Marsha Battle Philpot
By Amy Kuras
November 24, 2014
An interesting counter-story has emerged to the national cliché of Detroit-as-post-industrial-wasteland recently – one of a "new Detroit" rife with young, educated, well-off techies who are flooding downtown and Midtown and quite literally changing the face of the city.
But there's a narrative that stands outside both of those oft-repeated tales, a story that rarely gets told. It's the story of people who identify themselves with mile roads instead of high-rise apartment buildings, who have seen renaissance and decline and renaissance again. It's the story of the longtime Detroiter who is neither a part of the struggling underclass or the thriving fabulous, but everyday Detroiters who live and work and make art and raise children with little fanfare given or expected.
, whose given name is Marsha Battle Philpot, is one of those people. She calls herself a primordial Detroiter and it’s hard to imagine anyone with more claim to that term. A writer, she is a rare voice speaking the truth of a longtime Detroit perspective, without the anger or cynicism that can drive so much of that dialogue. "I believe there is an objective way to look at the historical dynamics that took place and some of the underlying impulses that are causing, number one, this sense of discovery of Detroit – discovery of what is already here – and a sense of entitlement that can really rankle people who have always been here," she says. "There has to be a way for us to do dialogue about what happens here, in such a way that is compassionate."
Music does that in many ways, from her involvement with Collision Works
, which offers a space for discussions between Detroiters new and old, as well as a project of Collision Works called the Spark
project, which pairs longtime Detroiters with newcomers as a way to share perspectives on the city. She writes about Detroit, and any number of other topics, on her blog Marsha Music, and in 2012 was awarded a Kresge Arts Fellowship.
Most notably of late, she contributed an essay "The Kidnapped Children of Detroit" to the Detroit Anthology
that describes in powerful and painful detail how the white kids she grew up with suddenly disappeared from the neighborhood, as gone as if they'd been snatched from the streets where they played. And now those same people's children and grandchildren are coming back, just as suddenly, and sometimes paying little regard to the people who stayed.
It wasn't racism that drove people out, or at least not always, she says, recounting tales of the fear-mongering phone calls families fielded day after day for months, intimating that as integration went up, home values were going down and they'd better sell now while they still could.
"It was not abandonment, but a certain kind of forcing out of the city by economic interests," she says. "[The people who left] are due a certain amount of compassion that I like to demonstrate. We were all victimized in this period." Echoing the testifying last line of her essay, she says, “Some say that they’ve come to save Detroit, but I
say, they’ve come to Detroit to be
Music grew up in Highland Park with her dad Joe Von Battle, a record store owner and music producer. One of her current projects focuses on him – like many influential Detroiters, his fame was greater halfway around the world than his own backyard, and Music hears from people all over the world who know of her father's work. She and filmmaker Juanita Anderson are working on a film about her father's life and career.
Music is very enthusiastic about the changes happening in Detroit and the vibrancy being restored to many areas of the city that were long under-loved. But, she says, she does not want to appear to be a Pollyanna. "The home and land foreclosures and bidding will result in a massive transfer of property that will resonate for generations. The impact of this, and of gentrification is of great concern," she says.
And of course, you can't talk about the changing Detroit without talking about race –although many attempt to. "The sometimes slavish media attention paid to new Detroit entrepreneurs and little or none to long-time Detroit business people, etc. is maddening." She says. "The 'invisibility' of black Detroiters in the eyes of many newcomers is pervasive and disturbing."
Ever the creative thinker, Music's solution is simple. "Just say hi," she says. The simple act of looking someone in the eye and acknowledging them can have far-reaching effects. Maybe it sparks a friendship, or a conversation, or simply an understanding that we are sharing this singular city at a point in time when it is on the cusp of great change. "I'm feeling blessed to be alive and well and living in Detroit, a city that is in complete transition," she says. "[I] believe that we are showing the world how a city can change, and we have the potential to create an amazing new city, out of the old. This is why I am hopeful."
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.