Competing Frames of Detroit History
In his 2004 commentary “Manufacturing a New Detroit,” financial journalist Dale Buss argued that Detroit’s playing host to three major league sporting events (the Ryder Cup, the MLB All-Star Game, and the Super Bowl) presented an opportunity to re-brand the city’s image. Buss writes, “Detroit’s marketers are putting the finishing touches on a new brand-identity program. The goal is to help Detroit, once and for all, dissipate the perceptual black cloud that has hung over the city for the last 40 years.” From the racially coded “black cloud” metaphor, he continues: “The city’s image took a decided plunge after race riots in the late sixties”, and then lists the results: white flight, violence, crime, urban blight, the decline of public schools and hostility between the city and its suburbs.
This is a common narrative, though a false one. The 1967 Detroit rebellion was one of the largest uprisings in US history, lasting five days and resulting in over 7,000 people arrested, at least 40 million dollars in property damage, and 43 people dead (of these, 32 were killed by police, National Guard, or federal troops). However, white flight began more than a decade before the 1967 rebellion with the rise of suburbanization and the construction of the interstate highway system. Though white flight accelerated in the late 1960’s, this was true throughout the United States, not isolated to Detroit, and conditions of violence, economic precarity, and segregation existed for Black Detroiters long before the 1967 rebellion. The rebellion was itself a response to the oppressive conditions faced by a Black community subjected to decades of endemic housing and employment discrimination, police brutality, military conscription, insurance red-lining, and forced removal through eminent domain.
So exactly whose image of Detroit do writers like Buss hope to see restored? By placing the blame for the city’s problems on Detroit’s Black majority, Buss sets the stage for a reclamation of the city’s “brand identity” by predominantly white and suburban business elites. This is by no means a new project. In Buss’ piece, one sees the continuation of a line of thought that extends back to the creation of the Renaissance Center in the 1970’s. The Renaissance Center embodies a model of development driven by hotels, conference centers, sports stadiums, and other large-scale infrastructure designed to attract massive tourist events. This development model seeks to create an increased “quality of life” that will court investment by developers and major corporations. This will supposedly lead to a city’s climb in the hierarchy of what Saskia Sassen has termed “global cities,” the network of elite cities vying for company headquarters, development projects, media attention, and population flows.
Of course, the Renaissance Center’s “city within a city” did not spur the economic and cultural renaissance that it was intended to herald, failing to attract many new residents or significant capital investment to downtown Detroit. Though the Renaissance Center initially served as the headquarters of Ford Motor Company (it was subsequently purchased by GM in 1996), the building primarily housed white, suburban commuters who left Detroit’s downtown at the end of each workday. Simultaneously, in the years following the Renaissance Center’s construction, a maelstrom of intersecting crises devastated Detroit’s Black community. As white flight and the flight of capital continued to accelerate, the movement of industrial manufacturing jobs to the suburbs, the Sun Belt, and the Global South decimated working class Black Detroiters. Meanwhile, heroin and crack cocaine flowed into American communities of color, a development directly tied to US military and CIA involvement in Southeast Asia and Central America. Sensationalized media coverage of the “crack epidemic” served to justify the rise of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, which has devastated countless families and communities in Detroit and across the country. During this time arsons became more frequent, commonly ascribed to young people lighting fires for fun but also due to absentee landlords hoping to collect on insurance money (as in the fire-ravaged 1970’s South Bronx). Finally, predatory lending by banks led to the foreclosure crisis, further destroying Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Detroit has a national reputation for its spunky organizers, innovators, ingenious leaders and problem solvers. But these innovators have not been included in planning Detroit’s future.
None of the above factors is accounted for in mainstream conversations around Detroit’s “rebirth,” or if they are included, they are presented in ways that pathologize the people of Detroit as responsible for the effects of the larger structural forces which they have been forced to endure. Missing in these conversations is a recognition of those who stayed and continued their lives through this incredibly brutal convergence of crises. In the face of innumerable challenges, Detroiters have worked to sustain and rebuild their neighborhoods: planting gardens, reclaiming abandoned properties, supporting their neighbors, and through it all, surviving. The scholar, writer, activist, and longtime Detroiter Gloria House has described these efforts in the context of recent resistance to Emergency Financial Management, foreclosures, water shut-offs, and privatization: “In pockets throughout the city, individuals and groups are resisting this takeover in every way we know how. Moratorium Now is continuing its struggle against foreclosures, others are working towards food security through farming, others are creating artist co-ops, small businesses, forums for resolving conflict, educational and cultural programs and activities. And most recently we are working to provide emergency water relief.
Detroit has a national reputation for its spunky organizers, innovators, ingenious leaders and problem solvers. But these innovators have not been included in planning Detroit’s future. In fact, the resources and energy of many such organizers are being exhausted in the daily work of resistance.”
This individual and collective resistance draws on the city’s rich history of social movements going back to the time of slavery. During the period preceding and following the 1967 rebellion, Detroit was home to numerous organizations devoted to Black Liberation, including the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the Republic of New Afrika, The Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Black Panther Party. The legacy of these movements has continued in the work of organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, D-Town Farm, Feedom Freedom Growers, the Detroit People’s Platform, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Detroit Eviction Defense, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Moratorium NOW!, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, and the African-centered educational work of Timbuktu Academy and Nsoroma Institute. Significantly, Detroit activists James and Grace Lee Boggs (former members of C.L.R. James’ Correspondence Publishing Committee) were central participants in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in Detroit as well as a succession of organizations dedicated to articulating alternatives for the city’s future. During the 1980s James and Grace Lee Boggs were deeply involved in groups such as the National Organization for an American Revolution (formed as a cadre organization with the intention of deepening participants’ engagement with revolutionary struggles), the anti-gun violence group Save Our Sons and Daughters, and We the People Reclaim Our Streets, a group focused on combatting drug abuse. In the late 1980s, James and Grace Lee Boggs joined Detroiters Uniting, which opposed Mayor Coleman Young’s (eventually successful) attempt to introduce casino gambling to Detroit. Grace Lee Boggs wrote that, “During the struggle Young denounced us as ‘naysayers.’ ‘What is your alternative?’ he demanded. Responding to Young’s challenge, Jimmy made a speech in which he projected an alternative to casino gambling.” This grassroots vision led to the 1992 creation of Detroit Summer, a “Multicultural, Intergenerational Youth Program/Movement to Rebuild, Redefine, and Respirit Detroit from the ground up” inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. Today, this legacy continues through the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership as well as James and Grace Lee Boggs’ influence on a wide range of organizations, including those that have taken part in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and the Detroit Food Justice Taskforce.
“Social Innovation” as Market-Based Intervention
In recent years many social justice activists in Detroit have been involved in efforts to shift the city’s image from one of abandonment to one of vibrant possibility. Grace Lee Boggs, who recently passed away at age 100, has been at the center of articulating this vision of Detroit. She wrote in her book The Next American Revolution that “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living—ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.” In formulating this vision, Boggs brought to bear over seventy years of experience as an anti-capitalist organizer. The range of individuals and organizations that she and her husband James influenced during their lifetimes include many who seek to create solutions against and beyond capitalism. However, in recent years a different network of organizations has begun to leverage remarkably similar rhetoric to long-time Detroit activists around seizing the “opportunity” that Detroit, and its re-building, represents. This emerging network of businesses, non-profits, foundations, and “social entrepreneurs” does not call upon Detroit’s rich history of movement building. Instead, it presents itself under the decidedly ahistorical and market-based language of “social innovation.” At a 2010 talk in Detroit hosted by the Knight Foundation, Stephen Goldsmith (author of The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks) argued that, “Social innovation provides a platform from which we can harness the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, compassion and resources that live in our communities.” In this approach, Detroit’s “social innovation” movement also follows in the footsteps of Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist who coined the concept of the “creative class.” Florida, in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, describes the creative class (comprised of artists, knowledge-workers, and intellectuals) as a crucial sector of the emerging “information economy,” one that tends to cluster in urban centers such as New York, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, and other so-called “cool cities.” Florida’s arguments have influenced urban planning and development policies across the nation, with cities seeking to attract creative class professionals in order to boost their local economies.
The “social innovation” movement in Detroit follows this paradigm, seeking to “place-brand” Detroit as a city where “social innovators” and “creatives” are flocking. This narrative has been crafted and promoted by entities such as Opportunity Detroit, Bedrock Real Estate Services (an arm of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, which owns Quicken Loans, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and over 75 buildings in downtown Detroit), Detroit Venture Partners (also a Rock Ventures company), Downtown Detroit Partnership, Midtown Detroit, Inc., Model D Media (as well as its offshoot Urban Innovation Exchange), and a host of business incubators and co-working spaces such as Ponyride, The Department of Alternatives, Green Garage Detroit, The M@dison Building, Grand Circus, and TechTown. In Detroit there are countless technology and small-business start-ups that fall under the umbrella of “social innovation,” but the catch-all term encompasses both for-profit companies and non-profit organizations who express an interest in advancing the broader social good. The barrier for entry to become a “social innovator” is nebulous at best because if you are a member of the creative class, simply living or working in Detroit is seen as contributing to “re-building” the city. The Urban Innovation Exchange project (a website created by the development-boosting Model D Media) exemplifies this framework, offering profiles of various “social innovators” in Detroit, who are ultimately linked only by their inclusion on the website.
What is apparent from the above organizations and initiatives is that those categorized as social innovators are primarily young, college-educated, white, and not originally from Detroit. While the profiles on Urban Innovation Exchange contain a number of long-time community members involved in deeply rooted community institutions such as the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership or the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, these are by far the exception. To be a social innovator means to be a member of the “creative class,” which is a small sector of Detroiters overall, and one that does not reflect the majority of the city in terms of race, class, level of formal education, or place of birth.
While this model of creative class development differs from the top-down model represented by the Renaissance Center, these two models intersect in their ultimate goal: gentrification, or the displacement of Black poor and working class people by an influx of primarily white residents with more wealth and formal education. Ironically, the idea that gentrification brings economic prosperity for all has been repeatedly discredited, even by Richard Florida, who was one of the foremost advocates of the economic benefits of attracting the “creative class.” Florida’s own recent research concludes that the benefits of gentrification “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.” The start-up-centric nature of “social innovation” makes much of individual success stories, but the idea that broader economic benefits are gained from this kind of exceptionalism is precisely what Florida’s recent research challenges. Florida writes, “There is a rising tide of sorts, but it only lifts about the most advantaged third of the workforce, leaving the other 66 percent much further behind.” Florida concludes, “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”
The Path Ahead: Beloved Community or Gentrification and Austerity?
It seems clear that the vision of economic development as “social innovation” rests heavily on the premise that poverty in Detroit is a result of a lack of access to markets. As should be obvious to anyone familiar with Detroit, the city does not lack from corporate investment. Detroit is permeated by the kind of corporations and businesses who profit from and prey on the poor: fast food restaurants, liquor stores, gas stations, and check cashers. How will this wave of “social innovation” be any different? While it may claim to seek general prosperity, if this trend contributes to the exclusion, displacement, and dispossession of poor and working-class Black Detroiters, who ultimately benefits? Poverty does not rise from a “lack of access to markets” but from the way that market-based solutions themselves create benefits for the few at the expense of the many. After all, Detroit’s economic devastation was itself the effect of markets. From the creation of segregated suburbs to the offshoring of manufacturing jobs to the foreclosure crisis, market forces have been at the center of Detroit’s race and class-based divisions.
The vision of economic development as “social innovation” rests heavily on the premise that poverty in Detroit is a result of a lack of access to markets.
In August 2013 the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation publicly issued a call to “bring on more gentrification” in order to renew the city’s tax base. This argument presents gentrification as a remedy to white flight, when in fact gentrification continues the very same patterns of segregation, inequality, and dispossession. The push to attract “creatives” and “social innovators,” paired with “Live Midtown” and “Live Downtown” financial incentive programs for employees of Blue Cross Blue Shield, Compuware, DTE, Marketing Associates, Quicken Loans, Strategic Staffing Solutions, Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System and Wayne State University, all promote gentrification at the same time that drastic austerity measures are being imposed by Detroit Mayor’s office and the Michigan state government.
Former Mayor David Bing’s Detroit Works Project (later renamed Detroit Future City) initiated a process of categorizing neighborhoods that would receive differing levels of investment and city services. After strong citizen push-back against the idea of forcibly moving people out of their homes using eminent domain, Mayor Bing shifted to reducing lighting, trash collection, police and fire services for areas of the city that were deemed blighted. Furthermore, with the appointment of Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) Kevyn Orr, the city began to move towards privatizing key services such as trash pickup, the Water and Sewage Department, and the Department of Public Lighting, as well as breaking its pension obligations to city employees in order to pay off its other creditors. This is certain to result in increased economic hardship for pensioners and open the door to greater consumer costs for city services through the process of privatization and outsourcing already underway in other EFM controlled cities across Michigan (a process which infamously led to the Flint water crisis). For example, just this past year in Detroit 25,000 families faced the threat of water shutoffs and 100,0000 home owners faced tax foreclosure and the threat of eviction. Detroit’s educational system has been under the control of an EFM for many years (from 2009-present and from 1999-2005 under the control of a state-appointed “CEO,” the EFM’s predecessor position) resulting in the growth of the school district’s debt, massive waves of school closings, and the expansion of charter schools and privatization-based education reform. This process of privatization, gentrification, and corporatized development has further accelerated under the guidance of Mike Duggan, who in 2014 became the first white mayor of Detroit since before Coleman Young was elected as the city’s first Black mayor in 1974.
In light of this process of privatization, Detroit’s “social innovation” movement mirrors the “Big Society” program of David Cameron’s Conservative government in the UK, where austerity measures have been camouflaged under the guise of re-distributing power from the central government to local actors through volunteerism, social enterprise, and charitable activities. The recently deceased Black British cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote of the “Janus-faced” or two-sided manifestation of this process: “the ‘soft’ face of compassionate conservatism and The Big Society here, the hard edge of cuts, workfare and the gospel of self-reliance there.” Hall writes that in addition to cutting pensions, healthcare, and food and housing benefits, “libraries, parks, swimming baths, sports facilities, youth clubs, community centres will either be privatised or disappear. Either unpaid volunteers will ‘step up to the plate’ or doors will close. In truth, the aim is not – in the jargon of ‘1968’ from which the promiscuous Cameron is not ashamed to borrow – to ‘shift power to the people’, but to undermine the structures of local democracy.” Sound familiar? Yet this is by no means unique to Detroit and the UK, it has happened all over the world, particularly in the Global South, where the massive growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has coincided with the austerity measures of International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment.
As Hall points out, one of the truly nefarious aspects of this strategy is that it borrows from the rhetoric of its political opponents and turns the meanings of words on their head. In the Detroit context, in order to give families “choice” in where they send their children to school, public schools are closed, creating more room for charters. In order to redress corruption and “mismanagement,” unelected Emergency Financial Managers are appointed to enact privatization. While the Michigan Legislature cuts food stamp benefits and revenue sharing with cities, it also lowers the state business tax in order to “create jobs.” This kind of double-speak forms the basis of what the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano called the “Upside Down” world.
So what is to be done? With the use of concepts such as “social innovation,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “place-branding,” the grassroots solutions and visions that Detroiters have been advancing for generations (urban gardening, block clubs, community-based education) become hinged to market-based policies that result in displacement and dispossession. As Hall writes about the “Big Society” program in the UK context, “The left, which feels positively about volunteering, community involvement and participation – and who doesn’t? – finds itself once again triangulated into uncertainty.”
This presents a profound challenge for those involved with social justice movements in Detroit, because so much recent organizing in the city, particularly efforts influenced by the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs, has advocated increased self-reliance, less dependency on the government; growing our own food, creating our own consumer goods, opening our own businesses. As powerful and necessary as these ideas may be, they can also quite easily align with the neoliberal tropes of limited government and extra-governmental freedom sought by real estate and financial moguls like Dan Gilbert, Michael Ilitch, and John Hantz or the privately appointed boards of philanthropic foundations.
A useful guidepost might be Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of the “beloved community,” whose goal is freeing all members of the human community from violence; not just physical violence, but also structural violence, economic violence, spiritual violence, the violence of racism and exploitation.
That said, it is easy to become trapped in false binaries. While advocating increased grassroots activity by communities in order to become less dependent on the oppressive apparatus of the corporatized State, we can also fight against cuts to services that those same communities depend on for their survival. A useful guidepost might be Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of the “beloved community,” whose goal is freeing all members of the human community from violence; not just physical violence, but also structural violence, economic violence, spiritual violence, the violence of racism and exploitation. In her later years, Grace Lee Boggs drew heavily from the work of King and his idea of “beloved community.” In The Next American Revolution, she describes the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an enactment of the principles of the beloved community through what she calls a “two-sided transformation” wherein participants not only struggled to change the society that was oppressing them, but also in the process transformed themselves and their relationships to one another. It is important to remember that as we work to build alternatives to the status quo we cannot simply pay lip service to this idea of beloved community and we cannot allow others to do so either. Institutions and policies that are complicit in perpetuating economic violence should be held accountable; rhetoric that frames exclusion and dispossession as empowerment and progress should be unmasked as the lie that it is.
The Importance of Accountability
I would like to close with some reflections from my own experience. I was not born in Detroit. I grew up in Northern California, where my parents moved in the 1980s. My father’s family moved to the Detroit suburbs in the 1950s, contributing to the larger process we know of today as white flight. Was their intention to take part in the devastation of Detroit’s Black community through what amounted to race-based economic warfare? Absolutely not. Nonetheless, that was the consequence of their (and many others’) actions. My grandparents were firm believers in social justice. They and their children were active participants in the Civil Rights, Labor, and Anti-War movements. The values that they instilled in me, as well as my visits to Detroit while growing up, contributed to my desire to move to the city after graduating from college in California. I had studied Detroit’s history as an undergraduate, read the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs, and attended the Allied Media Conference. These experiences deepened my interest in moving to Detroit in order to learn from and participate in the educational, artistic, and organizing work taking place in the city. As a result, I have become a participant in the influx of young, predominantly white, college-educated, middle class (or middle-class aspiring) professionals who have moved to Detroit in recent years. Many of my peers have traced their parents’ and grandparents’ paths backwards from the suburbs to the city. Others have moved to Detroit from different parts of the country or even from other countries, drawn by the narrative of the city’s rebirth or for an attractive job offer.
Many have also become involved in community-based work, either working for non-profits or volunteering their time with community-based organizations. Still, regardless of the work we may be involved in, as members of the creative class we are, whether we like it or not, by our very physical presence participants in the gentrification of Detroit. Our needs are being privileged over the needs of people who have lived here for generations. Our identities are being mobilized by corporate developers who, for all their rhetoric about “building community,” are ultimately concerned with turning a profit regardless of who they displace. These developers may believe that they are contributing to the “rebirth of Detroit” in the same way that we do, but what is most important is not our intentions but whether or not we are being accountable. Are we willing to feel uncomfortable and to make others feel uncomfortable when their/our actions are damaging to community? Most importantly, are we willing to take leadership from those who are of and from the community we are seeking to join? Are we willing to center the struggles of poor and working-class Black Detroiters? Are we willing to join in struggle alongside those who do not share our identities, and to see our struggles as connected, without forcing our opinions or agendas on others? Many commenters have pointed out that Detroit is quickly becoming a “tale of two cities.” As Malik Yakini, lifelong Detroiter and co-founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has recently stated:
“We have downtown, Midtown, Corktown, East English Village, which seem to be highly resourced, lots of capital being poured into them, and new mostly white residents… The rest of the city, as far as I can see, continues to languish… I think that some very dangerous precedents are being set with the purchasing of large tracts of land and of multiple buildings by a few wealthy white men. And so it looks like what’s being set in place will define Detroit for the next 50 to 100 years, and it seems like the same disparities are based on race and income, and will continue to exist.”
In this context, is it possible for members of the “creative class” to ethically participate in building Detroit’s future? As always, there are no easy answers.
References and Footnotes
- Fine, Sidney. "Rioters and Judges: The Response of the Criminal Justice System to the Detroit Riot of 1967." The Wayne Law Review 33.5 (1987): 1723-1763. ↩
- Bergesen, Albert. "Race Riots of 1967: An Analysis of Police Violence in Detroit and Newark." Journal of Black Studies 12.3 (1982): 261-274. ↩
- Kenyon, Amy Maria. Dreaming Suburbia, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), 50. ↩
- Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 87. ↩
- Ibid., 94. ↩
- Fine, Sidney. Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007), 95-125; Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 114-115. ↩
- Sugrue, 44. ↩
- Ibid., 47. ↩
- Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 188. ↩
- Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press (New York, NY: Verso, 1998); McKoy, Alfred. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003); Scott, Peter Dale and Jonathan Marshall. Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998); Webb, Gary. Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 1999). ↩
- Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), 53. ↩
- Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York, NY: Picador, 2005), 13. ↩
- Boggs, Grace Lee. Introduction. Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), xviii-xx. ↩
- Boggs, Grace Lee and Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 105. ↩
- Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 6. ↩
- Hall, Stuart. “The Neoliberal Revolution” in Jonathan Rutherford and Sally Davidson, ed., The Neoliberal Crisis, (Lawrence Wishalt, 2012), 14. ↩
- Ibid., 25. ↩
- Roy, Arundhati. Public Power in the Age of Empire (New York: Seven Stories, 2004), 42. ↩
- Galeano, Eduardo. Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World (New York, NY: Picador, 2001). ↩
- Hall, 25. ↩
- Boggs and Kurashige, 90. ↩