An Hour With... Aaron Foley
City of Detroit Chief Storyteller
When Aaron Foley took over the helm of B.L.A.C. magazine, it certainly got more visibility. Traffic on the website alone grew from 1,000 monthly users to 50,000 (and counting). More recently, the author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass was appointed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to be the city’s first “chief storyteller.” We find out just what that means.
Hour Detroit: “Storyteller” isn’t a classic city job description.
Aaron Foley: I’m taking all my skills and journalism background [and] essentially doing the same job. I was trying to think of a job title that was accessible to residents.
You developed your own title?
Yes. When I go out to block clubs and events [I don’t want to] say, “Hey, I’m executive director of ...” One, I don’t look that part. Two, that sort of communicates that I have some … sway or influence. [I] tried to think of something that made people want me to tell their stories. The city has communications officers and press secretaries. … I’m not that.
What’s the format?
Building a website, producing content for a cable show, and potentially a print publication. Really going out across the city and enterprising stories. The residents now are the tipsters.
Are you concentrating outside of downtown?
The 7.2 [square miles that make up greater downtown/Midtown] isn’t off limits … but we’re not putting it on a pedestal. [We’re] bringing up the neighborhoods so we have equity in coverage. Can we [talk about] something opening on Grand River as much as something downtown? [For example] if we see a block [with] people pulling permits to improve their homes, we can ask: “Are you feeling confident enough to stick around here?” The [mayor’s] goal is to keep people here in Detroit.
To stop the bleeding?
You can pump in as many people as you want downtown but if people are leaving everywhere else it’s still a net loss. There’s a lot of frustration … in neighborhoods.
I’ll ask you. How does it make you feel when people say downtown and Midtown are doing well but literally the rest of Detroit is not, when you know you live in a [great] place like this [North Rosedale Park]? The narrative is skewed [toward downtown]. … [Some] other neighborhoods are pretty great.
I heard a Radio 910 listener call you “an operative of the administration to shade the truth.” Are you selling out?
Not to be like: “the mayor told me.” But, like, the mayor told me … “don’t lose your edge with this.” There’s a perception that you just become this bureaucrat.
I love some of your past headlines: “Y’all mother*****s need … a clue.” Or describing a news story as “cheerleading, white-savior dogsh**!” You probably can’t use that kind of language now?
[Laughs] No. The attitude won’t [change] but without using profanity. Is it going to be all positive news and cheerleading? No. I was guilty of [some bashing]. Take the perception that bike lanes mean young white kids. [I didn’t know] the city is tracking data. Now you’re seeing bike lanes on Jefferson and Livernois. There’s a ton of black people who use bikes.
— Aaron Foley
How do you define gentrification? How does the city?
I honestly don’t think the city has a definition. ... And that is something we need to own and define. The city has been overwhelmingly inclusive in its plans. When the Fitzgerald project was done, the developers had 40 community meetings prior to the announcement. It’s not like I’m cheerleading this. But it seems to me the city is trying to go the extra mile to make sure everybody is included. … Trying to calm residents’ fears and [explain] that development doesn’t necessarily mean a luxury condo. It can mean a green space.
On Facebook, you debated whether to call out someone after overhearing ignorant comments. “I’m either going to be the arrogant author or the combative mayoral appointee.”
There’s still a shadow over government employees. Like [former mayoral chief of staff] Christine Beatty saying: “Do you know who the f*** I am?” You don’t want to be that guy. I’m not just representing myself [now].
In Jackass, you described Hour Detroit as “where to look if you need ... a good plastic surgeon.” You added that we also provide informative reads. But we can take it. What are we missing?
[Laughs] I think it helps having [staff] live in the city. You get more like things you did like [on] Oneita Jackson [a cab driver profile in January 2015 Hour Detroit]. Hour can tell that story like nobody else. I’m kind of envious … [your] pages [had] more space to ... tell those sort of stories that B.L.A.C. just couldn’t.
We’ve done stories on human trafficking, heroin, DPS, etc., but there’s a perception we’re not “real” journalism. I say: “Yes, our art directors are wonderful. But don’t hate us because we’re pretty.”
Vogue and Teen Vogue gets that same sh**. You might have models on the covers, but [inside] there’s all sorts of stuff about [harder issues].
Hometown: Detroit (Russell Woods neighborhood)
Education: B.A. in journalism, Michigan State University
March 2016-present: City of Detroit: Chief Storyteller, appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan
2009-present: Freelance writer (work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Thrillist, CNN, Reuters, Forbes, Next City, Columbia Journalism Review, Crain’s Detroit Business, Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine, Model D, and more)
Dec. 2015-March 2016: Editor-in-chief, B.L.A.C. magazine
Oct. 2014 -Dec. 2015: Copywriter, Team Detroit
2012-2014: Detroit Editor, Jalopnik
May 2012-Sept. 2013: Associate editor, Ward’s Automotive Group
May 2009-May 2012: Web producer, MLive Media Group
Sept. 2006-May 2009: Copy editor/columnist, Lansing State Journal
Author: How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass, Belt Publishing, 2015.
Editor: The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, Belt Publishing, 2017