Monthly Archives: January 2011

Detroit: Do-It-Yourself City

Detroit gets a lot of bad press, and 2010 was no exception. Stories of Detroit’s corruption, crime, and civic collapse regularly made national news, and locals loved to grouse about it. But in many ways last year was also a turning point for coverage of Detroit. Looking back, what’s remarkable is not the number of negative stories–most of which, frankly, were deserved. What’s remarkable is how much positive press we received at the same time.

The New York Times alone published ten articles heralding Detroit’s revitalization, including three on the vibrant arts scene, three on new businesses and entrepreneurs, and one on urban farming. Entrepreneur Magazine and CBS News both said Detroit was a great place to start a business, and the Huffington Post gave shout outs to restaurateurs Torya Blanchard and Phil Cooley. The Guardian, C.S. Monitor, and Grist all named Detroit the focal point of the urban gardening movement. The Guardian also praised our cultural scene, as did The Star.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail told people to visit, Patti Smith told artists to move here, and Palladium Boots co-opted our cool for a half-hour documentary / infomercial that hyped our creative scene.

Clearly, a new meme has taken hold. In the new telling, Detroit is seen as a do-it-yourself city for the young and creative. Philip Lauri, the creative mind behind the Detroit Lives! project, is one of the most enthusiastic champions of this viewpoint. He captured the spirit of it in an interview with the Metro Times: “This town isn’t for everybody … [but] if you’ve got the right combination of vision, ambition, and self-start drive you can sail to the moon in this town. If you’ve got a voice, it will be heard and if you’ve got an idea and the wherewithal to see it through, it can materialize. You can do anything from Detroit.”

It’s an affirmative, empowering take on Detroit’s dire situation and one that I largely endorse. Detroit’s young do-gooders aren’t looking for one quick fix to what ails the city; they’re focused on gradual, incremental change. Nor are they beholden to the development models of the past. Gone is the expectation that a new factory or major development will transform the city overnight. The emphasis is on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Let a thousand urban gardens and small businesses bloom. And in rhetoric if not always in fact, there is a professed desire to work with and build existing communities rather than replace or displace them.

That last desire–to respect the residents who are already here–may prove the hardest to honor. Despite the idealistic intentions of these young leaders, many Detroiters warily regard their efforts as the first symptom of gentrification, sensing that today’s idealists will inevitably yield to tomorrow’s indifferent yuppies. And while longtime Detroiters may welcome the investment and the energy of the D.I.Y. class, they don’t necessarily share the same values. Newcomers talk excitedly of density, bike lanes, and public art. They are mostly college-educated and seek the glamour of city life. Elsewhere in Detroit the needs are more urgent and basic. Residents want the cops to answer when called; for the street lights to turn on at night; for the parks to be safe and clean. They want local jobs and functional schools. In so much as these priorities are seen to be in competition, there will be conflict.

And in Detroit there is always the question of race. Regardless the merits of new investment, is it fair for a batch of newcomers, many of whom are white and suburban born, to garner so much attention when the efforts of so many African Americans before them went unrewarded? (Many think not.) What kind of city will Detroit become if new residents start arriving in larger numbers? Detroit is a place where residents take pride in how many decades they’ve lived on the same block. They can tell you when the color line broke in their neighborhood. Will Detroit be the same city culturally if the black middle class continues to flee and most newcomers are white or Latino? These are some of the stickier questions being raised about Detroit’s future, and Detroit’s young boosters will have to confront them, even as they rightly celebrate the momentum behind the city’s revitalization.

The video above is of a conversation held by the CAID late last year on “Art, Race, and The Image of the City.” It’s an excellent opening salvo in a dialogue that in many ways is just beginning.