I was walking along Lahser near Redford Theater when somebody grabbed my arm and said, "Would you like a T-shirt?"
I turned and saw a crudely lettered T-shirt with "Detroit, comme ça" on it. The hands holding the shirt moved down and I saw Mulenga Harangua's smiling face behind it.
"Mulenga, what are you doing out here in the open in the middle of the day?" I asked. "I thought you moved around like a lizard in the shadows, unseen and unheard."
"That's what I'm doing," he said, waving the T-shirt at me. "Man, there are so many T-shirts being sold with Detroit slogans on them for sale that I'm just another nondescript face in the crowd. Police ride by and I'm just somebody else selling Detroit gear."
I looked at the T-shirt again. "What does that mean?" I asked. "It's French. We speak English."
"It celebrates our French heritage," Mulenga said. "As you know Detroit was founded by the French. The words mean 'Detroit, like this.' It's the ultimate existentialist statement. Everybody is selling gear with Detroit on it, so why shouldn't I make some money."
"Are you making any money?"
Mulenga smiled again and pulled a wad of greenbacks out of his pocket. "I was outside the DIA this morning when a busload of French Canadian tourists pulled up. I sold six or seven right there. They thought it was a great saying. It's an up-and-down business, but today is a good day."
"It's a little strange," I said. "But no more so than the 'Detroit is the new black' stuff I've been seeing around."
"To tell you the truth, it seems like Detroit is the new white," said Mulenga. "I saw some statistics recently that said the general population of the city is still going down but that the white population has gone up by 14,000 people."
"What else you got?" I asked. "It's not just T-shirts. It seems like any kind of gear that you can put the word 'Detroit' on is for sale somewhere — caps, purses, jewelry, and mugs, whatever."
A cold gust of wind whooshed by. Mulenga pulled me inside the Motor City Java House where we took a seat at one of the tables. The Artist Village was in the back. I had been there for a Nick Cave event back during the summer.
"All that money you got in your pocket," I said. "You should get me a cup of coffee."
Mulenga headed to the counter and came back with two hot cups. I wrapped my hands around one for warmth.
"This Detroit thing is taking over," Mulenga said. "Come up with a catchy saying about the city and put it on a shirt or a hat or something and there you go. I should have thought about this a long time ago."
"Well the time had to be right," I said. "I mean 'Detroit, Murder City' wasn't going to be a big seller. That's what we were known for a few decades back. Some people still haven't gotten over that."
"I guess the message does matter," Mulenga said. "I remember one from years ago that said 'Detroit, where the rich are killed and eaten.' That was kind of fun."
"I guess there was kind of an evolution there," I said. "I remember the one that said 'I'm so bad I vacation in Detroit.' Maybe that was the beginning of the turning point about the city. It may have meant you had to be a bad mofo to be here. But it also stated that somebody wanted to come here. It was a rough statement, but there was a sliver of light in there."
"The one I liked was 'I'm from Detroit, Bitch.' Now that was attitude," Mulenga said.
"That reminds me of when I went to school in Pennsylvania," I said. "I'd tell people I was from Detroit and they would kind of sidle away from me like I was going to hit them or something. Now it's all about D-Love."
"The Detroit brand is hot," Mulenga tossed out.
"Well, look at you, talking about brand like some kind of marketing guy," I said. "Next thing I know you're going to be sitting in an office downtown."
"You're not going to see me there," said Mulenga. "Not unless I want to be seen."
I looked out the window and saw a guy with the "Detroit Vs. Everybody" sweatshirt on. He was walking with a woman sporting a shirt that read "Kiss Me, I'm from Detroit."
"There goes your competition," I pointed out to Mulenga. "That's the sentiment, a scrappy fighter who is ready to take on insurmountable odds."
"That's like me," Mulenga said. "I'm scrappy. I'm ready to defend my city when everybody wants to take us down. I'm a fighter. Hmmm ... maybe I should put 'Detroit Fighter' on a T-shirt."
"Not unless you're Tommy Hearns — that fighter thing could backfire on you."
"It might be worth a try," said Mulenga. "Everywhere I turn Detroit is being sold on something. There are books about Detroit, websites about Detroit, histories and tours of Detroit. There are foods with the Detroit name on them, beers. And then you can multiply it all by adding words like 'Motown, Woodward, Belle Isle' to the marketing list."
"I'm getting calls from people out of town who want me to write about Detroit, people who want to interview me for movies about Detroit," I said. "It's crazy. Not long ago nobody wanted to have anything to do with Detroit and now just the word is marketing magic. Detroit used to mean dirty, greasy, rustbelt, the past. Now it's like the sun rising over the new world. Everything is renew, reinvent, restore, reimagine. All that 're' stuff means we get to do it over again."
"I was over at the Detroit Fiber Works gallery for one of their Third Thursday events," I said. "The filmmaker Anthony Brogdon was discussing his work, The Great Detroit. He talks to all kinds of people about the city's history, places, things that are going on now. It's all positive, he says. Not that there aren't problems, he says, but he was fed up with the negative tales being told about the city. Then while I was there I saw some 'Detroit Snob' gear."
"Now that's something," Mulenga said, picking up his coffee cup with his baby finger extended. He affected a British accent. "I live in Detroit," he intoned. "It's just so ... now. Oh where do you live? Troy? Oh that's too bad."
"I'm not sure what a Detroit Snob is," I said. "It seems like some sort of jiu jitsu of the imagination, some kind of Buddhist contradiction. The tag on it said that 'Detroit Snob is high-minded but always down to earth.'"
"Oh," said Mulenga, continuing with the finger and the accent.
"If there is anything that shows how things have changed, it's the name of the compost company Detroit Dirt," I added. "Now that's an idea that flips the script. It takes that entire gritty, grimy Detroit feel and turns it into something positive. It's dirt, but it's good dirt. And that's something that shows how the city has turned. With the urban agriculture dirt is a good thing. It's nurturing and the beginning of good food. It's healing to communities and individuals. It regenerates those things that have become soiled, cast off. It regenerates it for a new generation."
"Maybe I should do a T-shirt that says 'Dirty Detroiter,' I'm all about that,' Mulenga said.
"That might send the wrong message,' I noted. "Don't hang around any schools with that T-shirt on. I think you should just stick with 'Detroit, comme ça.' It sounds kind of generally positive."
"Positive? It's great," Mulenga declared. "I just need to get some corporate backing. It's going to be the biggest thing out of here. Bigger than 'Imported from Detroit.' I'm not importing, I'm exporting."
I finished up my coffee and stood up. Mulenga was just getting started. It's like that some days.