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What it means to be from "Downriver"

Zug Island in River Rouge
Jodi Green
Zug Island in River Rouge
Zug Island in River Rouge
Credit Jodi Green / flickr
Zug Island in River Rouge

If you follow the Detroit River south of the city, you’ll hit the working class communities of River Rouge, Ecorse and to the west, Taylor. These, so called “Downriver” cities sometimes get a bad rap. As part of our Community Vibe series, Michigan Radio’s Emily Fox introduces us to two long-time residents of River Rouge who are trying to help shape the next generation of residents.

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River Rouge is an industrial town.

Don Duprie is the third generation of his family to live in River Rouge. His grandfather moved from Kentucky to work in the steel mill here.

“Almost everybody’s got family ties to the mill someway from around here,” Duprie says.

Duprie says it’s the steel workers of River Rouge who helped build Detroit. 

“Downriver means, it’s pretty much working class people that are kind of the lifeblood of America and the lifeblood of the city of Detroit,” Duprie says.

As we drive closer to the Detroit River you can start to see the Detroit skyline. There’s a steel mill across from a DTE power plant, power lines and a concrete factory.

Like the songwriter that he is, Duprie sees beauty in all this industry.

“I dig it. I think it’s a very picturesque beautiful thing,” Duprie says.

Duprie was a firefighter for 13 years in River Rouge but got laid off in 2010. He now makes a living as a musician and runs a pie shop in Detroit.

Duprie’s life in River Rouge inspires the songs he writes. His songs have an Americana/Country vibe to them. His song, “What am I Supposed to do?” is about getting laid off from a union job. It was inspired by a steel mill worker in town, and later, his departure from the fire department.   

Duprie is proud to be from River Rouge.

“We worked for a living,” he says. “We busted our butts. We didn’t get nothing handed to us and we got our hands dirty and things like that.”

But Duprie says River Rouge and other down river communities get a bad rap. He says people from Downriver are called things like, “stupid hillbillies” or “trash.”

Brandon Cox grew up in River Rouge. He has long brown hair and tattoos. He is now the Principal at the middle school.

“When I was in high school, we were playing a community, I won’t name that community, but they literally threw plastic rats on the ice while we were playing them in hockey because they called us Rouge rats,” Cox says.

Cox says things are different in River Rouge from when he was growing up. There’s more crime, more single mother’s raising kids, a lot more poverty, and a lot fewer good paying factory jobs. Cox says factory workers in River Rouge can’t achieve the American Dream like they used to.

“People just prior to my generation, they could quit one job and go to a new job the next day,” Cox says. “Whereas now, when people lose their job, they are struggling.”

When the factory jobs started to dwindle, a lot of working class people left town too.

Now musician Don Duprie is trying to redefine his neighborhood.

In his three block neighborhood he’s already convinced five of his friends to move into three different houses. Some bought houses for a little as $5,000. They are mostly musicians and creative types leaving Detroit, parts of which are becoming more expensive as it slowly rebuilds.

“If Detroit is the new Brooklyn, then River Rouge is definitely the new New Jersey,” Duprie says. “So come on baby, move in.”

Duprie says the low cost of living and the grit of his city, makes for a good life for struggling artists, and even better songs. 

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Emily is a reporter and producer for Stateside and fill-in host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.