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.

6 thoughts on “Detroit: Do-It-Yourself City

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Detroit: Do-It-Yourself City | Rethink Detroit -- Topsy.com

  2. Patrick Morris

    First, you often use the pronoun “we” with no antecedent. As in, “What’s remarkable is how much positive press we received at the same time.” Or, “We’ve allowed this one abstract example, grounded in no particular place, to drive the discussion, prompting supporters to call for relocation incentives and opponents to preemptively decry the return of urban renewal.” Or, “We have dozens of suburbs where daily life can be conducted within a 20-minute drive of home, but we have very few neighborhoods that are walkable and well served by transit.” Who does “we” refer to?

    **

    It’s easy to see this post is all about links. I will break down the first two paragraphs’ sources for the casual reader. You cite the New York Times eight times, the Huffington Post three times, the Guardian twice, and each of the following once: the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, the Takeaway, C.S. Monitor, CBS News, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Star, Grist, Toronto Globe and Mail, Patti Smith, and Palladium Boots. Let the reader decide if this list is sufficiently diverse to create a holistic picture of Detroit.

    I believe the list is inadequate; the most honest source I found in your post is hidden in parentheses. Here are a couple national voices to add to your links: some words about control of the national media from M1 of dead prez (http://www.democracynow.org/2006/10/26/hip_hop_artist_m_1_of), the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Plan (http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm; point one is especially relevant), and a recap of labor activism in Detroit at this year’s U.S. Social Forum (http://www.labornotes.org/2010/07/union-troublemakers-meet-agitators-every-cause-under-sun-social-forum).

    I know a vibrant movement in Detroit. The city is buzzing. Journalists and spectators are talking about the progress, innovation, and creativity in Detroit. It’s attracting talent from all over the world. What is it? The US auto industry and its most visible showcase, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).
    At a plant in Orion Township slated to close, new Chevrolet Sonics will soon roll off the line. Right in Detroit, made at Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly, the Chevrolet Volt is garnering worldwide accolades. Gary Peters (D-MI 9) calls General Motors’ ability to create and sell innovative and subcompact cars, at a profit, with United Auto Workers (UAW) labor “a game-changer.” It is a victory for both an American corporation and American workers.

    The resurgence of the US auto industry is big; one of those “major developments” that, according to you, I’m not supposed to look for because I am a “young do-gooder” and not “beholden to development models of the past.” I can think of other “major developments” that will help to transform the city. A public Detroit River bridge crossing is necessary and will put American-Canadian labor to work (I mentioned the politics of this bridge nearly four months ago on this blog http://www.rethinkdetroit.org/2010/09/08/retrofitting-detroit-connect-the-dots/#comments). A light rail in Detroit will again put Americans, specifically Detroiters, to work. These issues aren’t unique to Detroit; the United States urgently needs an upgrade to its aging infrastructure.

    Your rhetoric in this post is repetitive and simplistic: the people coming into Detroit are “young and creative,” with a “creative mind.” The “newcomers” are “young leaders,” “young do-gooders,” “young boosters,” and part of the “D.I.Y. class.” (Apparently it’s unimportant that no one knows how many members of this “class” are in Detroit or how long they will stay). New residents have “idealistic intentions” and are “focused on gradual and incremental change.” Longtime residents of Detroit, it seems, are at odds with the “newcomers” because residents have the audacity to want the police to respond when called.

    My favorite part in the CAID video is when the discussion turns to who shapes creativity. Ron Scott defines creativity (I’m paraphrasing) as people rising up everyday in Detroit to improve their communities. As young white people, we shouldn’t subscribe to one style of development. A city is defined by its people. We should listen to Chazz Miller, Ron Scott, Detroit’s workers, community leaders, the students, parents and let them tell the story of Detroit.

    PS. “Let a thousand urban gardens and small businesses bloom.” Surely you know the implications of this quote? Brushing up on Chinese Communist history is always enlightening.

  3. Cooper Post author

    I can always depend on my in-house critic for a response! With regard to your comments:

    1. I trust the reader can figure out who “we” refers to.

    2. The choice of sources was intentional. I am describing a meme that has been promoted by the mainstream media both nationally and abroad. You’re free to disagree with the way they portray Detroit (there’s plenty to find fault with), but I think it’s important to recognize the emergence of this “DIY city” meme so we can grapple with its consequences. (There’s that “we” again.)

    3. I’m glad that the auto industry is doing well, and I hope that the DRIC and the light rail line are both built. I bet most “young do-gooders” do, too. But I think an important shift has taken place in expectations. There was a time when politicians sold projects like the construction of the Renaissance Center as fundamental turning points in the city’s history. I think we know better now than to expect Detroit’s turnaround to happen overnight. (Undoubtedly many people knew better at the time, too.)

    3. Not every 20-something living in Detroit shares the exact sentiment I described, but I trust the reader knows that I’m generalizing. I still think the generalization, as far as it goes, is accurate.

    4. The CAID discussion was excellent. I agree with most of the remarks that were made, especially Ron Scott’s and Shea Howell’s, and I don’t think they necessarily contradict anything I wrote here.

    5. I didn’t know the origins of the phrase, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” I’ve heard it paraphrased so often for benign purposes that I didn’t realize it had a sinister origin. Thanks for the tip. I won’t use it in the future.

  4. Patrick Morris

    I learned using a pronoun with an unclear antecedent is confusing to readers. Again, who does “we” refer to. If you’re leaving it to me (the reader), I have no idea who “we” refers to. Are you speaking as a Detroiter? As a metro Detroiter? As an American?

    Like politicians and journalists say, Michiganders need to start having a discussion about the future of our cities and state. You and I are having part of that discussion right now; I only wish more people would join! I learn the most from hearing opinions and experiences different than mine.

    I also chose my sources intentionally. You and I can’t recognize this new “meme” or address its conversation without studying national and city-based African American communities. New and young Detroiters, when talking about the “meme,” need to acknowledge that their conversation must include the voices of Detroiters past and present. Stakeholders in the future of Detroit can’t start the “DIY City” discussion until, as Ron Scott implores us to do, we unpack the race and power dynamics created by the systematic oppression of black people by white people in the United States. In studying Detroit’s history as scholars and self-educators, we must ask ourselves: Whose history am I reading?

    Moreover, I don’t think you can generalize the “important shift…in expectations” regarding a building constructed more than ten years before you were born. If this posts consists of generalizations, it’s not hard to generalize that the politician who sold projects that failed is former Mayor Coleman A. Young and the people with the new and improved development model of grassroots change are young white suburbanites. Is that how the “meme” conversation should look?

  5. Cooper

    I think you may be misreading what I wrote. I don’t think the meme I identified in this article is a wholly accurate or comprehensive picture of Detroit’s redevelopment — far from it. The reason I’m writing about it at all is to make it easier to identify and critique the tropes of this “D.I.Y. City” characterization.

    I’m particularly bothered by your last paragraph, which misrepresents the debate around Detroit’s redevelopment. The reason I offered words of commendation to the young people profiled in these articles is because a) they’re bringing energy and passion to Detroit and b) by and large, they have adopted the same incremental, community-based model of development supported by so many longtime residents and activists. There is nothing characteristically “young,” “white,” or “suburban” about this model, unless you’re also calling the Boggs Center and dozens of other groups young, white, and suburban, too.

    That doesn’t mean the “D.I.Y. meme” is necessarily benign either. As I suggest in the last two paragraphs of my blog post, just because young leaders in Detroit are well intentioned doesn’t mean their vision for the city is the “right” one or that conflicts aren’t going to arise. Nor do they deserve such disproportionate attention for their efforts. There are thousands of people working to make Detroit better every day, and most of them don’t get any media attention. But I don’t see why we can’t have a nuanced discussion that acknowledge both the good and bad attributes of the “D.I.Y. meme” the media has latched onto.

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