Detroit is the arsenal of democracy, Motown and the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile. Detroit is also the largest municipality in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy and faces immense challenges typical in kind but unique in magnitude and circumstance. Even with years of careful analysis, at times it’s challenging just to wrap your mind around it all.
Against this backdrop, many narratives describing Detroit have emerged, representing the collective experiences, perceptions and biases of those residing in, living near or merely observing the city from afar. A smaller subset of these narratives is granted legitimacy through their broadcast to a wider audience — via the news media, documentaries, books and more.
But no matter how many times you repeat them, most narratives of Detroit are complete bullshit.
My personal favorite narrative? Detroit is a “blank slate” — an imagined ruined landscape whose biggest asset is its emptiness. Absent structural obstacles, the city provides a laboratory for innovative urban revival efforts and design practices.
These sentiments, of course, ignore the existence of nearly 700,000 residents in the city and the fact that, despite a well-documented population decline since the 1950s, Detroit still has a higher population density than cities like Denver, Atlanta, and Portland, Ore. Kernels of truth — particularly the notion that innovative solutions are required here given the challenges confronting the city — don’t make the blank-slate presupposition any less damaging.
But other, seemingly more innocuous, Detroit narratives can be equally harmful.
One increasingly prevalent perspective labels Detroit as the “tale of two cities.” In this narrative, on one hand you have the 7.2-square mile Greater Downtown area comprising the Central Business District, the arts and cultural center, Midtown, and more. Here, you’ll find Detroit’s professional sports stadiums, two of its major hospitals, world-renowned architecture, a disproportionately high percentage of the city’s restaurants and nightlife, and most of its major recent commercial and residential successes.
The second city in this narrative is Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods — characterized by crippling rates of unemployment, crime, poverty, housing vacancies, blight and a woeful education system. Here, economic activity is essentially reduced to zero, and any meaningful private investment is lacking. Contrasting the vibrancy and excitement surrounding downtown, the neighborhoods are largely viewed as a cultural wasteland.
Though the “tale of two cities” narrative actually acknowledges residents’ existence and, once again, contains small tidbits of truth, this simple dichotomy ignores the diversity of Detroit’s communities — neighborhood to neighborhood, block to block, and, in some places, street to street.
I know it seems nitpicky on my part — after all, colloquial labeling is rarely meant to capture the complexities inherent in the object being described. However, as interest in Detroit grows to its highest point in the last half century, it’s paramount, now more than ever, to properly frame our discussions about the city.
Most importantly, however, it’s the neighborhoods that fall outside this binary — the third, fourth and fifth cities of Detroit — that really require our attention.
John Gallagher’s most recent book, Revolution Detroit: Strategies for Urban Reinvention, discusses the benefits of “targeting” funds — federal and state-level grants, municipal investments and philanthropic giving included — toward a narrower set of “middling” neighborhoods. According to Gallagher, such funding is too widely dispersed among well-off neighborhoods — those possessing the political clout and influence to attract investment — and the poorest neighborhoods — those demonstrating the greatest need but require considerably more investment than what’s actually feasible.
If only a greater share of available funds were allocated to communities in the middle, then “multiplying effects” would eventually stabilize the housing market and, hopefully, spur real private investment in that community.
Make no mistake, contrary to the dominant “two cities’” narrative, these “middling” neighborhoods exist across Detroit. Neighborhoods with strong community development organizations and local involvement, prominent anchor institutions, and those adjacent to stable areas are all potential candidates for targeting.
Take the neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit as an example. Many of these neighborhoods saw stabler populations between the 2000-2010 census compared to the rest of Detroit, while smaller neighborhoods within Southwest Detroit — including Mexican Town — represent one of the few places in the city that actually saw increases in population in that time. Due to an influx of Hispanic immigrants, many neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit have few blighted homes and property vacancies — resulting in higher levels of commercial and residential investment.
Far from the vibrancy of downtown, Southwest Detroit doesn’t fit neatly into the “two cities” dichotomy.
Yet, it’s Southwest Detroit — and those neighborhoods like it, including North End, the University District, Grandmont-Rosedale and more — that should be most visible to those looking to influence Detroit.
Realistically, despite the potential benefits, targeting is politically perilous. Presumably, a dollar more given in Southwest Detroit represents a dollar taken from another neighborhood, like Brightmoor or Osborn. Creating stakeholder buy-in, then, from the major foundations, city officials and community members will always be a challenge. But these efforts are feasible when you assure all communities that abandonment isn’t an option, and then deliver clear, honest and participatory strategies for improvement in each neighborhood.
Ultimately, targeting, along with other redevelopment and land-use tactics including house-swap and side-lot programs, might help create the desired pockets of population density in areas across the city after years of implementation. Theoretically at least, this would allow for more cost-effective municipal service delivery — improved fire coverage, police response times and trash pickup at a cheaper rate.
I’ll admit, however, that these distant ends might be a mere pipe dream.
Regardless, the means to a better future, whatever it looks like, requires us to discard the present fictions we use to write the story of Detroit today.
Alexander Hermann can be reached at email@example.com.