Save Detroit! Self-Indulgence and Doing Good


Is there anything trendier than patting yourself on the back for acts of self-indulgence?

Acts which you convince yourself are good for everyone. Not just you. I do this.

Today, I saved Detroit, because I purchased a writing notebook. I handed over $20, saved Detroit, patted myself on the back.

A bit of self-indulgence goes a long way.

I’ve always wanted to save Detroit. Short of living there, working there, or in any way directly helping the city. I mean, what am I supposed to do, give over  my life?

I grew up in west Michigan. Chicago was our “big-city-nearby-we-visit-each-year”. No one went to Detroit. We wished Canada would just annex it.

Detroit had echoes of good music, industry, and sports, but atrocious public management and the downfall of the auto industry gave it a massive coronary. Its weak heart had been pumping out broken promises for decades.

I don’t love Detroit — I don’t know Detroit — just the Tigers games and a harrowing trip down 8 Mile at night in our conspicuous Dodge Minivan. (I now see as one of my father’s character-building “get out of your bubble and see how others live” ventures.)

I’d love to help Detroit, like most Michiganders, I love the idea of Detroit. 

What it once was, what it could be. I’m cloyingly romantic. I want to save Detroit. Revitalize it to it’s shiny glory. We all want to keep things alive, it’s human condition.

I’m also someone who likes good deeds, and who views certain self-indulgences as said “good deeds.” Generous, I know. We’re like that in Michigan.

I found myself in New York recently and saw a sign for Shinola, a retail company based in Detroit. I gasped — shrieked. Good deed indeed! 

Enter store.

The sparse industrial interior has leather goods, one-speed bikes, pens, watches, and clothing. All overpriced, all one move away from “browny orange” on the color wheel. All things I’ve been living without. 

It’s the 1950s in here, Detroit’s heyday.

The store is a smidge hipster for my tastes. But hell, at least Detroit is on its way up. 

Urban renewals follow a three-step path:

  1. Hipsters, attracted by the irony of it all. They bring music, craft beer, and coffee.
  2. Gays, attracted to the music, craft beer, and coffee. With money and taste and ability for self-indulgence — they redecorate.
  3. Finally, attracted to the bright new city, the mainstream, middle-class couples with disposable income arrive. They never leave (well, they do when child #3 arrives: they move to the suburbs in order to play yard sports, but they get replaced immediately by another couple). The hipsters, meanwhile, are long gone.

Detroit is in phase 1 of its urban renewal. On the treadmill to trendy. No more industrial wasteland. It’s the thing, like pigs as pets, kale, hairy eyebrows. 

So here I am, in life, wanting to see Detroit thrive — and, in this moment, standing in a Shinola store. In the middle my nonfactual, existential, socio-economic thought juggernaut, a hipster saleswoman slides over. I try to look like I haven’t just been judging her life psychology.

“Hi! I saw ‘Detroit’ on the sign. Is this a charity for Detroit?” 

Stoopid. No one pays rent in downtown Manhattan by being a charity for another city. I was anticipating her hostility and overcompensated with chirpy niceness.

“No, it’s a business.” Interesting… she knows what a business is. Maybe I don’t understand hipsters after all.  She continues, “It started in Detroit and is based there. There are two stores.”

“So it’s for-profit?”


“But based in Detroit.”


“So, conceivably, some of the profits go back to the company — which is really the founders — based in Detroit?”

“Yes, two guys run it, in Detroit.”  She doesn’t confirm they live in Detroit. She doesn’t deny it either.

Unfazed, still seeing a possible good deed, I press on. “Are these things manufactured in Detroit?”


Aha! Production in Detroit. People employed. The more I buy, the more they make… fast-forward this mental thread to its inevitable conclusion:

This isn’t self-indulgence! I’m saving Detroit!

“OK, I’ll buy something.”  

“How about a watch?” She gestures to a massive display case in the middle of the store. We have been slowly moving towards it the whole time. “These are great; I own several. I love them.”  

The cheapest one was $500. Two things became clear:

  1. She does NOT own several.
  2. There are limits to my caring for Detroit.

She reads my thoughts and dismisses them, like every good sales person.

“Or, how about a notebook?” I counter-offer. I gesture at notebooks tucked away in the corner. I think she mumbled something akin to “water finds its own level,” but I can’t be sure.

The notebook is $20. Done. Sale. Cash. Receipt. Bag. “Have a nice day!” 

And thank you for this self-indulgence that also saved Detroit! 

Is what she would have said were she not so bored by my middle-aged, middle-class existence. Again, this “might” be me projecting.

When my husband got home, I showed him my notebook like a gold star.

“I bought a notebook today, manufactured in Detroit!”

Sadness crept upon me: what once was one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the world managed to produce a notebook

“Don’t you already have a million notebooks?”

“I had seven. They don’t help Detroit. This one does.”

“Fine. But we’re not buying a Ford.”

I didn’t have the fortitude to say that Detroit didn’t manufacture Fords. It was done overseas. Or in Alabama. 

Instead I wrote this story down, in my new notebook. I wrote it down with big words and big spaces. So I’d have to buy another notebook soon. Which is cool, I need it for all my lists.

I’m saving Detroit. One notebook at a time. (Back pat). More than makes up for the trees I’m killing. And the hipsters, gays, married couples, and generally everyone who lives in Detroit who I casually insulted in this post under the guise of self-indulgent satire.

I should probably buy another notebook.



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