Detroit based writer turned cab driver Oneita Jackson takes international visitors on tours through the Motor City. So we asked Oneita to give us an authentic glimpse of her city, too.
I am on my way to pick up Oneita Jackson in her apartment in West Village: a truly beautiful historic district in Detroit. Obviously I am meant to learn my first lesson quickly and even before I meet that power woman and Detroit 'ambassador' in person: booking Oneita Jackson for a personal tour literally means handing over control of your day to a complete stranger. But that is exactly what we are after – we just need to learn to let it go. And Oneita Jackson by no means has the intention to keep that status of a stranger for too long. In fact, we just skip that step while I find myself being invited into her apartment that is bubbling over with creativity: books and magazines everywhere. The creative space of a writer who just published her 2nd book and is working on a 3rd one. Her home is lit by lots of sunshine on that unusual warm Detroit winter day.
A key chain is dangling from the coatrack saying 'Do you even know I am?' Oneita smiles and takes it out of my hands. 'This is my spare one. The other chain already has a battered spot. That's where I always hold it when I dangle it right under people's nose.'
My day was about to get exciting.
Booking Oneita Jackson for a Tour means letting her take over your day.
As we leave the apartment Oneita grabs the keys of a brilliant blue Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupé we offer her to drive that day during our tour. Not your typical cab, but Oneita slides into the driver seat without turning a hair. She adores German cars after once owning one herself. We need to hurry, we are already running late for church, which is part of Oneita's everyday life and for today will be our first stop of the tour.
'I always wanted to drive a cab. I had a cool cab driver in DC and I thought I could do that one day. But for a long time I didn't have the guts to do it. Don't let people keep you from doing things!'
Oneita moved to Detroit in 2002 and started working at the Detroit Free Press as an intern first, then copy editor and later columnist. She quit years later and started driving a cab – to meet people. And explain the city to them because Detroit is not that easy to understand, but worth trying.
Her personal view of the city combined with her strong character turns out to be greatly appreciated. Producers, journalists and even Oscar nominees already took a ride in Oneita's cab. Her mission is to help them 'feel' her city. A city battered by financial crisis, widely ignored by tourists, named as one of the most dangerous cities in the US and people constantly wondering 'Why should I go there?!'. So Oneita explains to them the good, the bad and the ugly while making sure her passengers arrive safely and don't leave without recognizing the beautiful!
When we reach Oneita's church I am welcomed as a friend. Some kind of magic happens that should repeat itself during the whole day. Being with Oneita makes you connect instantly with complete strangers you meet on the road. It takes some time to understand that even Oneita does not know all these people we greet and hug but makes friends with them on the go. Always ready to talk about her book that just came out.
Being done with the bible study Oneita jumps back in the car and takes me to the next stop on our tour: Sister Pie. A West Village corner bakery housed in a great brick building from the 1920s. A cozy pie bar that serves not only the most amazing pies but also cookies, breakfast and lunch. The menu is constantly changing to honour the local agriculture of Michigan. A great spot to hang out!
Packed with delicious cookies, Oneita picks up her friend Paulette at her home, waiting outside the door until she got in. The '40s on 4', the Sirius Radio Channel Oneita chose to listen to the very first moment she sat down in the GLC, is still influencing our day through music with the tunes and the mood of long gone times.
Meeting strangers, making friends and selling books on the run.
Out of nowhere Oneita honks the horn at a random guy overtaking us with a gas engine cart, making quite some speed on the lonely roads in a Detroit suburb. 'Stop!' she yells while leaning out of the window. 'Let me drive this!' To my very surprise the guy, Chuck, returns and offers her to take a ride in that thing.
After successfully returning it in one piece Oneita drives off to our next stop on the tour, the Heidelberg Project. A famous outdoor art project set up over centuries by Tyree Guyton and his grandfather, turning an area where people once were afraid to walk through into one in which visitors were welcomed and enjoyed being there. Tyree let Oneita contribute, too. An honour he does not bestow on everybody.
'That's my dot over there. I painted my own dot on that house!' Oneita, who does not take herself too seriously, laughs but is proud to have also contributed an old watch to the project.
Detroit, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Our last stop takes us to the Eastern Market, an area in the heart of Detroit, filled with fresh food options, restaurants, cafés, great shops and arts. Although you might find everything closed and empty on evenings which makes them a great time to check out the amazing murals painted all over the place. But every Saturday Eastern Market jumps to life. That is the day to experience what Detroit is about next to ruins, vacant homes or lost places. A great mix of culture, fresh local produce and a rich history.
Our day has come to an end. But it will not go down without some food. Oneita takes us to 'City Wings', an eatery to enjoy 17 different flavours of chicken wings. When I asked why she chose this place, her answer is simple: 'To eat.'
Sometimes Detroit is as easy as that. Sometimes it is more difficult to get. But then there is this woman named Oneita Jackson offering help to make the most out of a confusing yet wonderful city.
* The figures are provided in accordance with the German regulation 'PKW-EnVKV' and apply to the German market only. Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO₂ emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide 'Information on the fuel consumption, CO₂ emissions and energy consumption of new cars', which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH and at www.dat.de.