Book on Detroit looks at city's path forward
Along with a panel of local professionals and professors, Lucas Kirkpatrick, an assistant sociology professor at Southern Methodist University, discussed the launch of his new book “Reinventing Detroit: The Politics of Possibility” on Tuesday.
Edited by Kirkpatrick and Michael Peter Smith, a professor of community studies at University of California, Davis, the book comprises chapters written by various experts in urban policy, including professors from the University. The compilation aims to discuss the challenges Detroit faces and the methods currently being employed to overcome them.
In July 2013, Detroit declared bankruptcy and was placed under the control of an emergency manager. In December 2014, the city announced its exit from bankruptcy and control of the city was fully returned to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. The city has also struggled to cope with blight, crime, political corruption and a job loss.
Kirkpatrick began his talk by summarizing the book’s three themes: first, that Detroit is not unique; second, that there’s a need to change perceptions of the city’s economic situation; and third, that a forward-focused outlook is important.
To introduce the first theme, he used Dallas, Texas, as a case study for showing Detroit is not totally unique in its challenges. He referenced chapters written by Margaret Dewar, a professor in the University’s Urban and Regional Planning Program.
“They point out the empirical benefits of studying Detroit and that empirical lessons we draw from Detroit are generalizable in other urban contexts,” he said.
Dewar, who spoke on the panel, said placing Detroit in the context of other cities was important for learning something from the city’s challenges.
“Detroit is an extreme case — what good does an extreme case do when it is an outlier?” she said. “When it is placed against knowledge in certain ways, then you can get new insights that add to that knowledge.”
Kirkpatrick cited his experience working in Dallas on a New Cities Foundation initiative, which pairs up city officials with faculty and student researchers to address urban issues facing the city.
“An observer might reasonably assume that those two cities would face fundamentally different types of challenges,” he said. “But in my work at SMU … the thing I’ve taken is the stunning overlap in the challenges facing Dallas and the challenges facing Detroit."
Those similarities, he added, include issues like segregation and concentrated patterns of blight.
Beyond acknowledging Detroit’s challenges, Kirkpatrick said it was also important to think about how those challenges were created, and what they mean for the city today.
He said that mindset entails “rereading the past that brought us to the point of crisis and then reinterpreting where we are now, and reinterpreting the possible paths forward for the city and for urban communities.”
Kirkpatrick said several chapters in the book, including “Framing Detroit” by Jamie Peck, a professor and research chair of urban and regional political economy at the University of British Columbia, and “Market Discipline” by John Gallagher, a Detroit Free Press reporter, speak to this point.
“The real villain in this story is not the people of Detroit — they are victims,” Kirkpatrick said. “Rather, the real structural causes for Jamie Peck are austerity, fiscal federalism, and imposition of market discipline.”
Austerity refers to the fiscal policy practice of reducing expenditures, often sharply, to respond to budget deficits. Fiscal federalism, a similar concept, considers which functions of government should be centralized at the federal level and which should be devolved to the states. Market discipline is related to how the transparency and risk attached to a specific endeavor are communicated.
David Fasenfest, Wayne State University assistant professor of sociology, said much of Detroit’s decline can be tied to structural market forces, such as the decline in the automobile industry.
Kirkpatrick closed by asking the panel a question: How is Detroit doing now? Panelists cited both positives and negatives of the city in response, saying it depended on which part of Detroit you were in.
While some areas like Midtown are growing, with long waitlists for apartments, other neighborhoods are still receding and continuing to face issues of foreclosure or gentrification, Gallagher said.
“We have a long way to go, but it does feel different to me in the last three years than in the last 25,” Gallagher said. “We are in the front end of it.”