What Makes an Authentic “Detroiter?” Intern Michael Stepniak Speaks

One unimpeachable Detroit foodstuff is, of course, the coney dog.

UniverCities Southgate energy intern Michael Stepniak grew up in northeast Detroit. Yet when we described him as a “native Detroiter” in a recent draft communication, Michael wasn’t having any of it. In a cogent e-mail written at two o’ clock in the morning, he explained why.

“I try to play that stuff down, actually,” Michael wrote, describing his claim to the city. “If you move here, you’ll find more than enough people trying to tell you how ‘Detroit’ they are, and I’m not about to be mistaken for that.” Instead, he’s working to establish a different sort of Detroit identity politics.

“I truly believe in regionalism, and one of the ways I try to foment that is by the things I say,” Michael explains. “I like it when a suburbanite says ‘I’m from Detroit.’ Damn right they are. In more ways than they are aware, for the most part.”

“‘Detroit’ will always be a divisive, loaded term until more people embrace it as their own. And that means, for me, not placing much stock in street cred. There is already too much of a divide between ‘the natives’ and the newcomers.”

As Michael points out, claims to an “authentic” Detroit heritage can be jealously guarded. Even suburbanites have been known to poke fun at their fellows for professing a Detroit identity, as the final rap battle in “8 Mile” indicates; cinephiles will recall Eminem’s climactic put-down of a rival who, despite his “gangsta” pose, is no more “from the 313” than Eminem himself. Individuals, organizations, and cities alike all wrestle with this subject.

Detroit identities contested in popular culture. (Eminem.net)

Yet Michael isn’t the only one urging us to rethink what “Detroit” means. In a recent MetroTimes column, longtime political commentator Jack Lessenberry urged readers to “[r]ecognize Detroit for what it really is — not the artificial city limits, but the real city, which is the counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.” Even that definition, of course, might leave Washtenaw County feeling a little excluded. Its membership in the region was a topic of some debate earlier this year, after Conan Smith, Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners (and, as fate would have it, Michigan Suburbs Alliance Executive Director) received a spot on the “Fab 5” panel of Detroit politicos, formerly the “Big 4.”

Whatever the particulars, however, we can hope that a new metropolitan identity is in the works. For one thing, more suburbanites are venturing south of 8 Mile, and more longtime Detroiters are leaving the city. These shifts could unsettle some long-cherished identities and foster a new appetite for regional collaboration. As we’ve always believed, that’s something that would reward city and suburbs alike.

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