“What can you learn in Detroit that you can’t learn in Ann Arbor?” asked a friend when I told him that I would be spending this semester in the city as part of the second year of the Semester in Detroit program. I wasn’t exactly sure, beyond feeling there must be something to gain from living outside of Ann Arbor, which I’ve called home for 20 years. My academic and personal pursuits have been largely centered on social justice, particularly environmental justice, and I wanted to see how the academic theories I’d studied translate into work outside of an academic setting.
In Detroit, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and hear from community members who have spent their lives dealing with issues I have only really known from within the confines of the classroom. Even more valuable than any specific knowledge I’ve gained is what I’ve learned about the complexity of the city. Through my work at a non-profit in southwest Detroit, the courses about Detroit history and events I’ve attended and talking with Wayne State and University of Michigan students, I’ve been nearly constantly surrounded by discussions of the city — past, present and future.
One issue at the forefront of many Detroiters’ minds is the concept of “right-sizing” the city, the focus of a recent Daily editorial (Stimulate blight control, 03/28/2010). The editorial promoted Mayor Dave Bing’s plan to demolish abandoned homes and “rezone the city into denser communities to distribute funds more effectively.” The importance of blight eradication is certainly not news to Detroiters, and it’s the most prevalent issue I’ve worked on through my internship.
Two weeks ago, I attended the mayor’s State of the City address. The only aspect of the right-sizing plan that Bing laid out explicitly was the plan to demolish 3,000 abandoned buildings by the end of the year. These demolitions are long overdue. But the logistics of the plan at large remain unknown. What will be done with vacant lots after demolition is still a topic of great concern for many Detroiters. The even more contentious aspect of the right-sizing concept that I’ve heard among some community members is the question of how the city will go about making communities “denser”.
Eventually, right-sizing will likely involve moving residents from their homes in sparsely populated neighborhoods to denser residential areas. The purported need to rezone the city into “denser communities” seems easy enough to understand in terms of the city’s economy and population loss.
But this will not be the first time in Detroit’s history that people have been moved for the sake of “blight removal.” The city’s postwar urban renewal program involved the destruction of black and low-income neighborhoods by building freeways through them or leveling them all together, which led to disastrous effects on the city’s housing. The social and economic climate during the failed urban renewal efforts of the post-war era was certainly different than today in many ways and it’s not my intention to equate the two situations. But recognizing Detroit’s history in this policy area reveals why many Detroiters are wary of the current right-sizing discussion and why one lifelong Detroiter I met recently told me he thinks that the plan is “evil”.
The fact that the exact plan is still unknown leaves even more room for speculation and criticism. Still, studying Detroit’s history and discussing it with city residents has allowed me to understand why a plan that might seem fairly uncontroversial at first is actually complex. I have heard many Detroiters ask fundamental questions that have remained largely unanswered thus far. Do people want to leave their homes? Should they be forced to if they don’t, or just incentivized? How and where does the city plan to move some of its poorest residents? Detroiters are engaging in these debates every day, and I’m grateful to be part of some of these discussions. Engaging with Detroiters advocating for social justice has made me realize the need for a more complete assessment of Detroit’s issues than the mainstream media tends to put forth.
The learning opportunity that I’m most grateful for this semester is something I don’t believe I would have fully realized in Ann Arbor: I’m learning how to integrate the study of Detroit’s complex history with its living present and the tremendous hope that Detroiters hold for the city’s future.
If you would like to learn more about Semester in Detroit, there will be an informational meeting on Tuesday, Apr. 6 at 6:00 p.m. in 1372 East Hall. Semester in Detroit is accepting applications now for the winter 2011 semester. To get more information, go to www.semesterindetroit.com.
Leeya Correll is an LSA junior.