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Opinion: Detroit youth put digital stamp on quarantine

James Rosen

Ferndale — Millennials are living a different kind of pandemic.

While their parents — boomers, as they say with some derision — get excited about Zoom cocktail hours, my son Julian and his legions of friends across Michigan and beyond are leaning hard into the gaming and social media interactions that come second-nature to them from childhood.

"Our entire generation exists online now," Julian told me the other night. "That’s where we're living."

As we talked, he spun off a dizzying array of digital destinations he now inhabits, seemingly all at once. He and his friends play video games deep into the night, messaging about strategies and the pandemic at the same time.

They trade quarantine tales while visiting each other’s islands in Animal Crossing. They exchange news about delayed unemployment benefits while killing minions in League of Legends. They switch screens to check Facebook updates, make Instagram posts and keep an eye on emails. They hold meetings on Discord and share documents on Slack.

When they want to go old school, they bring out the Nintendo 64s and X-Boxes they never let their parents throw away.

At 27 Julian is at the heart of the millennial generation, just as I was born in the middle of the record-setting boomers. Now we’ve traded places. He lives in Ferndale, not from my Oak Park childhood home; I live outside Washington, D.C., in the Northern Virginia suburb where he grew up.

For the last few years, Julian’s joined thousands of other young musicians and artists fueling a creative renaissance in the Detroit Metro area, drawn by all the buzz of a historic town finally enjoying a true rebirth.

Julian Rosen performs Jan. 26 during his album-release show at The Loving Touch in Ferndale.

When I visited Julian, I was surprised to see rope lines outside Orchid and hear music thundering from the dance club in Ferndale, which was a sleepy, tree-shrouded suburb where I took piano lessons as a kid. I was happy to smoke cigars with my brother at Smokey’s in Royal Oak, surrounded by teeming restaurants streets full of revelers. I was thrilled by the booming nightlife from Bush Park and Lafayette Park to Midtown, Corktown and downtown.

Seemingly overnight, all that culture and night life came to an end. The restaurants, the clubs, the galleries, the festivals, the concert halls — all shut down by a global pandemic.

Julian was 9 on Sept. 11, 2001, when his fourth-grade class was interrupted, school was dismissed and panicked parents picked up their children. He’s told me many times he’ll never forget that day — "it’s our Kennedy assassination," he would say.

Now, he’s stunned that what he was certain would be the defining national moment of his life has been eclipsed by something worse.

"Dad, this is bigger than 9/11," he told me in a hushed voice a few weeks into lockdown.

With their venues shuttered, Julian and his friends support each other as best they can. They livestream shows on Facebook, earning donations instead of cuts from the house haul. They hold impromptu social-distance jams in basements and garages, unnatural spaces separating the musicians. 

When Julian and his friends were kids, they spent hours playing on their Gameboys and PlayStations. There was a debate among boomer parents about these newfangled gadgets. Others criticized them as black time holes, but I disagreed. Sitting with Julian, seeing him so absorbed by Super Mario Land and Pokemon — I saw him learn how to make quick decisions, compete under pressure, coordinate with others on a fast-changing digital landscape.

Julian sits at home now, his favorite haunts closed, his musician’s night-owl sleep patterns even more disrupted by lockdown, passing the isolated hours in a digital world that’s so very different and yet so familiar.

You can call it escapism if you’d like. These days, my own life disconcertingly altered, I wouldn’t mind following him.

James Rosen is a longtime Washington correspondent who’s covered Congress, the Pentagon and the White House.