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Intersections: Unexpected discoveries in a new home

Yesterday, after walking almost a mile on snow-covered streets, I ate a tandoori pizza, courtesy of the Bengali-American community and the fusion of their rich cuisine with that of American favorites.

A few days before that, I had a paczki, pronounced “ponchki,” on Fat Tuesday, a Polish delicacy that people in Detroit and probably the greater Midwest love so much, that Uber even offers to make deliveries on demand of the doughy pastry that comes with a variety of fillings.

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Recently, I ran into a neighbor who was walking his dogs, and it turned out he was Serbian. He asked what my ethnic background was, and when I told him I was Armenian, a smile beamed across his face.

“So you’re Orthodox like me!” he said. I smiled back, and somehow in the span of 10 minutes, we had somehow managed to cover the entire history of the Yugoslav wars, along with the situation in Crimea, musings on Vladimir Putin and Nostradamus.

After our conversation, I made my way to the Arabic supermarket to stock up on garlic sauce and olives. Today, I discovered a bar where some of the most legendary black musicians have performed over the years and put it on my “To-Do List” of all things Detroit.

I now live in the most diverse Zip Code in the state of Michigan, in a delightful mix of cultures and backgrounds that on paper might not seem to work, but get along just fine in the surrounding 2 or 3 miles they encompass, thank you very much.

It is cold, and the gear needed for surviving winter is a new challenge for me, a native Californian who prior to last week had no proper, practical use for thermals. But despite the weather, I am truly embracing the neighborhood I now call home.

There is so much to discover in Detroit, once considered the fastest-growing city in the United States. There is so much that the world does not know about Detroit, so much that does not fit into the neat narratives and sound bites you’ve probably heard on the news, so much that goes beyond numbers and “worst of” lists.

But the thing is, you have to be here to see and embrace it all. My optimism for this place doesn’t ignore the reality it’s going through. The devastation of this city is real, it confronts you before you have a chance to confront it.

Drive down any street and the crumbling, decaying structures tell a silent story that constantly reminds you of the reality of being here — the crime, the segregation, the education system in need of a complete do-over, the city services in need of major improvement.

However, in the short time I’ve been here, I have met and spoken to more strangers in one day than I have an entire year in Los Angeles. I’ve had the opportunity to learn and see the history of one of the most important and significant cities in this country. I’ve gotten a chance to hear from Detroit natives and their insights into both the descent and ascent of their city, which is not without its controversy.

I’ve eaten Michigan apples, the best in my life, and started to set my sights beyond the city, hoping to write some stories about life in rural America, too. I have started researching the immense Armenian-American contribution to this city (for starters, look up the Manoogian Mansion — official residence of the mayor of Detroit) that often remains hidden, sometimes to people who have been here all their lives.

The Motor City and its surroundings have gone through a lot, but if you want to get a sense of what makes this place great, all you have to do is talk to the people. Just a few minutes alone with my Serbian neighbor, who made sure he let me know that I should not be eating pork after 50 before saying goodbye, will convince you that there’s much to treasure about Detroit, after all.

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.


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