If you Google “most dangerous cities in the USA” just scroll down to the top spots and you’ll find Detroit, Michigan, usually holding its place at number 1 or 2 depending on the article you read. This awesome accolade is due to its high violent crime rates, high poverty rates, and high unemployment rates. So it does beg the question, is Detroit safe?
Even those articles will admit that the majority of the crimes that put Detroit on those lists happen in very specific neighborhoods amongst people who know each other.
So if you’re going to Detroit with a plan to seek out those neighborhoods and those gangs, then only bad things will happen.
Before I share with you my personal experiences living in Detroit and why I recommend other people visit the city, I think it’s important to understand just what happened to Detroit. I started writing a section detailing the history of Detroit but it’s so convoluted that I got lost in it all and this article started to take on a different theme.
So I am going to give you a breakdown of what happened as I understand it and leave it up to you to educate yourself further and draw your own conclusions.
A Brief History of Detroit as I Understand It
Imagine a large city that reaches a population height of 1.8 million people in the 1950s in the USA. This population growth is fueled by the growth of one industry, the automotive industry. This draws people, mostly from the southern US to its city in search of job opportunities and to escape discrimination.
Of course, it’s the 1950s in America so this discrimination follows them and the housing opportunities for the black population are restricted, while whites are building homes in the city and the suburbs.
Then the automotive industry condenses into three major players who decide to up and leave to the suburbs taking the jobs with them. Which means those that can leave Detroit (mostly white or affluent black people) do and they move into the suburbs. Those who can’t stay in the city without a job or an ability to own a home.
While the automotive industry is leaving Detroit racial tensions erupt in riots in 1943 and most notably 1967.
With rampant corruption and discrimination and incredibly few employment opportunities for those that couldn’t move to the suburbs, crime increased. Abandoned homes were lit on fire. Destruction, blight, poverty, and crime took over as a result of all of these factors.
The population of Detroit has been on a decline ever since.
And that is what made it onto the news for many years.
My Experience Living in Detroit Suburbs
I moved to Detroit in 2011. I lived in the Grosse Pointe suburb for the first year, because I believed Detroit’s reputation. My drive from my suburb apartment, just three blocks away from Detroit’s eastern border, was through some of those burnt out buildings, vacant lots, and boarded up homes.
From my suburban apartment, I could hear gunshots in the middle of the night.
One morning, before sunrise, I was driving to the airport to pick up my then-boyfriend. There was a pharmacy a block up from my house and as I drove by I noticed two people hanging out in front of it. I kept driving. About an hour later when I returned home with my boyfriend, cops were out front. Apparently, the pharmacy was frequently robbed.
Another morning on my way to work, I got into a pretty bad car accident. I had a green light to enter the freeway and the other person didn’t stop and T-boned my car on the driver’s side. The homeless man who stood on that corner every morning, who I averted my eyes from if I happened to be stopped next to him, came directly over to my car to calm me down and try to get me out. Then he pulled out his incredibly old cell phone and called the cops for me told me he couldn’t be there when the cops arrived and walked away.
Throughout this first year, I grew incredibly frustrated with the people I met. When I told people I moved to Detroit from the Bay Area, I was met with criticism and a raised eyebrow. Why would you ever want to live here?
In the beginning, I understood it, because that’s what I thought the first time I ever stepped foot in Detroit and I looked down on the vacant Jefferson Ave on a Friday night. Why would anyone want to live here?
But the more I explored Detroit, while still being able to return to the safety of my suburb apartment, I began to realize there is more to Detroit than they report on the news.
Those people that I met never ventured into the city, or only did so for Lion’s tailgates. They were scared of it. Understandably so as some of them had lived through the 1950s and had seen first hand the rise and fall of the city. While others, had just never stepped foot into the city and if they did, only saw what they wanted to see.
Moving into Detroit
After my first year, I moved into an apartment in Downtown Detroit and fell in love with the city. I stayed in Detroit for 6 years until I decided to quit my job to travel.
I was living in Detroit when the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
I would go out for drinks until the wee hours of the morning and walk through a “park” where homeless people would sleep, among other things, bold in my drunken state. In that same park there is now a manicured dog park and a hipster cafe.
Across the street from Detroit’s favorite speakeasy, Cafe D’Mongo’s you’ll find a Pure Barre. When I lived there, it was a strip club. I remember walking by it the morning after it had been lit on fire.
I paid ridiculously high Detroit city taxes and then wondered why there were so many potholes in the streets.
I eventually moved out of Downtown Detroit and into the Midtown neighborhood where I purchased a studio apartment paying double for it what the prior owners paid for it just two years earlier.
I would ride my bike from Midtown to Downtown for dinner or drinks or to get to the Riverfront. There wasn’t really much in between the Midtown and Downtown and I always pedaled faster on the blocks just before I75. Now, Little Caesars Arena bridges the gap.
One night, in my new Midtown home, I heard gunshots fairly close by.
At a Red Wings game, my friend and I had two full beers thrown on us because the Red Wings lost and we were rooting for the other team by wearing the other team’s colors. We told the usher who simply shrugged and we walked as quickly as we could so those people couldn’t follow us to my car. I realized those guys didn’t live in Detroit.
Another night, I went to Game 4 of the World Series of the Tigers vs the Giants, alone. Against the warnings of my friends who knew what happened at the Red Wings game, I wore all of my Giants gear and sat quietly as I watched the Giants win the World Series. As people left the stadium they shook my hand and said congratulations, nice game – as if I had something to do with the win.
Once I decided to quit my job, I started to drive Uber and Lyft for some extra cash. I tried to only drive in Detroit. Nothing happened, except increasing my savings for matcha lattes in foreign countries.
I am not naive about the dangerous things that could happen in Detroit, or in any other city for that matter.
In my own hometown, a bank teller was murdered while working during a robbery gone terribly wrong.
A woman in New Zealand – a country hailed for being one of the safest – was murdered while on a date.
I believe that bad things happen everywhere. In every single city, there will be places you shouldn’t go because they’re dangerous.
They happen more frequently in Detroit but only in certain places and typically amongst people who know each other.
Since you won’t be going to those places during your time in Detroit and you are likely not a gang member, I believe Detroit is safe for you to visit.
What Not to do in Detroit – and What to do Instead to Stay Safe.
Don’t go abandoned house hunting. First, they won’t be that hard to find and second there may be squatters living there. And even if there aren’t people living there, they’re just plain dangerous and you could hurt yourself by stepping on a rusty nail. Don’t do this.
Instead, marvel at the beautiful art deco architecture still standing throughout Downtown, Midtown, and New Center. Most notably the Guardian Building, the Fisher Building, and the Old Train Station.
Don’t leave valuables visible in your car. A navigation system, a spare phone charger, a backpack in the backseat are all fair game for those who could use what you have for money to eat that day.
Instead, take all of those things and put them in your trunk or glove compartment.
Don’t walk alone at night. If you’re unfamiliar with Detroit, walking alone at night could pose a problem if you go down the wrong street.
Instead, take an Uber, Lyft, or walk in a group of people who know where they’re going.
Don’t get drunk, act like a fool, get in trouble, and then blame it on Detroit. One night, walking home after a Tiger’s Game, an out of towner started banging on the glass windows of one of my favorite bars. The bouncer tackled him to the ground and they started fighting. It was either that or have this person break the glass windows harming those people sitting inside and me standing next to the person. All I heard other people say is – only in Detroit. That is dead wrong.
Instead, behave like a respectable human being. Go out, enjoy yourself, and go home without causing a scene and you’ll be just fine.
Don’t be scared of Detroiters. People in Detroit are pretty friendly and welcoming.
Instead, make eye contact and smile as you pass them on the street or chat up a local business owner – you may leave feeling inspired.
Don’t be scared of Detroit.
Instead, see it with clear eyes. See it for all of the success and struggle it has been through. Understand that there is still a long road ahead for Detroit, but appreciate the determination it takes to rebuild and rise again. Marvel at its beautiful architecture, eat its delicious food, talk to the people who are hustling to make a name for themselves in Detroit, and most importantly have fun!
Detroit is a really fun city, I hope you look past its former reputation and those top ten lists to see Detroit for what it’s becoming once again.
On that note, I’ll leave you with Detroit’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. Which means: We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.
Like this post? Pin for later!