hometown of Flint.

Is this migration a tragedy? Yes. But it’s also an opportunity. In trying to find small
victories in every situation, I can’t help but think that this is Michigan’s chance to
redefine itself. Perhaps in the long term Michigan will be able to reshape its image from
its industrial roots to an image more centered on Michigan’s greatest resource: it’s natural
beauty. I am reminded of ultra-rural states like Montana and Wyoming that went from
being the butt of cattle rancher hillbilly stereotypes to the nexus of ultra wealthy western
retreats that it is now. Everyone from David Letterman to Ted Turner owns a ranch
style retreat in Montana. Add in a Great Lake or two, and there’s no reason Michigan
doesn’t have as much to offer, if not more, than a place like Montana or Wyoming.

In the end, I think the real question is “What is Michigan?” In job interviews, they call
it the elevator pitch: that short description that quickly paints a picture of who you are.
Michigan has had many defining symbols through the years: The Great Lakes State,
Motown, the Industrial Heartland. Sadly, those days are probably gone, but that leaves a
new future, as yet to be defined. Michigan’s next identity remains to be seen, but it will
be defined by those who live there today and those who choose to return.

What do you think is in store for Michigan? What do you notice when you go back to
Michigan? Leave your comments below.

Author’s Note: I’d like to think that posts like this one make this blog relevant to
Michigan residents as well as Michigan Expats. Sometimes an external perspective can
help to see things differently. Tell us how we can make this blog more relevant to you.
Leave your comments below.

1 comment:

  1. I have also noticed the vast number of people missing from the streets. Some will probably think that this is a good thing because of the high crime rate we've always been famous for. Others with the same ignorant line of thinking will think that they all just got killed (well maybe not that extreme), but you get my point. There are 2 refreshing things in this madness. First, people come back! They may leave, but they will always be from here, and always return. Second, Michigan and specifically Flint has that not all states and cities can boast is character. True, New York, Cincinati, and others have things specific to their city, but there is nothing like Flint. Nowhere else will you find gnomes making Verners Ginger Ale on the side of a Halo Burger! Point stated. People from Flint and from Michigan are PROUD. They are proud of their gnomes, proud of their hot dogs as stated in an earlier post, proud of the instant street credit they get saying i grew up in Flint, and proud of the lakes, beaches, macinac, fudge, bridges and endless beauty. To add to this, i will never forget the time we were canoeing in some river, and my cousin who was not looking was completely closlined by a oncoming tree. ha ha ha

    i apologize for the spelling.