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Telling Our Detroit Story

Any news is good news…except in Detroit.

I'm sure that is what more than a few people are thinking about us these days. Everybody loves the so-called positive press, but we (including me) whine a lot in between. But I'm starting to think that it's pretty great that so much of the world wants a piece of our story.

So what's so wrong about having a few eyes on Detroit?

Journalists aren't perfect; newspapers, television stations, blogs (gasp!) aren't perfect. There is no way to tell a “new” story in this or any town. But without all of those “negative” articles, would we have drawn two New York artists here to freeze a house? Would Dutch filmmakers want to live here and be distraught that one of our high schools might close? Would we have a famous songwriter and artist -- Allee Willis -- asking what she can do to help?

I receive about three dozen emails every day, each one asking for coverage. These missives come from local folks ranging from state representatives to teachers to preachers. But the other half is from outside of Michigan: city leaders, former residents, foreign media. Everyone wants to talk about Detroit.

And that's great! I'm not saying we should jump at every media opportunity that comes out way. And I certainly cannot cover every story that crosses my computer desktop (although I wish I could some days). But let's step back and celebrate that someone, anyone takes an interest in our little hole in the wall – and I say that with affection, trust me.

All of these thoughts come following Thursday's event to talk about how the media covers Detroit. I did not attend the event, although many good people from Assignment: Detroit were there as well as friends from the local media. And us gatekeepers generally agreed that it is hard to say or write anything that will get 100 percent approval. Trust me, I read all of your comments on this blog, and I know I'm batting maybe .295 about now.

I digress. Let me tell you about someone far more interesting: Allee Willis. You may not know her name now, but you probably will in the near future.

Background: Willis is a Grammy-winning and Emmy- and Tony- nominated composer whose hit songs – including Earth, Wind & Fire's “September,” The Pointer Sisters' “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield's "What Have I Done To Deserve This,” and The Rembrandts' “I'll Be There For You (Theme From Friends)” – have sold over 50 million records.

She is from Detroit. Born and raised in the city, she still dreams of her home there (and checks Google Earth regularly to see if it is still standing). Her father owned a salvage junkyard here. She attended Mumford High School – you know, the one made famous by Eddie Murphy's sweatshirt in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Oh, and Willis helped out with that film's music, too.

As an aside, Willis developed The Sound of Soul program and its "Adopt-A-Tape" arm as a fund-raising concept to save the archives of Pacific Radio. Among the recordings are Rosa Parks' first interview out of jail, Coretta Scott King reading a previously unheard Martin Luther King speech and Alice Walkers' first reading of The Color Purple. In 2007, Mumford High School became the first school to receive the first 200 hours of adopted tapes. Since then, Willis has added additional tapes to the school's collection.

These days, she's based in Los Angeles, where she focuses on her work as a multi-media and visual artist and theme-party maestro.

Here's the point – Willis reads the blog. She has commented on many a post. She also contacted me to see what she could do to help the city. She wants to know what the city needs, what the schools need, what the people need.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, there was no better place to live in. It was city of the future,” Willis said. “It never even dawned on me that new York, LA or Paris would have been more interesting to live in. There was always these gorgeous cars driving around. They looked like rockets … My father's scrap yard was the second largest in the city, so I've always felt connected to the automotive industry.

“But that's Detroit. I've always felt a connection to the whole. Even at age 5, I knew I was part of this big ball of energy and it centers in Detroit,” Willis added. “I still feel that connection – it is one of the most soulful places on earth. If you had yourself even the least bit put together, this was the city to live in. When it started to fall apart, I took it personally. It felt like being bruised.

“I think it is the city of cities,” Willis said. “I grew up there, and I have been obsessed with it every since. It could be THE city; it's got a golden opportunity now. It's prime. … The youth believes in it. It's got everything you would want a place to have if you want to try to start a revolution.

“I hope it happens.”

We all do. And it's this spirit that will make it happen. Let's get Allee and all the others on board.

To that end, I end by giving you the wise insights from The Detroit News editorial page today. The edit is about the feeling from the “Taking Charge of Our Story” event:

The encouraging thing about Thursday's session was that it wasn't primarily populated by middle-aged business suits, but rather by energetic and enthusiastic young people, many of them entrepreneurs who are staking their futures on Detroit.

For many, it was their first time to be included in the discussion, and they brought to it an infectious hopefulness. Nobody told them that we've been beating this same drum for a long, long time, and even if they had been told, they probably wouldn't have cared.

These young Detroiters and Detroit advocates are passionate about the city and determined to make it better.

Perhaps that's the real Detroit story we should be selling. We aren't going to convince anyone to talk about a revival that hasn't yet happened. But we ought to be able to make them see the news value in the stubborn determination of a city that won't give up, even when others think it should.

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