THINK of Detroit and cars or the Motown music label might spring to mind. Or perhaps the night it erupted into flames 50 years ago after the killing of three black men by white police officers.

That’s the subject of award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit, now on general release in the UK, which some have criticised as a misrepresentation of the city.

Many Detroiters want the world to know there is more to their home than former riots, motor and music industries and that’s why the city has become the first in the US, and possibly the world, to employ a chief storyteller.

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Irish-American mayor Mike Duggan wants a radical rewrite of the usual Detroit narrative and has hired a popular African-American journalist for the task.

Aaron Foley, author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being A Jackass, has jumped at the chance to take up the £58,000-a-year job, giving up his editorship of Blac Detroit in order to do so.

“Detroit is a very diverse city of more than 200 neighbourhoods and a lot of the coverage is focused on just a handful,” he said. “There’s a lot more to Detroit than bankruptcy, and the Detroit media focuses on food, crime and sports. I want to create something a bit different.”

HOW WILL THEY DO IT?
AS a first step, Foley and his skeleton staff have just launched their website, The Neighborhoods, with the initial stories focusing on the US’s first black-owned roller skating rink which opened in 1954 in Boynton, Detroit, and a Bangladeshi cricket ground in the Banglatown area of the city.

While Detroit has the highest concentration — at 83 per cent — of African Americans than any other US city, Foley says its story is usually told too simplistically with undue concentration on racial division. “They paint it as black versus white, but not all the people in between,” he said.

The image of a city beset by racial division has not been helped in recent years by a “gentrification” trend which has seen white, hipster, techie types moving into formerly derelict areas featured in so-called “ruin porn” – images of once striking but now decaying buildings surrounded by scenes of desolation.

Foley has not been impressed by the self-righteous, attention-seeking attitude taken by some of the incomers and asked in a hard-hitting column: “What is it like being born into the most spoiled classes on the planet and wanting to move to a city full of black folks who have been ruined by centuries of your tyrannical rule?

“Why don’t we just make a deal that when you move to Detroit, you just move here and shut up about it? Buy your abandoned building, build your lovely studio space and make art to your heart’s content, but … just pay some property taxes.”

WHO WILL HE FEATURE?
FOLEY says it is high time the majority of residents heard and saw stories about themselves.

“There is an opportunity to amplify and uplift the voices of everyone in Detroit,” he said, adding that the mayor had wanted for some time to start a news site telling neighbourhood stories to balance out the usual reports.

“There is a hyper focus on what’s going on in downtown and midtown with all the developments,” said Foley. “But there’s also things going on in other places. Stories and we want to tell, but don’t always have the opportunity to tell.” Instead of concentrating on the tales of well-off incomers and big buildings, decaying or otherwise, Foley wants to tell the stories of people who have never left their neighbourhoods and who work hard to maintain a sense of community.

“A church going through a revitalisation, the people that keep the parks up, or the people that play in the parks — those are, that’s the part of Detroit that I know,” said Foley. “That’s the part I want to share with the rest of the world.”

HOW MUCH IS THERE TO TELL?
THE new city storyteller points out that downtown and midtown only comprise around 7.2 square miles of Detroit while the city encompasses around 143 square miles of 680,000 residents.

“That’s 680,000 stories waiting to be told,” he said. “Not all of them come from downtown. And I always say that Russell Woods, where I grew up, looks almost exactly the same as it did when I was a kid. A lot of places persevered in the last decade or so after all this turmoil, and now is the time I think to start talking to people there.”

Foley’s appointment has been welcomed by some and criticised by others.

Cuts in the mainstream newsprint industry over the last few decades have left a gap which a city storyteller can help fill, according to Detroit public relations expert Matt Friedman.

“Everyone who has responsibility for delivering messages to audiences is trying to figure out how to bridge gaps that have been created by the contraction of traditional media over the last 10 years,” he said. “There is no one definitive answer for how to fill these information gaps, but this is one of them, for sure.

“It’s a great irony that the city of Detroit coming out of bankruptcy is spending funds in this way when many businesses still won’t.”

WHO IS AGAINST IT?
HOWEVER the mayor’s opponents say he is just using taxpayer’s cash to promote himself and should focus instead on poverty, unemployment and education.

“This is not what we need right now. It’s absurd,” said Sentator Coleman A Young II.

Foley himself is sure there is a need for a good storyteller and says there is a job to do.

“Detroiters need to get to know their neighbours better. Wait – maybe that should be, Detroiters should get to know their neighbourhoods better. It seems like everybody thinks they know the neighbourhoods here, but because there are so many, the definitions become too broad, the characteristics become muddled, the stories become lost.”

“There’s a certain level of culture here that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and there’s so much that’s unique to Detroit, that you almost don’t know you’re a Detroiter until you leave,” he said.