In a city that is just over 80 percent African-American and decreasing by the day, Detroit media outlets do not have enough representation by people of color. To take it further than that, there are not enough Detroiters telling the stories of Detroit.
The Neighborhoods.org fills that void and they do it well. Led by “Chief Storyteller” Aaron Foley, his team of two writers, one photographer, and two videographers, they shed light on small business owners, non-profit groups, Detroit culture, and neighborhood news and development, among other things across the city’s more than 200 neighborhoods. Foley, who is gay, has placed a particular focus on telling stories from the African-American, LGBT, and immigrant communities , which are not always shared in mainstream media.
As a Detroiter who was raised on the west side, currently lives on the east side, and attended Renaissance High School, Foley was the perfect person for the job.
“I had spent almost my entire career writing about Detroit and I was writing from the perspective of a Detroiter from Detroit,” said Foley, who has a long list of Detroit publications he has written for. “Mayor Mike Duggan and his Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley took notice of what I was doing at BLAC Detroit Magazine. They said they really wanted to grow their media platform and asked me if I was willing to help out.”
After many internal meetings and planning, The Neighborhoods launched in 2017 and will celebrate its two-year anniversary soon. The team held a meet and greet at the new Three Thirteen store on the Avenue of Fashion to connect with Detroiters, hear story pitches, record a podcast, and even offered free headshots.
“It’s been a lot of growth, learning, and trial and error,” said Foley, who will celebrate his two-year anniversary with The Neighborhoods March 27. “When we hit, we hit. When we stumble, we learn from it. It’s one thing to step into an established media outlet, but this is something we started from the ground up and no city has done this before. We do it for the people in Detroit.”
Before the 34-year-old Foley was the editor of BLAC Detroit, a writer by the name of Jamliah Jackson interned there. She left to pursue a career in public relations, but kept in contact with the magazine, which then placed her in contact with Foley.
“One day, he asked if I wanted to write for them,” said Jackson. “I said no, because it was not a good time. I was really in love with PR and I wanted to give myself that experience. He asked me again six months later and I said hell yeah!”
Jackson, 25, has lived on both the east and west sides, and attended Renaissance. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Wayne State University in 2015 and continues to produce great content for The Neighborhoods, including the “313 Day” video that went viral and her latest work, why Detroiters love lamb chops much. The creative freedom is what Jackson said she loves so much about her role.
“I’ve never had a job where I literally get to go into work, say what it is I want to do, and my boss gives the okay,” said Jackson. “It’s a breath of fresh air to be able to make the job my own and to have the guidance and talent around me to be great.”
Every June, the Motor City Pride festival is held at Hart Plaza to celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the Detroit area. When LGBT Pride Month begins June 1, the rainbow flags go up. But once July 1 rolls around, they are taken down. That was a problem to Foley, so he assigned writer Kinsey Clarke, who is a lesbian, to consistently give a voice to a large, underserved population in Detroit.
“LGBT is Detroit history, it’s black history, and I want to make sure LGBT Detroiters are seen and heard,” Clarke said. “There was a black woman, Ruth Ellis, of the Ruth Ellis Center who was the oldest lesbian in Detroit before she passed away. She had her own business and opened her home as a refuge to other LGBT people. A lot of people don’t know this, and I want to build on that legacy.”
Clarke, 26, is from the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side and attended Cass Tech. A graduate of Michigan State, her career has taken from Washington D.C., working for NPR, where she first encountered Foley, to north of the border in Toronto with CBC-Radio. When she returned to Detroit, she had no job prospects. Foley reached out to her on Twitter, offered her a job, and the rest is history.
“Before I started at The Neighborhoods, I was homeless, so this job holds a really special place in my heart,” said Clarke, who is a writer, editor, and operates the podcast at The Neighborhoods. “Aaron saw something in me that other people didn’t see. This is my family, essentially.”
Photographs and videos play an important role in everyone’s life – they connect us to our past, they remind us of people, places, feelings, and they tell stories. That role at The Neighborhoods goes to Cyrus Tetteh. An east side native, Cass Tech graduate, Michigan alumna, and lover of trap music, Tetteh has worked his way up the ladder to become the city’s photographer.
After graduating from college, he did some freelance work to hone his skills. Amber Lewis, Director of Social Media for the city, invited him to take some shots for the mayor’s office. When rapper Big Sean got a key to the city in 2017, Tetteh took a photo of him that went viral, catching the eye of Wiley and Foley, among others. When The Neighborhoods was formed, Tetteh was given the full-time responsibility as photographer for the city.
“Me getting this job was a life-changing event,” said Tetteh. “I’m able to experience Detroit in a way I wish all Detroiters could. Working for the city, I don’t live in a bubble. I know everything that’s going on across the city, whether it’s east, west or southwest, and I’m able to contribute to that storytelling.”
Tetteh, 25, has seen his work takeoff since joining The Neighborhoods. His ‘Neighborhood Natives’ photos were featured in Crain’s Detroit Homecoming and had its own exhibit at the Detroit Main Library, featuring Detroiters like Mary Wilson, Tommey Walker, Meagan Ward, and Tommy Hearns, among others, going back to their city roots.
“It’s a blessing to be the creator of a narrative in the city I grew up in,” said Tetteh. “Other people shouldn’t be telling the story, I should be telling the story.”
Videographers Jeremy Brockman and Zachary Cunningham were not at the meet and great, but were both raised in Detroit. The Neighborhoods is also live on Comcast Channel 21, a City of Detroit cable channel, and MyDetroitCable, the City’s YouTube channel.