January 21, 2012
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“Black and Proud: Putting Community Back into Queer Organizing,” in Critical Moment, Summer 2011

“Detroit Works Project:  The Right(‘s) Solution for Detroit,” in Critical Moment, Spring 2011

“Black Invisibility in the Black City,” in Critical Moment, Winter 2011

Posted in Detroit

Census data destroys the multi-cultural myth of the post-modern city.

April 3, 2011
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Last weekend Yanni finally came to Detroit. Hundreds of adoring house-wives poured into the Fox Theater to witness the most masturbatory multi-cultural presentation the world has ever seen. The whole idea of new-age music (white people taking all the cultures of the world and mashing them together to create such exotic 12 minute delights as Dare to Dream, Nightingale, and One World, One People) got me thinking about the census data released just a few days before.

The 2011 data show that Yanni’s “one people” is still living as if there were several peoples, divided as much (usually more) by the measure of their skin-color than by class. The notion that globalization and exposure to other cultures has produced a world where we all suddenly feel accountable to the plight of one another across racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender differences was one of the defining features of the last twenty years, and is what brought Yanni’s popularity into being. A new neoliberal discourse of multi-culturalism and global harmony via free trade and the Westernization of non-Western cultures was an outgrowth of the liberal colorblindness of the post-war era and, similarly, rapidly out-paced the actual progression of US society towards race, class, and gender equality.

Yanni’s shows are only ridiculous (if not exaggerated) representations of a larger neoliberal discourse telling us that we are through dividing ourselves based on race and class, and that we should feel very good about it. Interestingly, this language is being vamped more than ever by the right as conditions on the ground worsen. The “post-racial society” that elected its first Black president is engaged in a racially coded “War on Terror,” and the newly refurbished global cities of New York and San Francisco are shamed by the near complete separation of their residents by race and class.  The promise of multi-cultural harmony in the post-modern city distracts us from the sharp reality of a world where non-white people continue to subsidize “prosperity” with their sweat, unemployment, and depressed home values.

Salon: The 10 most segregated urban areas in America

Detroit and Chicago tied for third on the Segregation Level/Dissimilarity Index and New York City would have taken home the cake if it weren’t for Milwaukee’s staggering inability to tackle housing segregation in the last ten years. Los Angeles, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and most other major cities have made few gains since 2000 in integrating Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians in terms of housing, with the Black-White divide continuing to be the strongest.

Income inequality hits all-time high in our generation.

Beyond these measures, Berkeley demographer Emmanuel Saez demonstrated that income inequality steadily rose throughout the 1990’s to an all-time high (yes, all-time) by 2007. Quoted in the Huffington Post in 2009, Saez shared the shocking statistic that “in the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1 percent captured two-thirds of income growth” in the US. And while these changes in the US economy impacted poor, working, and middle class people across the board, people of color caught the most hell. Foreclosures and joblessness grew exponentially in minority-majority cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and even Chicago with the only respite for some coming from sharp decreases in crime.

The material realities of Black-white segregation in US cities have not kept up with this changing rhetoric on race. While downtown Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco erected their multi-cultural, globalized, Disneyland facades, their neighborhoods remained steeped in racial drama. Other cities nearly collapsed altogether under the crushing weight of white flight and disinvestment, suburban control, and the elimination of federal aid (Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, and others). In other words, while notions of multi-culturalism and color-blindness have come to pervade our discourse on cities globally, but particularly in the US, the lived experiences of whites and non-whites in American cities remain rooted in familiar patterns of an uneven distribution of wealth and urban development based on race.

About the delay…

February 11, 2011
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I’ve had a death in the family and graduate school applications to finish, and will be resuming work on new posts soon. Thanks for your patience.

Posted in Detroit

The threatening prospect of delimiting discussion…

December 23, 2010

Given the strong negative reaction by a number of movers and shakers against expanding the dialogue on Detroit’s transformation to include more people of color even before I’ve tried to do it, a few things must be addressed.

First, what I’ve consistently argued, and what many others are arguing all over the city, is that the conversation on change in Detroit is being dominated by a very small number of people. Whether or not this is their fault, is questionable, and largely irrelevant. Chances are, they are merely responding to a media and political system which privileges their voices over all others. It is more than clear that I am making a broad argument about the media’s (and our own) unwillingness as white gentrifiers (I consider myself one of them) to notice the work of black and brown people; in a sea of people of color, sometimes the media has focused mostly on the only white person they can find, or the most interesting one. Despite recieving threats and personal attacks myself, I have never personally attacked someone in my writing. I used one specific example of a controversial figure who is popular in the media spotlight. No matter ones loyalties, this should be a common sense observation.

It is also more than clear that I am not throwing around the word gentrification as if I am against all neighborhood change. I am glad people of any color and background are opening new businesses and are bringing new development to certain parts of the city. There’s no want for space here. I’ve hardly even used the word gentrification. The problem, I will continue to argue is that in some places gentrification is also accompanied by a desire for removing old residents (even when there is space enough for everyone), and homogenizing the space. Alot of people seem to think that while this happens in every large city in America, it could never happen here (ironically, in the most racially backward place in the country). As Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s article in the Metro Times three weeks ago and comments from other neighborhood and city leaders point out, however, it can and is happening to various degrees right here in our city.

These are nuanced topics, which most of the time cannot be approached without an appreciation for discussion in the grey. If good and evil were all we were contending with, we could get to the bottom of things much quicker. Instead of talking about good and evil, right and wrong, I am talking about power: Who has it, who doesn’t, who abuses it, who doesn’t, who’s trying to get it, and what all of this means for people in their daily lives.  In apartheid America, power is distributed based on race to a sickening degree. It is much easier to get angry and attempt to shut the conversation down when one strips the nuance (indeed, entire paragraphs) from an article, discredits the individual rather than the content, and makes it a matter of who the author likes or is “jealous” of.

Anyone trying to push the conversation about urban revitalization onto less comfortable ground, and seeking to engage more voices, will face staunch and sometimes intimidating opposition. The hysterical and intensely personal reaction in this case, however, is commensurate with the threat that engagement poses to a particular vision for the city, where a small number of people are considered leaders and all others are marginalized and ignored. Critics comfortable with the status quo recognize that their control over Detroit’s future is tenuously held, if held at all yet, and pointing this out causes anxiety.

This “stupid white kid,” is asking the supposed leaders of our long overdue central city rennaissance to grow up a bit, keep the conversation mature, and realize that as we reach a tipping point in Detroit, multiple voices are going to collide. There are other movers and shakers who have other visions. With a black city council whose loyalties lie in black communities (despite their persistent inability to really represent anyone), a virtually all non-white population in the city, and huge, broad-based, globally recognized networks of black and brown progressive activism-which are there whether or not some people are willfully blind to them.

Now back to the work I set out to do. Enough introduction.

Links: Talking about race more constructively.

December 21, 2010
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Privilege denying dude

Much of what I intend to talk about on this blog has to do with white privilege. I have an “accept all comments” philosophy (unless they are offensively crude or entirely inappropriate), and thus welcome the accusations of “reverse racism” and personal attacks (while completely inappropriate) as much as affirmation. My goal, while it is not to  hold hands, is to lead to a better understanding of race in the city and a more sophisticated and complicated way of talking about it. That said, very few people are comfortable talking about race constructively.  Below are a few links I think will help frame these conversations. It’s hard to talk about race without making alot of people very uncomfortable and angry, but the right to shut down discussions about race is a right afforded by white privilege. In the most segregated city in the United States, race is something we certainly need to talk about more constructively, and this is why I write.

Colorblind Ambition: The Rise of Post Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity

How Privilege Falls in the Land of Opportunity – Huffington Post

Cancer, John Mayer and “Please Don’t Call Me Racist” : Diffusing the R-Bomb – Huffington Post

If America were a game of Monopoly – Abagond  

Privilege Denying Dude and the Fight for the Right to Snark – Colorlines

James O’Keefe’s Latest Prank and the ‘Myth of White Privilege” – The Root

Black invisibility in the black city: Labor

December 19, 2010
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The buildings of industrial decline are highly visible during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, while the people we can consider "surplus labor," remain invisible in the psyche's of most outsiders.

Last month I flew down South to give a talk on queer politics in the segregated city. After my panel was over I rushed next door to catch the next. It was about waste-human waste-and after a day of intense conversations about urban renewal, suburban politics, and identity I looked forward to talking about poop in all its forms.

Turns out, I was shit out of luck.

While the first and last presenter had fascinating things to say about poop, the second presenter was talking about Detroit; the abandoned factories pocketing the city, he argued, should be considered the waste of capitalism, and are discussed as waste in the national media. He criticized the “ruin porn” flowing from TIME’s Assignment Detroit pens, arguing that thinking about Detroit’s problems, or its emptiness, in localized terms (read: all our fault) obscures the structural forces (read:  capital mobility) which haven’t just destroyed Detroit, but which wreak havoc on communities all across the nation and the globe.

Fair enough. TIME’s ruin porn (and that of many others) operates on a familiar assumption:  “Most Americans are too dumb to understand the real causes of a problem, so we should just come up with some simple explanations.” I found the thought refreshing.

But if we’re going to talk about “waste” in Detroit we can’t just talk about buildings and prairies. The bricks-and-mortar and tumbleweed waste of US capitalism is certainly shockingly concentrated in Detroit. With one third of city land lying fallow and fifty percent population loss, it is necessary to revisit how we read that space, it is ever necessary to address it in creative ways. But on my third page of furiously scribblednotes, I wrote:  “capital mobility leaves people behind too.” After all, Marx talked about the means not just the mode, the worker not just the capital.

In America, we have a very hard time talking about the worker when it comes to progressive interpretations of urban decline. The buildings are the tragedy; the people living around the buildings (in Detroit, mostly black folks) are merely witnesses to their murder and the victims of hostile space. Those “bystanders,” however, are another form of capitalist waste. They are the surplus labor used for a short fling, and then kicked to the curb when they get too attached and start nagging about a ring.

Once dumped, they remain subjects with agency.

Geographer David Harvey sees capitalism as highly spatialized. Marx’s assertion that capitalism needs to constantly move to new planes of production to expand (if capitalism stops expanding, it stops being capitalism), he argues, is met by moving capital around regionally. Without getting into the messy details of Harvey’s geography, capitalism has to be on the move. Spaces are “produced” by capital moving into an area. Rather than take on a fair share of what it costs to produce that space (what it costs to build a city), capital moves somewhere else before it is asked to pony-up. This creates a new space somewhere else, but destroys the old through job loss, abandonment, and decreased revenue; hence, the term creative destruction. The destruction of old spaces creates growth because it allows capital to constantly avoid externalities.

The destruction of old spaces also entails leaving behind the initial physical capital (plants, brownfields, unused infrastructure), now worthless and a drain on local economies, but also the workers. Some can follow and some have the social capital to create new labor markets for themselves, others cannot and do not. In a society where economics and labor are inextricably bound up in white privilege, those with the fewest means to follow capital or trend into new labor markets when that capital leaves, are black and brown. In Detroit, the flight of capital left behind an incredible amount of empty space that was once teeming with life. It also left behind a lot of black workers.

Detroit is a city with bricks-and-mortar waste as the panelist suggested, but it’s also a city with labor “waste.” The popular discourse on old industrial cities such as New York, Philly, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland, Chicago, and St. Louis portrays blacks as inherently and perpetually outside of the labor market. They are considered objects on a broken and abandoned landscape–ahistorical and drawn outside of the nations boundaries. What this popular discourse miserably fails to account for is the fact that those same people were here fifty years ago. They came here for work, they found it, and they lost it (as a group, anyways). Most people know that capital drew Blacks from the rural South to the urban North to work in manufacturing, shipping, and mining during the first half of the twentieth century, but when we start talking about job loss suddenly the image is of the white, unionized auto and steel worker who is forced into early retirement with a hefty buy-out package, or going back to community college to be a nurse. Blacks become identified instead with the ghetto job loss has wreaked havoc on, versus the job loss itself. Of course, the Black population as is diverse as the population at large, and I don’t intend to paint a monolithic picture of Black Detroit. Nonetheless, Detroit’s regional population as a whole has been hurt by the flight of capital, and blacks, consistently the “last hired and first fired,” have born a hugely disproportionate share of the burden.

Labor has as much to do with the urban decline and black ghetto of the second half of the twentieth century as with the growth and vitality of the first. In other words, the black city so pathologized since the 1960’s is the direct descendent of the black city that grew as a result of job growth and availability in the North. And if we see Detroit’s poor Black population as workers without work, as much as we saw their grandparents as workers with work, suddenly we realize that creative destruction throws out the populations, not just the buildings, of a city when it leaves.

As long Marxists as economists, urban planners, and historians studying Detroit fail to recognize the people on the losing end of capital mobility-and recognize them as live agents-and focus exclusively on the sexy and shocking empty buildings, they will never fully understand just how destructive the economic status quo really is.

It’s time for a new narrative on Detroit.

December 14, 2010

When I moved to Detroit in 2007 I was bitter that nobody in national media or politics was paying attention. Everything I learned in those first two years seemed like hyperbole. Detroit is the blackest big-city in the hemisphere. Detroit has the highest crime rate in America. Detroit has the highest poverty and unemployment rates. Detroit is the most segregated city. Detroit has shrank more than almost any other city in world history. 1/3 of the space is empty. Positive “biggests” and “bests” abounded too. Detroit is the center of the home-building industry, has the richest suburbs in the nation, and still has the largest black middle class anywhere. So why wasn’t Detroit on the front page of every paper once a week for any reason? After all, it’s still a very large city by any standard, and remains important to the national economy.

Alot of us felt this way until 2010, and for this reason I don’t think anybody expected Detroit to burst onto the national media scene like it has. But despite all the new attention, and despite my previous complaints, I am even more embitterred than before, and not for all the familiar reasons. While whites and blacks, suburban and city residents, say these media representations are too positive or too negative, white bohemians, the newcomers, are controlling the story. While the rest of us bicker these urban homesteaders hog the media spotlight with a celebration of white creativity, ingenuity, and capital revitalizing the city, one project at a time.

This is the real crime. Not that the media focuses too much on our problems or assets, but that the wrong people are controlling the narrative altogether. In a city with nearly 800,000 black folks, and tens of thousands of latinos and immigrants working hard not just to survive, but to find creative solutions to a problem foisted upon them by global economic forces, the media representations of both Detroit’s problems and its comeback feature white people almost exclusively. What’s worse, whites are credited as the only people with the skills and wherewithall to make a difference. Whether teaching blacks how to farm, staging park cleanup events for the media, or tearing down buildings by the hundreds, whites, it is believed, need to come back and clean up the mess. Former model Phil Cooley has been featured countless times in the national media simply for owning a restaurant and  taking what many would consider, at best, a baseline (or expected) level of interest in the health of his own neighborhood. At worst, he’s known as a polarizing leader indirectly spiking racial tensions and violence in the neighborhood with new, unilateral renewal initiatives. In Chicago or Cincinnati, helping out with a park cleanup or taking responsibility for your own block is what you do as a small business owner. Here it makes you (if you’re pretty, rich, and marketable) an urban Messiah. The non-white people of the city are taking responsibility for their neighborhoods in the same ways every day, but nobody’s watching them.

But I’d rather not digress on a rant about the media obsession with the Prince of Corktown. What I want to do is open up a larger discussion about a new white narrative that is both national and local, and that is much larger than Cooley. I want to explore where it comes from and, most importantly, what it obscures and leaves out. Detroit’s problems, solutions, and the lived experiences of its residents are far more complex, and far more interesting than the explanation which the national media and white frontiersmen/women are advancing.

Part of what I’m trying to do with this blog is explore the racist functions that this narrative serves in the context of broader historical themes on urban discourse and the black city. Who is behind it? Who benefits from it? Who is marginalized and rendered invisible by it?  How does it relate to who has power, and who does not? I will argue that the present phenomenon of black invisibility in the black city is not something new; rather, we can trace its geneology through the history of urban renewal, gentrification, and white spatial conquest in Detroit and the American city more generally. We must produce a counter-narrative that is more just, accurate, and productive than the one serving white developers and entrepreneurs with big ideas for places they have already, wrongly, claimed ownership of.

I will likely be criticized by many for calling out the contradictions of the present Cooley-farming-rightsizing-privitazation-entrepreneurship-creative class-centered narrative for being hypercritical, or seeking to stymie the only efforts being made to revitalize our beleagered city. I contend, however, that these aren’t the only efforts, nor our only options for change. The people at the front of the media frenzy want us to believe that you can vote republican, hire vigilantes to “clean up” the streets, and take a clean-slate approach to city-building while still being hip, progressive, and a part of the community. They wish to work against and work with old residents at the same time. But the truth is, a small cadre of whites are re-aligning city and state politics to remove obstacles (black people and the policies which protect their interests) to their big ideas for the city. Are many of these newcomers well-meaning? Does Detroit need areas to gentrify? Is drastic change needed? Should we include these people in developing solutions for the city? I would answer all of these questions with a resounding yes; however, the problem and possible solutions are more complex than whether or not we want white people to move back into the city. I think we all do. There is one problem:  at present, some of the most important actors, in cooperation with the crooks running the city, are aggressively seeking to bypass the nearly one million other people already here, whose lives will be greatly impacted by whatever solution is implemented. Moreover, there are those whose plans are not necessarily well-meaning, and they are winning the support of the white fence-sitters, the cops, and the mayor. We are already seeing major problems in Corktown, as a frighteningly quiet and subterranean white vigilante group seeks violent “justice” on the streets and hillbilly hold-outs are placed angrily on the margins along with people of color. For years suburbanites have been formally casing the most stable black neighborhoods for potential white “take-backs.”

We need a more honest discussion about what is happening in Detroit. We can’t just “take what we can get” if what we get isn’t worth it. Stay tuned.

Tyler Clementi and our Obsession with the Queer Body

September 30, 2010

It’s been a bad week for queer kids thinking about coming out. Bombarded with news of predatory preachers, the maniacal and paranoid fag-hating perpetrated by our own assistant attorney general, the beating of an eleven year old boy cheerleader, and four teen suicides, many of these kids are probably second-guessing themselves. They must feel like society isn’t ready for them yet, but that maybe in a few years things will be better. Some will attempt suicide. Some will succeed, like eighteen year old Tyler Clementi of Rutgers University. Two days ago Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge because two wicked students in his Rutgers dorm secretly videotaped him in an intimate moment with another man—and broadcast it live on the web.

While the acts of these sick students were unusually cruel, they are the result of a pervasive social problem:  our obsession with policing sexuality and putting non-normative sexualities and bodies on display. This policing  and publicizing of aberrant sexualities serves an important purpose for dominant straight society. By marking difference, straight people can maintain their own sexual obscurity and privilege to keep their sex lives in the bedroom. Heteronormative society displays the queer body as an aberration to validate its own status as “normal” and unmarked. By making the queer body so public, they are able to further dehumanize the queer subject to use it for their own purposes. Tyler’s death tragically reveals this public nature of the queer body/subject in American society.

Tyler’s private life was made public and displayed as aberrant to uphold some masculine and heterosexual superiority (yet, as we know, usually the most violent offenders of these acts usually wind up getting caught in homosexual activity themselves). While their decision to broadcast a private moment between Tyler and his lover was unusual, the “making public” of the queer body is something most of us experience on a daily basis. If you are a feminine boy or a masculine girl, everyone wants to know, and obsesses until you say you are, in fact, queer. Once we come out, even the well-meaning want to know not only the dirty details of our sex life, but also of our trauma. “How did your family react,” “When did you know,” and “When did you lose your virginity,” become questions that can suddenly be asked on public transit out of nowhere, online, or in large groups at the bar. We are expected to daily relive our trauma in front of large groups of people, sometimes strangers, to satisfy the curiosity and obsession of heterosexuals.

If we are visually identifiable as queer, suddenly our bodies are more dangerously public. We are subject to threatening touch, violent acts such as beatings, murder, and rape, and we are cat-called on a daily basis walking down the street. This week alone I have been mocked by contractors working on my apartment-building roof, I received a death threat by an angry driver (I was walking) who got out of his car screaming “faggot” at me, and was followed and cat-called on campus by a group of straight boys in front of Starbucks.

But I have made it through the first tough years of danger and the realization that my body, indeed my mind, are now public resources for straight people. Tyler did not. Before Tyler could find affirmative people, places, and activities, and during those tough first years, he took his own life. He had not had enough time to normalize and numb himself to the dangers of public space, of having a public body and mind. But now that his life has been destroyed by heteronormative society’s obsession with the queer subject, we must take the power away from those responsible for his death and use it for good.

The bridge Tyler jumped off of was the same bridge I used to cross into New York City for the first time in my life. For me, the George Washington Bridge represented the ultimate flight from the fear, self-loathing, and homophobia Tyler faced. Like many queer youth, I felt like if I could just get somewhere else, and got through a few more years of social progress, I could be free. The future wouldn’t be as hard, people would be different. The city wouldn’t be as hard because there were places to hide. Escape through both time and space was what kept a lot of us alive. When I was 13 I wanted to kill myself rather than come out also. But I thought that if I made it to 2010 I would be okay. A decade later I am more than okay; I am proud, actualized, and free—but not because things are so different.

It’s 2010 and one of the worst weeks in our collective history as queer folks is drawing to a close. How much has changed for us? On the same bridge to Harlem that is the ultimate symbol of freedom and route for escape for so many of us, Tyler decided to take his own life rather than be subjected to the abuse our society continues to exact against queer adults and children. My heart and my tears go out to Tyler’s family, lover, and friends; I feel for those who loved him and the others we have tragically lost this week. Let his death, and that of so many other queer brothers and sisters, not disappear in our collective memory; rather, let them be a reminder of how little ground we’ve gained.

The Measure of a City: How the way we rank and compare urban regions falls short.

May 11, 2010
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As we approach the midnight hour of another decennial census count, throngs of temporary workers scatter like ants across the urban and rural landscapes of America. Knocking on doors, recording visits, and leaving notes, these workers are on the front lines of a massive nation-wide effort to secure the highest counts possible for local governments. Higher counts mean more federal and state dollars for infrastructure, education, and municipal operations; with many local governments (including those suburban municipalities accustomed to extremely high revenues) facing fiscal crisis, the 2010 census could not be of greater importance. Most municipalities are holding out for an extra few hundred or thousand people than originally planned in hopes of skirting service-sharing agreements and delaying layoffs. What’s more, massive infrastructure projects municipal, county, and state governments built during a more prosperous time are aging. Each dollar determined by the census count will be critical to keeping our transportation, water and sewerage, and other public infrastructure operating effectively and efficiently. This is especially important in the Northeast and Midwest, where most of the nation’s people live and where these projects are the oldest.

If the efforts of local governments to secure higher counts pay off, however, the fiscal gains may be negligible. For the first time since WWI Detroit has fallen far enough below the one-million mark and the tenth largest city to render the notorious census undercount irrelevant. Falling below one million people during the 2000 census cost Detroiters millions in federal funds reserved for only the nation’s largest cities, and came as a shock to some. Ten years later, despite a strong downtown and midtown renaissance, only the most blindly optimistic are hoping for a count over 900,000, save one million. In fact, some estimates forecast Detroit around 750,000, bringing the city down to population measures more on par with San Francisco, Indianapolis, Boston, and Memphis than with Dallas, San Diego, Philadelphia, or San Jose. Falling out of the major leagues has serious consequences for the city of Detroit and other aging rust-belt cities which used to dominate in terms of both political representation and federal aid. Public infrastructure is crumbling while fewer and fewer federal funds are set aside, per-capita, for their repair. Meanwhile, ever-increasing shares of federal funding are shifting with populations to the south and west, where the money can be spent not on repairing the old, but on building new. The centuries old pattern of moving on to build new spaces whenever repair bills come due on the old is only accelerating, evidenced both by continued suburban expansion everywhere (compare 1990 and 2005 road maps in Chicagoland or Detroit, for example), and the exponential growth of the Sunbelt cities also since 1990. Despite metropolitan growth everywhere, Detroit and many other old cities continue to lose population. While Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Milwaukee held their post at the top for very brief periods, and have been grappling with diminished federal aid for decades, my generation will be the first in more than one-hundred years to see Detroit, still a global power-house and home to millions regionally, stripped of a top-ten title.

Local journalists, urban planners, and politicians lament population loss as the primary cause for this, Detroit’s final blow; yet, there is another layer to the census count which has little to do with true population growth or loss, and much to do with the way we draw municipal boundaries and then count the people within them. Using non-standardized measures to rank cities, we are privileging newer spaces by saying they are larger than they actually are. Conversely, we are conspicuously under-ranking massive metropolitan regions experiencing growth, and with serious needs. Indeed, while Detroit will have lost more than 50% of its population between 1950 and 2010, the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area and Combined Metropolitan Statistical Areas (which themselves are highly problematic, as I will discuss later) have grown substantially. Despite having not surpassed the national rate of population growth by much for decades, between 1950 and 2000 the seven-county Combined Statistical Area has gained 1.5 million people. The three counties of Metropolitan Detroit (including Detroit proper in the aggregate count) has grown 31% over the same period of time that the City of Detroit itself lost 57% of its population. So while white flight contributed to Detroit’s population loss dramatically, the region at large has grown as a result of births out-pacing deaths and generous domestic and foreign migrations (

The logical conclusion then, for any observer of changing demographic patterns across US regions and cities, should be that despite growth in metropolitan Detroit, growth elsewhere must have exceeded 31% over the last 50 years to launch the mill towns and trading centers of the South and the desert wastelands of the Southwest above Detroit and Philadelphia, and into the top ten. If metropolitan Detroit has gotten bigger, these bigger newer cities must have grown faster with little population loss in the core. But these regions are not necessarily larger than Detroit at present; rather, they are represented to be larger. Different regions have different patterns of drawing municipal boundaries (city and suburban limits) which profoundly impact their national rankings. In the South and Southwest, most cities are elastic. In other words, state law enacted in the post-war era and onward has allowed them to expand their limits endlessly as development creeps outward. The legal statutes in these states also make it difficult to incorporate as a new city, placing constraints on suburban developers and residents who would rather form their own city than be added to an existing one. Consequently, new cities in the South and Southwest cover much larger land areas than the inelastic cities in the north, where state laws enacted during a much earlier era of city-building (generally between world wars) make it nearly impossible for cities to expand, and easy for new developments to incorporate as distinct suburban municipalities. Phoenix was home to almost 1.3 million residents in 2000. That city also covered 517 square miles at the time and has very few suburbs. Detroit’s nearly one million people cover a land area of only 143 square miles. The 412 square miles of San Antonio, moreover, housed 1.1 million people in 2000. These numbers placed both new cities within the top ten, Phoenix taking sixth place and San Antonio at seventh. 2007 estimates show these cities continuing to hold top ten positions, with 1.6 and 1.35 million people, respectively. The thirsty desert town of Phoenix will surpass Philadelphia, which has fallen from a height of nearly two million people in 1950 (the same as Detroit) to 1.45 in 2007. Despite this, metropolitan Philadelphia continues to grow. With this growth spread across thousands of miles of suburban municipalities on its periphery that are not included in the rankings, however, we come to view Philadelphia as much smaller than San Antonio and Phoenix (

Newer cities in the South and Southwest enjoy larger numbers because their urban cores are drawn over a larger area than cities in the north. Most of metropolitan Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Antonio, are contained within the principal city. Few independent, incorporated suburbs or unincorporated township development exist in these areas. Similarly, all of Jacksonville, Florida’s suburbs and even some farmland and swamp, are measured as neighborhoods within Jacksonville proper, a city spread across an unbelievable 885 square miles. Detroit would have to cover approximately all of Wayne County to reach this size. Indeed, Jacksonville and Duval County are co-terminus, save for a few small areas. The density of Jacksonville is 1/6 that of Detroit and Pittsburgh, and 1/12 that of Chicago, which covers 1/4 the area. San Antonio and Jacksonville metropolitan areas include only a very few semi-developed suburban municipalities. A larger share of Phoenix lives outside the city limits, but the ratio is still extremely narrow by northern standards. Most of San Antonio’s neighborhoods are a part of San Antonio proper, and thus nearly the entire metropolitan area is counted simply as the City of San Antonio. In contrast, the urban region of Southeast Michigan spans across seven counties of nearly continuous development at all points more dense than many neighborhoods of these principal sunbelt cities. In other words, the 5.4 million people spread across Detroit’s CSA (marked by continuous development above a certain density) are boxed into more than 160 minor civil divisions, or cities, villages, and townships which receive their own places at the rankings table. Troy’s 81,000, Warren’s 138,000, and Livonia’s 100,000 residents, among millions others, are not counted as a part of Detroit’s population and each city is on the rankings list individually, albeit several pages down from Detroit. Incorporating only a few of Detroit’s dense, inner-ring suburbs would rocket the city to a place much higher and fairer on the rankings list. Re-listed as a major city, Detroit would then receive large infusions of federal cash for education, transportation, and special projects .

In short, the number of municipal incorporations in a region artificially inflates or deflates a city’s population rank. To get a firm grasp on the severity of the problem we can consider the ratio of Metropolitan Statistical Area and Combined Statistical Area populations to that of the city proper. This varies widely across regions, indicating that the present system of city-measurement via the United States Census (famous for countless other anachronisms) lacks almost any standardization. This is in part because the federal government considers the needs of municipal governments in relation to the populations they serve. Indeed, Detroit is not responsible for delivering social services in Warren or Redford. This kind of thinking is severely limited, however, as it fails to acknowledge population flows, relationships, and infrastructural connectivity at best, and hugely integrated regional economies at worst. But before we can get to the heart of our inquiry, we must have a thorough understanding of the definitions and standardizing measures the US Census Bureau has employed. Northern metropolitan regions, because of their large number of municipal incorporations, are judged by three measurements:  Principal City, Metropolitan Statistical Area, and Combined Statistical Area. Cities are simply determined based on the boundaries of municipal jurisdiction, or, the “city limits.” Metropolitan Statistical Areas and CSA’s are a bit more complicated, but are easy to identify visually based on a density threshold as one travels inward from the hinterland. Determining differences between and MSA and CSA, as well as between various MSA’s and CSA’s in different regions, is far more complicated as the census determinations become more arbitrary and less rigid.

The US Census Bureau defines MSA’s as having at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants. The largest city is considered the principal or core city, while the two next largest cities join it as principle cities for naming purposes. Metro Detroit, for instance, is actually the Detroit-Warren-Livonia Metropolitan Statistical Area. The bureau offers no public reference for how it determines what is included in the MSA, suggesting arbitrary assignments based on age and historical importance ( For instance, Ann Arbor and Flint are counted as individual MSA’s in the 2010 census, despite now continuous development between Detroit, a city 8-10 times their size, and strong commuting patterns across a vast sea of industrial, housing, and commercial development between these cities. We are decades past the bedroom suburb and downtown, and now must contend with commuting patterns of all lengths that extend inward, outward, around, and across regions. A large share of those residing in Flint’s Southernmost exurbs commute to Detroit suburbs, while some living in Oakland County commute around Detroit to Dearborn in Western Wayne County for work, and yet others from Redford to Macomb. Many people commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit and vice-versa, and a few drive as far as Lansing and Flint. The combinations are endless, and they are to be taken seriously given the large numbers of commuters who no longer travel from just outside the core to downtown for work, and the continuous sprawl which covers nearly all of the area east of Lansing, south of Flint, and north of Toledo. To consider Flint or Howell a part of the Detroit MSA is debatable, but to make Ann Arbor its own MSA clearly removes a large share of the regional population from the statistics, and Detroit not only as as city, but as a region slips in the rankings as a result

CSA’s, on the other hand, are much larger and do include, in the case of Detroit, most developed area of the metropolis in the final count. They are characterized by multiple MSA’s whose labor and media markets generally overlap. So while Flint and Ann Arbor are technically their own MSA’s, they are also a part of the Detroit-Warren-Flint CSA. CSA’s, however are not considered when planning federal projects and allocating funds. To make things more complicated, the Detroit-Warren-Livonia MSA consists of two subdivisions, Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn and Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills. The system is actually relatively industrious, taking commuting patters, job concentrations, and residential density into account (if it remains twenty to forty years behind). The problem is that the ways we have subdivided Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities is not the same way that we measure cities in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of California, or other more recently developed areas. In fact, the system and patterns are hardly consistent even within regions (such as between Detroit and Chicago or between Albuquerque and Las Vegas). We can separate most newer cities from old, to find two ways of measuring cities. Interestingly, the complex system of subdividing the sprawling megalopolis stops at the MSA for most new cities, and older cities’ CSA’s are not taken into account when allocating funds.

Urban scholars tend to also look at Urbanized Area, meaning contigious development with densities above 1000 / square mile. Detroit’s urbanized area stretches to 3.9 million people, much smaller than Chicago but blasting many sunbelt and western cities out of the water, several of which have large swaths of non-urbanized but populated land included in their measurements. Including non-urbanized land would seem to most to have a small impact on a city’s population ranking; however, when one considers the exponential nature of population growth as city limits expand radially or diametrically, its value comes into clearer view. Urbanized Area, perhaps the most logical and standardized measurement for human settlement patterns, is not used to determine city rankings and funding levels, except by the Federal Highway Administration, which actually serves as a much better model of measuring populations practically and fairly. Instead, we measure and then rank our cities with no regard for historical developments in urban planning and municipal incorporation patterns, density, age, need, and, most importantly, true population.

Principal City


Density not taken into account, merely municipal limits

Used to allocate funds

Urbanized Area


Measures density exclusively

Not used to allocate funds (except for the Federal Highway Administration


Non-standard methods of identification

Used to allocate funds


Non-standard methods of identification

For older, larger, more urbanized regions, includes all densely developed

Not used to allocate funds

This is why Houston, which is the fourth largest principal city in the United States, is the ninth largest Metropolitan Statistical Area. Because Detroit’s population is sliced into three CSA’s and excludes many other parts of the seven county urbanized area, its MSA is only 4.4 million people. The CSA, a measurement not applied to Houston, is 5.3 million. When densities and commuting patterns are taken into account, Detroit’s CSA compares more adequately to Houston’s MSA, but only MSA’s are used.  Half of Metropolitan Houston’s population lives inside the 600 square mile principal city. 1/4 of Detroit and Chicago’s MSA populations live inside the principal city, and as little as 1/12 of Chicago’s CSA population lives in Chicago. Metropolitan Phoenix is actually smaller than Metropolitan Detroit (4.36), and Metropolitan San Antonio is less than half the size (2.07 million). Yet the principal cities of these areas occupy sixth and seventh place in population rankings lists. Four metropolitan areas with principal cities in the top ten (the most commonly used ranking to determine federal funding) have MSA’s smaller than Detroit’s, while others’ MSA’s are much smaller than Detroit’s CSA.

So why, we must ask, have these inconsistencies in demography gone largely unchallenged? Surely, if Detroit receives so much less in federal aid due to non-standardized measurements, why not protest it? To answer this question we must first look at who benefits from this demographic agenda, and what is at stake. I have already made the case that San Antonio, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Houston, and other cities benefit greatly as regions from this phenomenon. So who suffers? In Detroit, at least, the core bears the largest burden of undercounting, and by a large margin. The extra money for education would go exclusively to Detroit proper. Because federal funding is appropriated by district, which is most often aligned in the core city with its own municipal boundaries, the only district in the metropolitan Detroit region even close to the 100,000 student mark would be Detroit Public Schools. Regardless of census counts, unless the more than thirty school districts within the MSA alone were to consolidate into a few large districts, no other district would benefit from a more standard distribution of population in the census count. In terms of transportation, the entire region would benefit, but city residents, who travel farther for work and have the lowest incomes and rates of vehicle ownership, would benefit the most.

This brings us to the question of race and class. Racial apartheid between city and suburb has allowed for whites to function in nearly every aspect of their lives outside of the state and federal funding spheres. While each school district receives a standard amount from the state of Michigan (except for Oakland County which, despite having the highest property tax revenues in the state, receives special allocations), most districts collect property tax revenues which drastically stratify funding for schools. Detroit, whose property tax revenue fails to even meet the general operating costs and service delivery of the city (note the yearly deficits), remains at the state funding level around $7000/student, while some suburban districts such as  Bloomfield Hills spend more than $26,000/student. Municipal balkanization actually aids these small districts, considering each new student to one district has a larger impact on the fixed costs of that district, even in the $7000-10,000 range, which is where most of them actually fall. In terms of transportation, these suburban counties with median incomes more than twice, sometimes three times that of Detroit, rely almost exclusively on the private automobile. It is no wonder, then, that the Federal Highway Administration is one of the only departments to actually use accurate measurements of metropolitan areas to allocate funds which increase the dollars spent on roads overall. Historically voting down transportation projects, it is unlikely that the local suburban governments and their residents will soon protest a lack of federal transportation dollars. In fact, the state of Michigan, dominated by suburbs in the state legislature, turns down $100,000,000 of federal funding each year for public transportation projects, despite having paid into the pool from which that money is granted. The reason still massive northern urban regions are not able to defeat southern and western privilege demographically, is because they actually aren’t trying. Suburban districts and municipalities dominate state politics, and control regional decisions and they remain wedded to the arrogant notion that the privilege they have survived on for so many years, at the expense of the urban core, is unrelated to the fate of that urban core, and thus Detroit’s slipping rankings seemingly have no affect on their way of life and they have no responsibility for Detroit’s problems.

In contrast, those left inside the urban core, mostly black, 1/3 desperately poor, and with little political power, are left without the fairness of a standardized distribution of funds. Furthermore, these populations and the spaces they live in carry a disproportionate share of society’s burden and require even more funds than a standardized system would allow. In other words, even a strict and “fair” allocation of funds based on densities and regional populations would fail to account for the age and decay of older spaces where the poorest people live, and the increased needs of a underemployed and poor population. Racial minorities and poor whites thus are faced with double ghettoization. Not only have they been contained inside the oldest, most expensive, and least desirable parts of the city, but funding processes (via population assessments and city rankings) have then been built around that containment to sustain and exacerbate it.

Hollywood screenwriter calls on queer Detroit

April 17, 2010
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“We have become self-serving. Gay and lesbian liberation is inseperable from the liberation of all, “said Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of the Academy Award winning Milk. Addressing a large audience as the ACLU of Michigan’s Legacy Series speaker at MOCAD in February, the gay and out Hollywood writer told Detroiters how he became a leader within the national gay and lesbian civil rights movement. Drawing on the life of Harvey Milk, a white gay councilman who reached out to blacks, women, and labor to build a political coalition in 1970’s San Francisco, Black emphasized jobs and housing, not marriage equality. The crowd, mostly white male professionals, cheered as Black challenged them to recognize the interconnectedness of all minority struggles. “We must plunge into the unknown” and “earn our right in the community” by reaching out to people of color.

The title of his speech, “The Art of Creating Inclusive Communities” suggested themes that fit more with the gentrifying schemes of white gay Michigan than the actual message Black delivered. Indeed, talk of artsing up neighborhoods and diversifying the city-scape is most commonly coded, in Detroit, as “taking back” neighborhoods, with all of that phrase’s attendent racist overtones. Black’s lecture, however, actually had little to do with creating gay neighborhoods or moving back to the city than with building coalitions for local politics. He  called on his audience to reconnect gay and lesbian struggles with black, feminist, and other movements for social justice. While he failed to acknowledge the countless folks at the intersections of these identities-particularly queer people of color-his call for a broader political coalition could not have come at a better time. Given local moves to gentrify some of Detroit’s most fashionable neighborhoods, it is critical that we develop a more advanced way of thinking about rights, privilege, and connectivity.

Just across Detroit’s city limits lies the center of liberal gay politics, Ferndale. The last decade has been marked by the rise of Ferndale as a gay and lesbian hub for metropolitan Detroit. But along with this sleepy suburb’s transformation and the increased visibility of queer politics in Michigan has come the harsh realization for many that the mainstream gay and lesbian civil rights movement is a white movement; black queer and same-gender loving groups in Detroit prioritize different things than the large, mostly white organizations have prioritized for the last twenty years, and have their own network of activist organizations, most of them on the Detroit side of Eight Mile.  Not only are political and organizing differences drawn largely along black-white and geographic lines in Metro Detroit, but deep wounds have kept the two movements from working together. Since 2006 Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center has faced and defended strong accusations of racism, and despite the Triangle Foundation’s long restructuring process to become more responsive to more people, many feel that there remains little connection to black queer/SGL activism in Detroit. Ferndale, the base of the mainstream movement, remains a city less than four percent black despite bordering all-black neighborhoods to the South and West. Nearly all of Ferndale’s black residents live in high concentration in a small share of the town’s census tracts.

This is the Detroit Dustin Lance Black was speaking to—a region whose neighborhoods, not just cities, are divided almost absolutely along racial lines. But it is also a region where many affluent, gay, white males are searching beyond Ferndale and Royal Oak, scanning the city’s black neighborhoods for potential profit. Two “Blight Tours” have been hosted in the last few years, where groups of men consider the aesthetic qualities of certain Detroit neighborhoods, particularly Palmer Park, East English Village, and Indian Village, where large, charming houses are cheap and long-term profits can be turned if older residents can be pressured and priced out. Talk of “taking back” or “preserving” these neighborhoods can be heard all over the city’s white gay bars, and despite the good intentions of many, the fact remains that whites have the most access to the only viable spaces left in the city, and are using that privilege to their advantage.

Although segregation in Detroit is worse than just about any other city in the nation, this trend to “diversify” neighborhoods by flipping houses is not unique to this area. Milk’s San Francisco in fact provided the original recipe during the 1980’s, although this is left out of Black’s film. Just as Black overlooked the colonial processes of neighborhood gentrification and black exclusion in San Francisco that resulted from Milk’s successful campaign,local white activists and professionals in Detroit have failed to consider the politics of both neighborhood “preservation,” in the city proper and the extreme racial exclusivity of Ferndale. Many of those who cheered as Black chided the movement for its failure to reach out to people of color have attended blight tours, where the problems of Detroiters and their neighborhoods are trivialized and romanticized in a search for urban authenticity and affordable housing with architectural charm. Virtually no white activists and organizations have challenged racially motivated housing, job, and law enforcement discrimination in Ferndale and Royal Oak. There has been little to no commitment to racial justice on the part of white organizers and, in some instances, they have reinforced racial segregation in their own communities and organizations.

Nonetheless, Dustin Lance Black’s call to support and include people of color was well received Wednesday. Hardly a homogenous group (except racially), some appreciated it more than others. After the event, attendees seemed to agree that it was “what Detroit needed.” But the answer to Black’s question, “What are you going to do here in Michigan to reach out to other communities,” is yet to be seen. As organizations employ a new liberal discourse on race and diversity by starting new committees, hosting forums, and , training black groups to do things their way, very little is being done to tackle the structural inequality so visible across the urban landscape. White organizations continue to prioritize marriage equality and legislative battles as black groups in the city address the double burden of being black and queer on their own. Will the large, well-funded organizations and active members of the white queer movement re-consider the needs and political priorities of non-white groups, or will blight tours, racial discrimination in Ferndale and Royal Oak, and weak attempts to “diversify” boards and staffs continue to undermine the efforts of some activists to build inter-racial queer coalitions? If the latter is true, the next decade may see few advances in local queer politics.

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