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.