Journalist Aaron Foley takes special aim at hipster newcomers to Detroit in his new book “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” (Belt Publishing, $19.99).
Foley, 31, grew up in Detroit (he was born in Germany, where his parents were stationed), and he still lives in the city. He’s written a book much like the opinionated, list-y journalism he’s honed into a personal trademark on websites such as Jalopnik (he is currently editor of BLAC Detroit and writes a column for Belt Magazine, at beltmag.com).
New Detroiters need to check their attitudes, he writes. They shouldn’t come to Detroit thinking it’s a picturesque wasteland, that you can buy a house for a buck, or that it’s Brooklyn.
Foley admits that he comes by his knowledge firsthand. He’s been that Detroit jackass.
It happened several years ago when he and his partner bought a fixer-upper in an established but struggling Detroit neighborhood. The two came in all gung-ho, tried to organize a block club and impose neighborhood rules, which made some of the older residents balk.
“I was making a lot of assumptions about my neighbors that weren’t true, and my partner and I were going in with that same mindset that I was always against,” said Foley. “It was that mindset of trying to change the culture of the neighborhood, and the name of the neighborhood, without doing the courtesy to the people in the neighborhood. We got backlash very quickly, so I learned how to be respectful of people.”
It was after reading a few too many patronizing stories about Detroit’s decay and rebirth, written from distant cities, that he decided to take action.
The worst media offender, in his view? “The New York Times, probably,” Foley said. “I feel like at this point it’s almost like the same story rewritten over and over again, in different formats. And yet sometimes the Times got it right, he said, such as when they spent a year following a group of Denby High School kids.
You can tell by the chapter titles: “How Not to Offend People When Talking About Detroit,” “How to Party Like a Detroiter,” “Difficult Questions about Detroit with Simple Answers,” that clearly, Foley has fun explaining Detroit culture and folkways to outsiders.
Consider Faygo. The author offers a critique of every flavor of the Detroit-brewed pop, and he’s serious — he’s tried every one, even diet chocolate creme pie. But for Foley, the holy pop (not soda) grail is Vernor’s ginger ale. He writes lovingly of the homegrown brew, with its, “crisp, slightly sweet” taste and rhapsodizes about his grandmother’s special party punch, which consisted of frozen strawberries floating in Vernor’s. The green, gold and white cover design of his book is a straight-up homage to the hometown brew.
But at 31, Foley isn’t old school — Vernor’s tastes fine to him today. He doesn’t remember, or lament, the original, spicier, aged-four-years-in-wood taste.
He also explains Detroit delicacies such as battered shrimp and fashions such as Cartier glasses and gators.
One chapter, “How to Make Peace with the Suburbs,” includes a list, “Forty Ways to Tell if You’re New Detroit.” Among the ways to tell: “You’ve bragged about going to a ‘ghetto chicken place’...You moved to Detroit in 2013, and argue with people who moved to Detroit in 2014.”
Foley is most scornful of a type he calls “Madonnas,” former suburbanites who trash their former hometowns.
“They’ll say the suburbs were so horrible, I hated living there. It’s a little weird because at some point, no matter where you are — especially if you’re in Detroit — you always considered living in the suburbs. Maybe you have kids and you want to get away from the city, or you want a certain kind of house that’s not in the city. It’s baffling to me that people can move into the city and immediately get so down on the suburbs.”
One of the most detailed chapters in the book is “How to House Hunt in Detroit,” which offers an encyclopedic breakdown on the architectural styles of homes you’ll find in each Detroit neighborhood, whether it’s a Craftsman bungalow, Dutch Colonial, English Tudor or Midcentury Modern Ranch.
A recurring theme in the book is the increasing marginalization of the poor and older people.
“People don’t really know their stories, because everyone is so focused on the young and the new,” Foley said.
Aaron Foley is making appearances around town to talk about “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” (Belt Publishing). All events are free and open to the public.
6 p.m. Wednesday: Barnes & Noble, 2800 S. Rochester Road, Rochester.
6 p.m. Thursday: Reading/book signing. Repair the World Workshop, 2701 Bagley Ave., Detroit.
7 p.m. Dec. 17: Launch party, Signal-Return, 1345 Division St., Eastern Market, #102, Detroit.