Detroit-based singer-songwriter Vienna Teng, who is known for her beautiful work behind a piano, has a new album out which was inspired by Detroit titled Aims. In her graduate studies at the University of Michigan she was inspired to create work that relates to sustainability, the Occupy movement, online privacy and surveillance, and the environment.
The cover features a map of Detroit, with areas of net losses highlighted in orange and areas of net gain highlighted in purple. She draws inspiration from the image, seeing flurries of hope and rebirth within a declining city. Here, she shares her thoughts on Detroit exclusively with BUST.
I moved to Detroit a few months ago. Yep, the city that’s under emergency management. The one that just filed for the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. I’m a songwriter and touring musician, so really I could live anywhere in the country. And I choose to live here.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent several years in New York before landing in Michigan (for grad school), so I have to admit I enjoy hearing my coastal friends’ reactions when I tell them where my new home is. It’s usually one or more of the following:
- You know, I just read/saw/listened to this [insert article/documentary/podcast here] about Detroit.
- Oh, be careful! Someone I know got mugged there once.
- You should buy a whole building! You can get them for, like, $5,000!
- That’s cool—I hear it’s the next Brooklyn. Everyone’s moving there.
- How admirable. If anyone’s gonna save Detroit, it’s you.
Am I laughing at them? Am I annoyed? Not really.
First, it’s awesome to live in a city that’s on everyone’s radar. I’ve discovered a lot of great articles/documentaries/podcasts about my new home through people who’ve never even set foot here. Keep ’em coming!
Second, Detroit is a complicated place. And it’s big—139 square miles, bigger than Manhattan and San Francisco combined, plus Boston thrown in for good measure. What’s accurate about one area, or in one sense, may be totally wrong in another. The longer I stay here, the more I’m sure I’ll gather contradictory experiences. But here’s my take as of right now:
Is Detroit safe? I treat living here like I do any other city: I stay alert, and I keep my mind and heart open. I’ve ridden the bus at midnight. I’ve biked all over town on my own. And I’ve had a friend pick me up when I wasn’t sure about the walk over. Yes, getting mugged here at some point is a real possibility. But when I pass people on the street or their front porch, we wave. Mostly we’re all just living here together.
Is it super cheap? Again, like any other city, you pay for location. There are lofts in Midtown and Downtown going for $1,000-$2,000 a month. A few miles further out, say in Indian Village, you can buy a mansion in good condition for $200,000 or so. (I pay $350 a month, utilities included, for the entire third floor of one of those.) And yes, you can buy a house for four figures in the city auction—but you’d better be prepared to pour five-figure sums into the place before it’s habitable.
Is Detroit cool? There’s a saying around here: “Move to some other city if you want to take. Move here if you’re ready to give.” You won’t find block after block of cool places to waltz into. But you will meet a lot of people working their asses off to make good things happen. Detroit is for doers rather than scenesters: it’s for those people who will buy that cheap building and turn it into a burger joint, or a fencing school, or whatever.
Which brings me to my last point. Detroiters bristle at the notion of outsiders sweeping in to “save” their city. I would too. This place has seen too many people come in with big ideas and grand promises, only to disappear not long after, taking its dwindling resources and hopes with them. So no, I’m not here to save Detroit. I’m here to listen to the stories. To help ordinary people do extraordinary things. To keep leaning in. This is where I draw my inspiration, that’s all. That’s why I want to live here.
Take a listen to Teng's new music below.