Detroit, a Love Story

Detroit, a Love Story OR Looking Backward AND Forward Together to Create Sustainable Communities
By Tom Stephens, October 2009

“It is time Detroit looked forward, not backward.”American Institute of Architects (AIA), Sustainable Design Assistance Team (SDAT) (2009)

“It may seem the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up into two cities – one white, the other black – but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting in Milliken v Bradley (the 1974 Detroit metropolitan inter-district school desegregation case)

The City of Detroit’s socioeconomic crises, and the intensifying suffering of its working class and poor communities, are suddenly fashionable in the corporate media.  The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an extensive article about it on June 28, 2009. Three months later, TIME Magazine featured us on its cover. A corporate media team of reporters has been installed in a Detroit house to cover the ongoing story.  Filmmakers from around the world come here to document Detroit’s fabulous post-industrial ruins, and the stirrings of alternative consciousness and life ways.  Here’s a contribution to the discussion by one resident.

The AIA weighs in

One of the most intensive and carefully thought out approaches to Detroit’s situation recently came from an interdisciplinary team of urban development professionals organized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 2008 and 2009.  Their Sustainable Design Assistance Team (SDAT) Final Report is a highly professional, well-written and researched analysis of many of the basic development-related social and economic issues facing Detroit.  It demands serious consideration of its ideas and underlying factual information.

The SDAT report follows a methodology and analytical framework that seems to be understandably popular today.  It identifies Detroit’s considerable natural, institutional and human assets, upon which we can build a redevelopment strategy tailored to the requirements of the 21st century; then it recommends general approaches to making Detroit a “stronger, healthier, and more sustainable” city.  These include:

  • Take advantage of the city’s assets, and build an economic future around them;
  • Preserve and enhance the city’s healthy neighborhoods;
  • Rebuild the city’s economy around new industries and opportunities;
  • Build Detroit’s human capital; and
  • Reconfigure the use of the city’s land to create a greener, more sustainable city.

Toward these goals, the report offers three “central guiding principles:”

  • Build an economic development strategy that can create jobs for the city’s residents;
  • Carry out a land reutilization strategy that truly reflects today’s realities of population change and housing demand; and
  • Make sustainability the driving theme underlying all of these strategies.

The report repeatedly and quite appropriately emphasizes jobs as Detroit’s primary community economic development issue:  “Detroit is jobs-poor. The city has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past decades, and far fewer of its residents hold jobs, or participate in the labor force, compared to the United States population as a whole. The single most important economic development goal for Detroit should be to fill this “jobs gap.” That means not only creating more jobs, but creating the sort of jobs that Detroit’s residents can access.”

Toward this end, the report outlines and discusses in some detail a three-phase strategy aimed at creating 75,000 net new jobs over the next decade.  The principal elements of this strategy are:

  • Capitalizing on existing assets such as Detroit’s entertainment cluster, its large population of skilled manufacturing workers, its experience in logistics and manufacturing, its capacity for innovation, and the concentration of large anchor medical, educational and cultural institutions in the downtown/midtown area;
  • Green manufacturing and urban agriculture; and
  • Reformed land use policies integrated with other policy reforms, such as transit, new urbanism, and sustainability, implemented via the new land bank.

The report cites three elements that “should come together to realize a smarter, leaner and greener city:

  • Increasing density
  • Land reconfiguration
  • Connectivity

Each complements the other elements of this report, such as urban vitality, economic development, urban agriculture, transportation, and green energy.”

Some of the major initiatives sensibly recommended in the 61-page report include:

  • Large-scale urban agriculture as a potential growth industry;
  • Adapting Detroit to green energy and the green economy (“Time is of the essence” for creating job opportunities for Detroit’s residents in the emerging new “green” economy, and opportunities in green economic sectors can and must be tailored to fit the skill sets of people in Detroit who need jobs.  Plugging into the green economy is an overarching idea that applies to virtually all the policy recommendations in the report);
  • Developing sustainable transportation;
  • Creating linked urban villages within Detroit’s vast 139-square mile footprint;
  • Increased collaboration among governments within the southeast Michigan region, and across sectors of business, neighborhood, political and social communities; and
  • Incorporating “sustainability” into the basic policy making and governing strategies and processes of the entire city and region.

The SDAT Final Report’s forceful and important conclusions deserve the most serious attention:

  1. Detroit is at a critical point in its history. Its problems and difficulties are real and intense.  As the global economic crisis deepens and the automotive industry goes through a wrenching transformation, they can easily seem overwhelming. At the same time, the city’s opportunities are substantial, and achievable. If those opportunities are to be seized, and the city’s economic decline arrested, however, radically different thinking will be needed from that which has brought Detroit to its present condition.
  2. Detroit must recognize its reality as a far smaller city than it once was, in population if not land area, and reconsider its land use, its economy, and its transportation network around that reality.
  3. Detroit must adopt bold, visionary but realistic strategies, pursued in bold, sustained, long-term fashion.
  4. Detroit’s key players in both the public and private sector must work together. In that respect, city government has a critical role to play. Ultimately, city government is the glue that can hold a city together. If the city government does not perform that function, no one else can step into its place. This is another reality that Detroit must confront, and decide whether it can re-invent a city government that can not only deliver needed public services, but that can offer both vision and leadership to the community, bringing all of the public and private stakeholders in the community together to build a new Detroit.  At another level, building greater cooperation and engagement among the many governmental and private entities across Southeast Michigan needs to be a priority.
  5. Detroit must plan.  What Detroit needs, though, are not “pretty picture” plans, but specific, practical action plans to achieve particular goals, whether it is the urban agriculture initiative, the green jobs initiative, the anchor institutions initiative, or the larger strategy of reconfiguring the city’s land uses around the reality of a far smaller population.  These plans cannot be hatched by a handful of people behind closed doors. A process is needed by which the entire community both comes to understand the new reality, and participates in the process of framing the strategies that reflect that reality. Only in that way will those strategies have the public support that will be needed.
  6. It is time Detroit looked forward, not backward. (emphasis added, see discussion below)  It serves little purpose to remain rooted in the conflicts and resentments of the past. However real those conflicts, the over-arching need in Detroit today is to bring people together to solve problems and move forward.  One hundred years ago, Detroit was a center of visionary innovation and entrepreneurship. That spirit needs to be rekindled to build a new Detroit around a new vision – one of sustainability, economic opportunity and social equity for all of its people.

Understanding What Happened & Why

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

– James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, 1965

The contributors to the SDAT Final Report, in their parting recommendation to “look forward, not backward,” are not making a blatant bid to escape accountability.  Unlike the cheap “don’t focus on the past” rhetorical device applied to some other recent misconduct (notably of course the Bush/Cheney administration’s recent wars of aggression, torture and human rights violations), a different impulse and intent is at work here.

The authors of the SDAT report created an extensive and valuable policy document that is indeed forward-looking.  They are not trying to cover up anyone’s past misconduct.  Nevertheless, we should carefully examine the largely unexplained need to avoid the “look back,” while we look forward to our collective vision of a green, sustainable, prosperous and just future.  For reasons that are somewhat similar to the reasons why war crimes (or any other important historical events, for that matter), should not be sent down the memory hole, we need a relevant and shared understanding of our past before we can move forward together.

Immediately after the command not to look back, the SDAT authors allude to the reason why: “It serves little purpose to remain rooted in the conflicts and resentments of the past. However real those conflicts, the over-arching need in Detroit today is to bring people together to solve problems and move forward.”  This much is hard to argue with.  But unpacking the assumptions that underlie it is both easier and more valuable.  In essence, to understand “the conflicts and resentments of the past” is not necessarily “to remain rooted in” them.  On the contrary, only thru such understanding will it really be possible to effectively deal with past conflicts, “solve problems and move forward.”

The instruction to not look back wrongly presumes that we can’t look both forward and backward.  In fact, at various points in this critical and long-term project of resurrecting a great North American metropolis, we must do both.  Perhaps even more important, “don’t look back” assumes that “we” have an adequate, mutually shared, and generally accurate understanding of what happened and why; what we will in fact see if we do look back at how Detroit got into this predicament.  Therefore, no good reason exists to look “backward,” i.e., to understand what happened that led to this point and why, in favor of “bringing people together” for the future greater good.

I agree wholeheartedly with the authors of the SDAT report that it is crucial for us to have a forward-looking vision, and that we must not “remain rooted in the conflicts and resentments of the past, however real.”  I also believe that we can look both forward and backward, in ways and measures that are appropriate to our crucial and massive tasks.  We should spend some time understanding how we got here, both because it has great bearing on where we go from here, and because many of us (Detroiters and suburbanites, blacks and whites and others, workers and managers, etc.) do not share the same understanding of what happened and why.  These differences, in turn, will inevitably affect our attempts to pursue sustainability.

We should not be blinded by a false conflict between looking to the past and looking to the future, in order to avoid remaining rooted in past conflicts.  On the contrary, that blindness is one of the things keeping us trapped in those conflicts.  Seeing our history is crucial to understanding our current condition, and envisioning a different future, like the one outlined in the SDAT report.  And not only seeing it.  Looking back (and forward) in this sense is crucial, as a practical matter, to actual progress in implementing the proposals and visions of the SDAT report.            

Making real these SDAT proposals, and much else that is of consequence for Detroit, its people and our environs, will require us to do some emotionally, ethically and politically hard work on our history, in service of the report’s state-of-the-art analysis and research into our present circumstances and future prospects.  The report documents a broad consensus on what needs to be done, why and even how – once we get to the point of doing it.  The most critical issue now is how we get to that point of the “doing.”

In a practical political sense, making real progress on these issues of sustainability, social justice and economic reform for Detroit’s future will require understanding present reality, which requires understanding history, and some level of consensus about those understandings.  For that, we have to look backwards as well as forwards.  And we absolutely must do both in recognition of diverse perspectives on many complicated historical questions, most of which are conditioned by “hot button” issues like race, gender, generational and class conflicts, and even violence.  “Look forward, not backward” is a well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided attempt to avoid a painful but absolutely necessary political process, if the theoretical contributions and policy proposals for reform in the SDAT Final Report are to have living vitality and real impact on the City of Detroit. What am I talking about?

The “Love Story” Part

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” – Ernesto “Che” Guevara

In addition to a crass attempt to capitalize on Michael Moore’s 2009 documentary about capitalism, the title of this essay, “Detroit, a Love Story,” refers to the parts we would miss if we followed the second half of the SDAT report’s injunction to “look forward, not backward.”

As exemplified by such recent narratives as the New York Times and TIME Magazine pieces cited at the outset of this essay, the “common wisdom” on Detroit’s crisis in the mainstream, derived from corporate media sources, invariably mentions several things: Racism (or at least “race”) is of course always a big part of the story, in a city that is 80% plus African American.  Shortsighted and narrow-minded leadership has recently come in for a big slice of blame, especially in the wake of the economic crisis of 2007 thru the present, when previous and continuing failures of leadership have become far too obvious to ignore.

For example, the decline of the auto industry, in its sordid economic, environmental/ regulatory, and corporate management aspects, is a generally accepted part of the story.  The role of the United Auto Workers union regularly comes in for disproportionate blame (and vastly insufficient credit for its roles in both supporting civil rights and bringing tens of thousands of families into the “middle class.”)  The beautiful memories of Motown music. The “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II; an industrial and transportation powerhouse; the birthplace of “Fordism” as a world-changing industrial mass production system.  Then the “riot” (or “rebellion” or “uprising,” depending on your point of view), resulting in white flight and further depopulation, reducing the city from over 2 million to about 900,000 residents.  Bringing the standard history up to the present, a shocking series of recent scandals in local government and schools.  Few literate Americans are totally unfamiliar with the general structure of this narrative.

What’s missing from this standard picture provides the keys to why it may indeed be not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, for us to look back with clear eyes at our past, while we also look forward at the promising SDAT vision of our potential future, in order to have a chance of making that contemplated future a reality.  I refer specifically to the history and political economy of the Motor City, not only as the industrial Arsenal of Democracy and a black cultural capital, but related to each of those, as a site of historic struggle that continues in search of different ways of living in our present and future, and that (like the more well known aspects of our story) has everything to do with our contemporary crisis.

Detroit’s current political economic condition was not simply the product of bad corporate management and local political leadership that couldn’t see around the curve ahead.  Nor is Detroit as uniformly degraded as many corporate media accounts would have it.  On the contrary, Detroit today is a natural and indeed inevitable result of the major social, economic and political forces that shaped its glory days.  The same forces also produced the global and national reaction of the last thirty years.  And they are within us today, where they are generating hundreds of the urban gardens the SDAT report writes about, as well as other broad grassroots struggles and transformations outside the corporate media frame.  We can’t see and understand these forces in our present unless we “look backward” with the same clear vision the SDAT report provides of our future.

Detroit’s current crisis is a product of industrial civilization itself, which reflects the collapse of a whole way of thinking and organizing human life on our planet, as well as a continuing tradition of grassroots struggle for better alternatives and social justice.  The international aspects of industrial development, war and peace, imperialism and the US role in the world, have always been understandably central to how Detroiters viewed our great industrial city’s place in the world.  Disregarding such basic elements of our history, supposedly so we can come together for our common future, would be succumbing to huge blind spots and failing to understand arguably the most important drivers of our reality.  Finally (a key point that should not be forgotten, for both moral and practical reasons), disregarding our past overlooks the beauty, heroism, and joy of Detroit.  These are the essential basis of the love we feel for this community.  And they are hidden or overlooked assets we absolutely need to bring with us into the post-industrial future we are already building.  The work product of intellectual elites like the well-intentioned authors of the SDAT report will benefit when they see and understand this.

Detroit is not just the auto capital and the World War II weapons manufacturing center that provided the material to defeat fascism.  Wrapped up in those historic labors is our history of heroic civil rights struggle, racially integrated leadership and social life (initially thru the CIO unions, led by the UAW), and unyielding resistance to any forms of colonial mentality.  The mostly hidden history of labor and African American organizing and struggle in dynamic (often contentious) coalitions, animated Detroit from the 1930s New Deal to the Great Society of the 1960s.  Seen in that light, why would we not want to look back at the struggles that made Detroit into both an industrial powerhouse and an African American cultural Mecca?  “Sustainable development” does not require throwing out our history of progress toward social justice.  Rather, it needs that history as much as it needs a hopeful vision of the future.

Many decades ago, during the crucible of Detroit’s industrial transformation, and in spite of the auto industry’s many decades of capital flight from Detroit (to reduce its dependence on the UAW-dominated work force that demonstrated its power in the great sit-down strikes of the late 1930s), the people of this community fought and partly overcame entrenched corporate power.  Then we took on the foreign fascists as well.  Those struggles made Detroit what it was in its glory.  The national political economic reaction of capital over the last 30 years attacked us and reduced us to our present state, while the industrial world’s conflict with our natural environment intensified and produced today’s existential threats.  Our greatest generation of labor and civil rights pioneers left a legacy that was knifed in the back by neoliberal corporate globalization-from-above.  We will see this if we disobey the injunction “don’t look back.”  It’s not just the standard story of bad decisions by local leaders, “greedy unions,” and gas guzzlers.  If we don’t look back at how corporate power did these things, we simply don’t understand where we are today or why.  And that is not a sound basis from which to figure out what we have to do to build our common future.

TIME Magazine (see note 2, above) recently acknowledged that the first American big-city black mayor, Detroit’s Coleman Young, was a historic and sound choice for his initial two terms.  Their story then observes that he unfortunately hung on too long for three more terms.  That much is a welcome attempt to reconcile critical black and white perspectives on an important historical figure.  But focusing on Mayor Young’s well-known rhetorical slaps at suburban whites (in particular as an alleged mentality of “revenge”), TIME continues in a familiar and at best very partial and misleading vein, dragging us away from what is truly significant about this history.

Mayor Young’s most negative “accomplishment” was not fueling city-suburban conflicts (something that went on before, and continues after his long tenure).  Rather, it was his choice in his last three terms to continue the preexisting relationship between the city, its people and corporate capital.  The same power relationship that generated the uprising of 1967 continued to shape its aftermath, intensifying since the corporate-dominated Reagan era of the 1980s.  Mayor Young tragically played the same game, establishing that an African American leader could make deals with corporate America that benefited those at the top, while neglecting the fundamental interests of those at the bottom, just as readily as any white leader.

Thru power dynamics personified by both Mayor Young and President Reagan (as well as his successors in the White House), national policy inexorably departed from, and left behind the civil rights and labor triumphs of the 1930s thru the late 1960s, and the values and ideas about community economic development the postwar “golden years of capitalism” still represent today.  This historical dynamic – a massive and sustained shift to the political right over the last 30 years – reduced Detroit from its 1950s peak and made it what it is today.  Such a clearer understanding of what really happened is what we would miss, if we followed the SDAT report’s directive not to look back.  This is where the beating heart of Detroit’s community, culture and unique politics can be tapped, to make the SDAT reform policies (and lots of other great things) real for Detroiters and our regional neighbors in the 21st century, rather than mere “pretty picture plans.”  Indeed, in the streets, classrooms and churches of Detroit today, below the policy makers’ paper world of plans and corporate-dominated public/private “partnerships,” it is already happening.

Why do I think this history is so crucial to our progress?  Because sustainability doesn’t only relate to people who buy the superficial, corporate-fed history of the rise and fall of Detroit.  Rather, it’s primarily the business of real Detroiters.  Thru us (if they find practical application), the ideas in the SDAT report will shape Detroit’s future relations with the region, the country and the world.  We Detroiters know that the 1967 uprising (like the others of that time in Watts, Newark, and practically every other major US city, especially if you include the reaction to Dr. King’s assassination in 1968), was not so mindless (or “backward”) as some have claimed.  Rather, the outraged mass violence against property – against a brutal, white-dominated police force and the white property owners they protected with a well-documented policy of police misconduct against black, Latino and other working class residents – isn’t only a thing of the past at all.  Such injustice is very much present in Detroit today, and has been throughout our history.  The “black power” slogan synthesized many different calls for much-needed change in that tumultuous era.  The consciousness it evokes, if not the term itself, retains ideological power for African American leaders today – the officially elected ones as well as the real leaders.  If sustainability advocates ignore this truth, then their visions of sustainability will be largely irrelevant to this community.

Almost exactly five years after the 1967 uprising – in the context of a period of broad social reform, fueled by generational, racial and feminist questioning of authority, and cross-cultural, interracial resistance to social injustice around the world, the much-maligned “sixties” – in June 1972 Detroit was the subject of the country’s most extensive inter-district school desegregation order in the case of Milliken v Bradley, producing the great judicial dissent of 35 years ago that is quoted at the outset of this essay.  This is the fundamental point of this whole discussion of sustainability and social change in Detroit.  This is the historical fulcrum visible when we look back, and still available as a lever to make history today if we grasp it.  This countercultural, insurgent heritage is the essence of both Detroit’s rise to glory and its devastating economic oppression of the past and present, as well as its emerging alternative ways of living in the present and future.  In making the SDAT’s paper recommendations and vision of sustainable social justice a living reality, this simply cannot be ignored or refused.

Detroit’s African American residents know the truth about history: white Americans fought bitterly, often violently, for decades to maintain racial segregation and power differentials.  They still enjoy the fruits of this history of unjust domination in today’s era of corporate globalization that tried to shunt our community aside.  Detroit’s whole urban and regional geography, our politics and our contemporary economic disaster, are a product of the “great metropolitan area divided up into two cities – one white, the other black” that the forces of white supremacy made and continue to maintain.  Later the bitter consequences for Detroit would be magnified by the Reagan era in the 1980s, and by neoliberalism, “free trade” (corporate power) thru the last couple decades, as everything about life was subordinated by policy to “the market” and the power of privately owned corporate tyrannies.  This vast historical process culminated in the current crisis of crises, that author Naomi Klein has aptly labeled “Disaster Capitalism,” where every major social problem becomes an opportunity for multinational corporations to profit from “solutions” that push working people down even further.  Detroit is the global symbol of this crisis.  That’s why we can’t afford to forget our past, as we plan and build a brighter future.

Detroiters will not be satisfied or appeased by superficial stories that blame our communities’ condition on the manifest inadequacies of recent local leadership.  We see the longstanding and intertwined racial, political, educational, psychological, cultural, ecological, economic and corporate causes of this crisis, both because they are all around us, and because the “common wisdom” about their roots, in spite of some valid and frequently flogged elements, rings so hollow for those of us at ground zero.

Policies of sustainability and social justice, as well articulated in the SDAT recommendations, will become a reality, and will help resolve Detroit’s deep crisis, to the extent that Detroit’s black working class, as well as the metro area’s other diverse working class residents, see themselves reflected in the SDAT program, not only as victims of the white- and corporate-supremacist forces that shaped Detroit, but as critical agents of change and champions of history.  In dynamic relation (including conflicts) with forces outside our community and beyond our control, metro Detroit’s working people will either make history again, in some different ways than we did before, or we will continue to suffer the consequences of today’s downward spiral.  Probably we will do both for a while.  This is straight reality.  It is not “backward.”

When the authors of the SDAT report say we should “look forward, not backward,” they risk destroying the real-world potential of their recommendations, by seeking, whether inadvertently or not, to blind us to these truths. Not so.  Detroit will rise from the ashes of its heroic civil rights and multicultural labor stronghold history.  We aren’t stagnantly “rooted in” those past conflicts.  We’re growing dynamically beyond the self-serving frames and superficial, false histories into a truly new era.

Working Class Hero Detroit.  Civil Rights Pioneer Detroit.  Black (and Brown) Power Detroit. Multicultural Detroit. Post-Industrial Green Democracy Detroit. Nobody’s corporate colony any more, Misters. Ford, GM, and ChryslerFiat.  That’s the Detroit with a fighting chance to embrace the SDAT report’s vision of sustainability.  Don’t forget it.



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