Detroit Open City

By Aaron RobertsonSeptember 13, 2017

Detroit Open City
How lonely sits the
city that was full of

How like a widow she has become,
she who was great among the

She who was a princess among the
provinces has become a slave.

— Lamentations 1:1


SOMEWHERE WEST of Jerusalem. My grandparents moved to Detroit a year after the 1967 summer rebellion. They came from Nashville one day before the nation elected Nixon as its president. Lorenzy was born in a dark shack and picked tobacco in a hamlet founded by freedpersons after the Civil War. He cut glass for Ford. Bettie Jean was a long-distance operator for a telephone company. Despite the uprisings that devastated thousands of businesses and spurred a great exodus to the suburbs, Bettie had no problem with Detroit. Nashville was tumultuous enough in the wake of MLK’s assassination. She was fed up with citywide curfews and needed to pay the bills. The asphalt of a new interstate highway, which had sliced clean through Detroit’s largest historically black neighborhood, had barely cooled when the couple moved into their bungalow. Auto companies were building production plants in a distant elsewhere. Unemployment rates were rising. Home values were plummeting and wages decreased in the neighborhoods encircling the city center.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “long hot summer” of ’67, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial film Detroit had its glitzy premiere at the historic Fox Theatre in the city’s entertainment district. This May marked the first time a streetcar has run along a Detroit thoroughfare in six decades. In an ebullient inaugural ceremony, billionaire investor and real-estate oligarch Dan Gilbert called the QLine a symbolic project that represented “the movement of our entire region's culture from one of separation, conflict, and turmoil to an environment of partnership, cooperation, and execution.”

And yet the Detroit that my grandparents knew isn’t as difficult to imagine as it should be. The same problems that led to five days of sniper fire and flame 50 years ago are still palpable: racial disparities in housing and employment, acute geographical segregation, strained community-police relations, a dismal public education system, you name it. I recall when, seven years ago, Mayor Dave Bing proposed leveling a quarter of the city’s abandoned homes as part of his newly announced Detroit Works Project. The morning news covered demolitions with the same gleeful excitement you’d expect from a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Most of Detroit proper is at least partially developed when considering factors such as census tract populations and wages, but researchers have suggested that nearly one fifth of the city qualifies as “residential no-development cases.”

To translate: The species of loneliness one feels in New York is not the same in Detroit. There is an overwhelming awareness that in a city this large, things should be louder. “Detroit is the biggest small town in America,” I once heard someone say. The slogan rings true. It is a city in which people talk more about lonely places than lonely people. Abandonment is keenly felt not as a conclusive sense of emptiness, but as absence, the peculiar suspicion that something which should be there has been devoured or disappeared.

Now, in 2017, the city is undergoing one hell of a facelift. The construction crane has replaced the automobile as the dominant symbol of Detroit’s eerie post-bankruptcy optimism. Downtown is brimming with food trucks, colorful pedestrian plazas, condos, public-share bikes, and artisanal this-and-that. Virtual renderings show what the city will look like peppered with high-rises, green alleys, and sports stadiums. Microsoft’s impending move back into the city bolsters claims that it is a burgeoning tech town.

Chances are that if you’ve been following news in Detroit during the last couple of years, your attention has been directed to the 7.2 square miles that make up greater downtown. The entire city covers about 139 square miles, though you’d hardly know it. Tax foreclosures and water shutoffs have displaced tens of thousands. Stale clichés about post-industrial “frontiers” still inform much of the conversation about the city. The number 7.2 has come to signify an obsession with concentric growth. It quantifies the ongoing struggles between old-guard residents who want greater oversight over publically funded projects and incoming developers who have a “Downtown now, everywhere else later” state of mind. Both groups are engaged in a contest over space. In a city with 100,000 empty lots, 80,000 vacant housing units, and 900 vacant industrial properties, there are plenty of questions. Who will own the land and what will be done with it?


You don’t have to look much further for the contest between the “two Detroits” than the current, dispiriting mayoral race between incumbent Mike Duggan and his challenger Coleman Young II. When Duggan, a linchpin of Detroit’s economic growth machine, was elected in 2013, he became the city’s first white mayor in four decades. Young is the son of Detroit’s most nominally radical black mayor in Detroit’s history. As Duggan marches ahead with his “one city for all of us” campaign, Young, the underdog, is still trying to ride his father’s coattails. Young’s rhetoric about protecting vulnerable blacks from dispossession doesn’t change the fact that voter turnout for the August primary was worse than it was four years ago, at a little less than 14 percent, with an overwhelming percent of the ballot going to Duggan.

What does the “growth machine” look like? A recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research gives us one answer. The report identifies 22 vacant Detroit neighborhoods that, if developed, could potentially yield millions in residential and business rents. The authors insist that policy makers should initially focus on particular neighborhoods. They say a certain amount should be invested in these areas to maximize profit for the city. The researchers created a cost-benefit model that responds to alternative plans proposed by the Detroit Future City (DFC) initiative. It models the employment decisions of firms, the location and commuting decisions of workers, and developer decisions to enter certain neighborhoods. The DFC was the swooned-over lovechild of the Detroit Works Project and venture philanthropic foundations like the Kresge, Ford, and Kellogg Foundations. This “Best 22” proposal creates an ideal configuration of the city. It includes some tracts beyond the pales of the 7.2. A similarly motivated study by professors from the University of Michigan introduced what they call a “Green Infrastructure Spatial Planning” (GISP) model. Using criteria such as stormwater management potential, social vulnerability, air quality, and landscape connectivity, the model is supposed to “evaluate synergies” and maximize the social and ecological benefits of green infrastructure.

DFC, a public-private civic organization founded in 2012 by planning experts and community leaders, sees itself as the primary catalyst of a much dreamed-of urban renaissance. Cleanly dividing the city’s reevolution into 10-year, 20-year, and 50-year phases, DFC advocates greening and the cost-effective delivery of services like sewer and trash collection, street lighting, and road maintenance. The plan hinges on the concept of “Innovation Land Use” zones. Vague criteria are used to sort Detroit’s neighborhoods into residential typologies. Those areas deemed vacant are earmarked for a paradoxical sort of development that seeks to revert the land to a state of nature (stormwater retention ponds, carbon forests, permaculture gardens, and so on).

DFC’s publicity machine has been tailored for an emotionally and physically abused metropolis that is on the rebound. It is, in fact, so effective, so blindingly alluring that it almost obscures Detroit’s hesitant march toward what we might safely call a neoliberal cosmopolis. Current austerity measures in the city find their origin in the controversial declaration of municipal bankruptcy in 2013. The most conservative estimates pegged Detroit’s debt at the time around $18 billion. Under governor-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, the city endured 17 months of contentious negotiations with creditors, unions, pensioners, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose prized art collection was targeted for potential liquidation. In a gambit now referred to as the “Grand Bargain,” a coalition of philanthropic foundations, aided by the DIA and the state, pledged $816 million to protect the museum’s art and bring the city closer to a plan of adjustment. The creation of the New Economy Initiative, made up of 12 nonprofit foundations, signaled a vigorous attempt by philanthropists to lead the city’s fiscal turnaround in the absence of public and private sector stability.

These philanthropic organizations have done fine work in southwest Michigan, but they’ve also inaugurated a new phase of leadership in Detroit that emboldens experimentation — not all of it good — to a scale not seen at least since the elder Coleman Young’s mayoral administration in the ’70s. Developers riding this wave of generosity have been eager to make it appear that public resources will be used to ensure affordable housing. Many new residential units in the central business district will be designated as such. Families earning 80 percent of the region’s average median income — $68,000 — will find it easier to get a piece of the pie. (Two thirds of families in Detroit earn less than that. The largest demographic makes less than 30 percent.) By corralling a greater number of mostly middle-income blacks into the central business district, city planners reduce the high concentration of black residents in “vacant” neighborhoods. Creating a racially integrated CBD is a socially palatable method of encouraging investment and allaying fears of an under-utilized wildland. The resident, who like a child is believed unfit to self-govern, is coerced into a promised land in which she can barely afford to live. As public spaces like parks and riverside walkways become privatized, legal restrictions begin to dictate when and how she can demonstrate against home foreclosures, evictions, and police-related abuses. For a city that prides itself on a history of revolutionary protest, that can’t bode well.

Neoliberal environmentalism is at the heart of the DFC. It’s an odd cocktail of market-driven placemaking and colonialist verve masked as post-racial reconciliation. Property value creation through erasure is its endgame. What the DFC’s pretty reports fail to mention is that those land tracts identified as potential green spaces are still home to more than 90,000 residents. The collective obsession with mapping Detroit — from DFC’s innovation landscapes to the recent GISP model — doesn’t maximize the use of the city’s resources as much as it reinforces spatial planning as a tool that, inadvertently or not, views black residents as arbitrary elements to be shifted around in a poorly played game of chess. Attempts at urban rezoning and shrinkage are not unprecedented in Michigan. The Urban Homesteading Act of 1999 was a conservative push to privatize public housing in cities with high concentrations of low-income residents like Detroit. Had it ever been implemented, tenants would’ve had to pay almost the entire market rate for rent.

When naturalized market forces appear to be the driving force of change, developers have an easier time claiming political neutrality and even inclusiveness. The handprint of the neoliberal racial appeasement campaign in Detroit is evident in hiring practices that place African Americans in influential positions. Anika Goss-Foster, for example, an African-American woman, is the executive director of the DFC’s implementation office. Hamilton Anderson, a black-owned architectural firm, was chosen as the lead firm on the Detroit Works Project’s technical team. Phil Freelon, the black architect who designed the National Museum of African American History, was brought in to develop a $32-million mixed-use project in the Sugar Hill Arts district. In a predominantly and proudly African-American city such as Detroit, it makes sense that a techno-managerial regime would be interspersed with well-educated, if tokenistic, leaders of color.

The danger of DFC’s approach is its tendency to hide behind “rational” statistical models while divestment reduces inhabited blocks to suffering, hollowed-out no man’s lands. These stats pave the way for an empirically “pure” frontier, while black citizens and their properties become collateral damage. Traditionally, the frontier, rife with natural and man-made dangers, was to be a site of innovation and a proving grounds for civic commitment. Nineteenth-century homesteaders were seen not only as hard-working civilians who repurposed the land, but brave ones, too. With the same enterprising spirit, chic, usually white cosmopolites boast about leaving their homes and taking a chance on the old Midwestern Mecca. Popular posts with titles like “Why I Moved to Detroit From Silicon Valley (And You Should Too)” or “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500” praise leasing incentives and laud urban “grit” as the bedrock of a novel, rugged lifestyle.


And yet, the optimism in Detroit is real. In a city of chronically hopeful and skeptical people, it’s about how to handle or where to place the optimism. One school of thought has tried to fix this problem by advocating a pointed alternative to a neoliberal “urban renaissance” at the expense of everything else. Writing about Detroit, urban geographer Seth Schindler used the phrase degrowth machine politics to describe a kind of humane approach to austerity-like measures. Degrowth insists that the purpose of “rightsizing” is human and environmental welfare rather than fiscal conservatism.

Industrial ecologist François Schneider famously defined degrowth as the “equitable down-scaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions.” The degrowth movement exploded in 2008 when a group of young European intellectuals gathered for an international conference on ecological sustainability and social equity in Paris. Degrowth (from the French décroissance) starts from the premise that market-driven countries in the Global North already have all they need to thrive, and to measure social and economic health in terms of GDP growth is to devalue the labor of non-market actors. Proponents also reject the premise of “sustainable development,” which they argue is an oxymoronic, greenwashed term that obscures an essentially capitalistic goal: temporarily decreasing public consumption to ensure greater surplus later.

The movement’s vision of prosperous reduction lies somewhere between the defeatism of Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff (author of the best seller Detroit: An American Autopsy) and the unrestrained gaiety of Duggan. Peter Eisinger, a former urban affairs professor at The New School, doubts that a Detroit renaissance would actually benefit its residents. Instead of entertaining pipe dreams of resurgence, Eisinger believes stakeholders should focus on what he calls an “urban hospice policy,” or small-scale rehabilitation and crisis management. Eisinger’s explicit call for palliative care is meant to temper the energetic spirit that has possessed developers up to this point.

Unlikely as it may seem, there are some parts of the city, almost alternate dimensions, in which the capital motive has been extinguished. Not too long ago I had the opportunity to write about one of these vibrant neighborhoods, the North End, for the city’s main weekly. I focused on one of the North End’s most interesting hubs, ONE Mile, which kickstarts cultural and economic projects that promote small-scale community development.

A lot has happened with some of the area’s biggest players since I last saw them. For one, Ingrid LaFleur, an advocate for creative and social justice, threw her hat in the mayoral ring. Anya Sirota and Jean-Louis Farges of Akoaki, an architecture and design studio, were two of more than 70 Detroiters who represented the city at the 10th edition of the Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial in an exhibit on the future of work. Onyx Ashanti, a busker and champion of open source software, continues to 3D print his own Afrofuturistic instruments. North End also hosted the first Detroit Culture Council, a public gathering of art advocates, policy makers, activists, and philanthropists who are clamoring for a Detroit department of cultural affairs.

Years from now, places like the North End will be recognized as one of the neighborhoods that preserved Detroit’s cultural history and practices. Just about everyone I spoke with there articulated their own forms of resistance to the social and spatial domination that is taking shape a few blocks over in the city center. These artists, activists, urban farmers, engineers, and cultural architects pose a unique threat to the downtown development regime through their emphasis on sweat equity as part of an African diasporic ethos of communal land ownership.

The people who rise in the morning to mow the lawns, host “maker” sessions for aspiring young engineers, and lead educational sessions on settler colonialism, have staked their claims. Resistance groups like the Motor City Freedom Riders, the People’s Water Board, the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, and the Detroit Housing Trust Fund Coalition insist that the other 131.8 square miles in Detroit aren’t scorched earth. Initiatives that ignore outlying neighborhoods will only alienate residents when investors finally decide to look their way. The most equitable and reasonable development models will encourage local professionals to inform residents about how space can be obtained and creatively activated.

The North End, where direct democracy reigns and resource redistribution usurps acquisition, is an American laboratory for degrowth initiatives. These seek to decommodify what it means to work, consume, and grow an economy. The Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, whose volunteers advocate alternative food networks, features gardens, an apple orchard, and a performance space. Halima Cassells, one of the key activists in the North End, leads the Free Market of Detroit, which hosts “swap meets,” where locals bring and take items as they wish. The Center for Community-Based Enterprise aims to create living-wage jobs through worker ownership, providing legal and technical assistance to people interested in developing their own co-ops. Despite occasional attention from the local press, much of the labor performed by residents in and around the North End is not formally recognized in a global market economy. As degrowth proponent Lasse Thiele writes, “There is no cosy coexistence between neoliberal practice and alternative economic structures.”

Other entities like time banks, eco-communes, and black-led cultural institutions point to an open-ended future in Detroit. While something like degrowth is plainly visible in a few parts of the city, it remains to be seen whether Detroit will become the paradigm, or at least a talking point, for a growing global movement. Even defenders concede that for degrowth to be more than a post-recession fad, collaborators and allies at the state, national, and international levels are necessary. This kind of wishfulness might seem silly were we talking about any other place. But Detroit is the great American Twilight Zone, where the macabre and the redemptive flow daily in almost equal measure. No scatter plots or bar graphs can say what happens next. Maybe that’s a blessing.


Aaron Robertson is pursuing a Master’s of Philosophy in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. He has written for the Detroit Metro Times.

LARB Contributor

Aaron Robertson is a James Reston Reporting Fellow for The New York Times. He has written for The Nation, Detroit Metro Times, The Point Magazine, and more. He is currently completing an MSt in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. 


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