Aaron Foley is the Chief Storyteller of the City of Detroit, a new position created by Mayor Mike Duggan to tell the stories of Detroiters city-wide. He is also the author of “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass”, and the former editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine. We discuss the ways in which Detroit has been transformed into a brand identity, and if there are responsibilities to profiting off of its cultural cache.
When did you get the job as chief storyteller?
What are the day to day activities, what does the job entail?
I manage a team of two writers, two videographers, and one photographer. We’re all in the city of Detroit’s media service department. We’re in the department that ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago were the people that put ono the public access channels. In the last five years the department has expanded to include digital, social media, printing. Then I came on board, a few months went by and I hired my team and our day to day just that we go out and tell stories about Detroit. Find interesting people to talk, spark conversations in the city. Last week we did a podcast, we built a podcast studio in City Hall. We wanted to be a city government that allows people to record to stuff. The work that I do is just looking for new ways to really talk about what Detroit is, where Detroit is going, and who lives here, who are the people in Detroit, and trying to give a platform to everyone in Detroit. One thing we see a lot is there’s a lot of downtown and midtown, I guess a lot of the attention, but when the mayor envisioned this role he wanted something where regular people could be seen and heard and visualized and that’s what im tased with doing. We try doing it in ways that are new for city government. The stuff we’re doing has not been done in a municipality anywhere. A lot of cities do video, but Im not trying to do promotional, cheerleady type of stuff, I want to do like short documentaries and stuff like that.
So you see the job as more of a journalistic endeavor than as “branding” Detroit or selling a “brand”?
Yeah, like I think the city does enough, not the city government, but the city as a whole. It does fine branding itself, we’ve got a number of brands and companies that do enough of a good job selling Detroit, but I’m more interested in if there is an opportunity to really go into the neighborhoods and talk to the regular people that don’t have a platform behind them.
Do you see there being social and political responsibilities to the job?
I think so. I consider it to be a civil service, a public service. When we think of public service in general we typically think of police and firefighters first, and the water department keeping your water turned on and all that type of stuff. But we can take a role in the social way of how people, the cultural way of where do we fit in terms of owning our culture, owning our narrative, and stuff like that. That is a public service that I don’t think a lot of people have realized a city government is capable of performing. That’s something I’m honored to do. Not just to work alongside the people that actually do public safety, but also how do we celebrate and acknowledge Detroit’s culture. What role do we play in the day to day of an average Detroiter.
Could you speak more to what you mean about “owning the culture”?
One thing I think we don’t—when I say “we” I’m speaking about the collective “we” of Detroit—I think we don’t always do a good enough job of like, you know like when Aretha Franklin died for example, if you were to ask the average person what their favorite Aretha song is, they’d say ‘Respect’ or something like that, the woman has a sixty year long catalog, she’s more than like ten songs. One of the things that we did that was actually good for us was that we put together a playlist of like her lesser known songs, and like album cuts. That’s the type of stuff I like doing. Those are little things we can do, it’s not going to change the world but at the same time it’s showing ‘this is part of Detroit too’. I’m trying to think of a better example besides making a playlist. One thing we’re trying to do is to work more with local musicians and local artists to show them that you’re not only being acknowledged by city government but can we give you a platform to be exposed to more people. Show you that you’re valuable because sometimes we as Detroit don’t always respect our local musicians. They always have to go overseas.
Are there any precedents for your job as chief-storyteller in other cities in the U.S. ?
I’m the first one (laughs).
What do you think was the reason for that?
I think something clicked with the administration, they thought “why don’t we try this?” One thing the mayor says is “we spent the first couple years trying to fix things and get back on track, now this is the fun part”. Not to say that city government is fun, but I think what hes saying is this is the part where we can be innovative and forward thinking and solve problems but do so in a way that previous governments have not done. So I consider myself part of that mindset. But it was just something like we have the ability to do this, we have the funding to do it, why not try it?
What were the experiences that led you to feel the need to write How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass?
I had always wanted to write a book since I was little, but this was like the time to do it. I started working on it in late 2013 and I had a deadline.
Did you pitch it to BELT Publishing?
I pitched it to them. Let’s back up a little bit. I was writing for Jalopnik and I was writing a lot of stuff about Detroit that I thought Detroiters already knew but a lot of them didn’t, but I was writing mainly towards people who read Jalopnik, but the majority of people who read Jalopnik are not from Detroit, they’re in large Texas cities or L.A. There’s a number of Detroiters who read Jalopnik but they all work in the automotive industry. The majority of them who are working in the auto industry were college graduates or people who had only lived in the area for a couple years. So I was writing a lot about Detroit and how it is, kind of unfiltered with curse words, and from a snarky, sometimes sarcastic perspective. I wrote an essay that was included in BELT’s first book about Detroit (Detroit Anthology). I met the publisher and pitched her an idea for my own book, which was a total shot in the dark, because at the time BELT was only doing collections and anthologies, but no single author pieces, and I was like, “hey I want to do my own book,” and a couple e-mail-back-and-forths later we settled on an idea for it. The reason I wanted to do it was that there’s a lot about Detroit that people don’t know, and there was a lot about Detroit—there was just a lot of misinformation going around, primarily from people who had just moved here, and I was just like “hey I’m from Detroit, I grew up in Detroit, and I just want to tell you about the Detroit that I know”. My theory for it was that I wanted something you could keep in your back pocket. Nobody’s going to bookmark a link, because links die, and we’re not in age where we can cut out columns from the newspaper anymore, let’s put it in a book, because people are just going to have the book and put it in a bookshelf and refer to it. I just wanted something to explain how Detroit is, from the perspective of a Detroiter because there was a lot of media talking about Detroit that didn’t understand Detroit, and there was a lot of badmouthing Detroit, and none of that honest, full circle perspective that I tried to author. And I say it upfront, I’m not an expert in it, but I know a shit ton more than other people writing it.
What are your thoughts on the branding of Detroit? Because it seems like that idea of a city as a brand doesn’t exist as much in other cities, there’s no “Chicago vs. Everybody”. How do you feel about Detroit becoming a proper noun brand?
It’s weird to think of Detroit as a brand because it was never a brand my whole, not in the way that it’s being branded now. Motown, yeah it’s a brand, Motor City, that’s a brand, but that’s just what it was, these were like monikers that represented the city as a home. But now you have, in the last decade or so, all of the t-shirt brands. And the thing that bothers me just a little bit about it is that when you think of how people grew up in Detroit prior to these t shirt brands coming out, we lived in a Detroit that was looked down upon by the suburbs, a city that was neglected by the state of Michigan as a whole, so yeah in some sense it is Detroit vs. Everybody, but if you look at who’s wearing the shirts, it’s people in Michigan, it’s people in the suburbs. This is not to say that if you live in the suburbs you can’t wear what you want, it’s just the fact that people in Detroit have always held that pride inside of them and we never needed to put it on a t shirt or put it on display because you just knew we were from Detroit because it was just in everything we do. Now it feels like the Detroit we know and the Detroit that made us is being co-opted into these brands, and when you see people who have never set foot in Detroit before, or who rarely go to the parts of Detroit that we grew up in—it does bother me a little when I see people from Royal Oak wearing Detroit vs. Everybody stuff in Easter Market, but they would never set foot in the neighborhood that I grew up in. Before these t shirt companies came out they were likely the same people that were talking shit about Detroit. And now it seems like an easy money grab to just say “Detroit” on stuff.
Do you think there’s a responsibility to any degree when you take that brand name and use it?
I think so. I think every company has to think about how they represent Detroit. Are you just latching onto something that’s hot right now, that’s trendy right now, or are you really truly encompassing what Detroit is.
The Shinola piece you wrote kind of touches on that a bit.
Yeah, so like on one hand I’m very much a product of the manufacturing industry of Detroit because I had older relatives that came here specifically from the south to work in automotive plants, but at the same time you’ve got a whole generation of Detroiters that have never set foot in an automotive plant. I’m kind of part of that generation. Like the reason why they came here was so their grandkids would not have to do that same thing. But when I see a lot of the brands tap into that whole ‘gritty, manufacturing’ thing, while it is very acknowledging of the history of Detroit, it’s not every Detroiters reality. The vision I have of Detroit is that I saw more white collar professionals in Detroit, because we had already achieved—everyone in my family is a college graduate—and we would not be college graduates without certain things happening in Detroit, so it’s almost like a lot of these brands try so hard to tap into a certain mindset or era of Detroit, and it leaves out a lot of things that I, or my peers, saw growing up. And you do start to feel a little bit voiceless, because it’s like ‘here comes another manufacturing brand, made in Detroit, hard work, getting your hands dirty,’ and we respect that, not saying you can’t do that or that it’s not a part of Detroit’s culture, but when do we get to a point where something is in tune with the sensibilities of the people who came after that.
I also saw you did a video with Thrillist where you talk about Detroit style pizza. Is that weird to see? Because growing up for me that was just square pizza.
I didn’t know it was a thing either, but apparently it is and I had to explain it to them (laughs). The pizza thing is kind of in a gray space because it’s one of those things where part of me is so glad that Buddy’s and Shields are getting recognized on a national level, it’s kind of huge for them, they can expand and hire more people, which is very important in Detroit, and add to Detroit’s footprint, but at the same time it feels like a big branding thing. My biggest fear is that the branding spins out of control, and next thing you know there’s going to be this mall chain (laughs). That’s what I’m worried about. I wouldn’t eat New York style pizza outside of New York, it’s one of those things where, yeah it’s a gimmicky, tourist thing in New York, but it should be exclusive to Detroit. I don’t want to go to a mall or an airport in Las Vegas and see Detroit—
How do you feel about tax incentives for private businesses, like Bedrock receiving 160 million dollars and they don’t have to pay property taxes for thirty years?
It’s hard to kind of talk about that, because working in city government, because government is the arbiter of who get incentives. It’s my personal hope that businesses do things like they used to do, like if you have the money to buy a building, buy it, and then use your own capital to fund it. Like playing Monopoly, if I got like two hundreds and a five hundred and I land on Park Place and I buy it and throw a hotel on it I’m gonna be broke for a minute, but I know that if I run around the board I’m gonna earn my money back. What happened to that? So yeah it does bother me just a little bit, like LCA and the Illitches. But that’s not the decision I make in city government.
With your job are you allowed to freely express your opinion through that platform?
Not with that platform. I’ll say that I can’t throw my own co-workers under the bus because I disagree with something. But on the other hand we try to look at things proactively across every level of government. If ‘x’ company gets ‘x’ amount of incentives but is predicted to make twice or three times that, and the net positive is ‘x’ amount of jobs for this population, and ‘x’ amount of property taxes for this, then eventually it’s incentives becoming an afterthought because they’re being paid down, then is that the model we go with it? It’s one of those things where, I don’t think any city government nationwide has the perfect model for how this works, we just kind of go with what’s best. Maybe twenty or thirty years from now, like what happened with Poletown. I guess that’s why you can’t criticize it, we don’t know what will happen twenty or thirty years from now. Poletown thirty years ago seemed like a good idea on paper—bulldoze a rundown neighborhood, build a new factory, and employ all the people that lived there—seems like everything is going to work out fine, but thirty years later now the property is about to shut down, the neighborhood didn’t come back like it was supposed to. Maybe thirty years ago they were thinking thirty years from then it was going to be great. That’s why when we look at how these incentives work, I think its always too soon to say “well if we go one way or it could go another way…”, but we won’t know for another thirty years. And every city is different, you can’t always compare what happen in Austin to Detroit. Like Amazon for example, it might be a disaster in one city, but it might be a God-send for another. You never know until the dust settles.