Happy and Morgan often describe themselves as “wearing different hats” when it comes to different aspects of their work in the neighborhood. When they’re reporting and writing about the area, they’re journalists; when they’re making presentations to Detroit’s City Council on behalf of the neighborhood or applying for grant money, they’re private citizens. And yet the lines they draw for themselves, they’re the first to admit, are as slack as the felled phone lines that sway on Dobel Street: when journalism meets activism, the divisions between narrator and player are necessarily muddled. There’s no off switch for outrage.

09/01/07 01:52:46 am, by Michael Happy
Categories: Dobel Street
Where’s the beef?
I had all intentions of sitting down tonight and beginning to write the story about how a group of former residents of the City Airport community joined forces with current residents of the area—including a church, a community group, a neighborhood watch group and local businesses—to turn back the clock at Fletcher Playground. It’s a story I will tell in the days leading up to the celebration at the park on Sept. 8.
But today I’m not in the right state of mind to do justice to that story and to the wonderful people I have met and been reunited with along the way. I’m angry, and I want to raise your blood pressure as well, inspire you to write a letter, make a telephone call, get involved—whether you live in the city now or used to call Detroit your home.

Happy goes on to discuss the city’s failure to maintain Fletcher Field—“despite the fact that it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain the park’s grounds and equipment.” Anger, he believes, invested with the agency of the communal, can lead to healing. Yet Happy and Morgan’s ultimate goal is not to be activists themselves, but to help others to be. For the neighborhood residents who don’t have Internet access, Happy and Morgan have tapped into on-the-ground networks—“Captain Edith” and others—to ensure that, to the extent they want to be, everyone is plugged into the project. Their current leadership of that project, Happy and Morgan say, is one they hope other members of the community will eventually fill.

Still, they defend their advocacy work. In an October post, Happy writes,

There’s been quite a bit of discussion over the past few weeks about the merit of this blog….Some say the blog teeters on the line between ethical and unethical journalism….

If we had gone back there in June, done the report and left, there’s a good chance very little good would have come of it. People would have watched the audio slideshow, shed a tear of two, then have chalked it up as another Detroit sob story.

Because we stayed, got immersed in the story, befriended current residents of the neighborhood, gained their confidence, Fletcher Field is a viable park again. Children are expending their energy playing in the park, not partaking in mischievous activities, breaking windows in a school that might someday be their saving grace.

With the improvements made at Fletcher Field came a groundswell of hope that other parts of the neighborhood could change for the better as well. Ideas for that renewal pop up on a daily basis, connections are made, incremental steps are taken to alter the course of history.

The bottom line is, I got into this business to try to help people. I think the park project, its aftermath and this blog are doing just that.

Detroit’s story—from the national press perspective, at least—is often told within the inflated contours of caricature. The lusty-texted mayor. The Vegas-wannabe casinos. The foreclosed-on homes. The Most Dangerous City in America…again. The city that forged its reputation through innovation is now suffering, not from disease, but from something perhaps more regrettable: atrophy. Politicians and pundits don’t just talk about improving the city; they talk, these days, about saving it.

The 1967 riots still form a kind of psychic smog over Detroit and its suburbs. Racial tension is woven into the fabric of the city’s political rhetoric. Just this March, in his State of the City speech, Kwame Kilpatrick blamed his scandal-plagued mayoral tenure—the most recent being perjury about the affair he’d been conducting with his chief of staff, sometimes on the city’s dime—on white bigotry:

In the past thirty days I’ve been called a nigger more than anytime in my entire life. In the past three days I’ve received more death threats than I have in my entire administration….This unethical, illegal lynch mob mentality has to stop.

Detroiters in general are quick to admit to a complex relationship with their city and its peak-and-valley history. There’s a T-shirt popular among residents. “I Love Detroit,” the shirt proclaims on its front. On the back? “I Hate Detroit.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.