Over the course of your life you will grow and your fingerprints will grow along with you, except for your thumbprint. Michigan is much like your fingerprints and Detroit is the thumbprint. As the state has grown (sometimes negative growth), Detroit has remained the same, “trapped” if you will, in its post-automobile slump. Alright, so I know Detroit isn’t in the thumb of Michigan, but it was nice analogy. Beyond the images of Detroit’s destruction lie the seeds of real growth. The economic situation of Detroit isn’t all lost and the state doesn’t need to sign on to stimulating reforms to make it happen.
Few people seem to grasp that the economic situation of Detroit reflects that of the state of Michigan. Where, unfortunately, politics plays a larger role. For many years there has been an unspoken clash between the former economic power that was Detroit and the political power that is Lansing. With Detroit’s decline, no region of Michigan has been able to match and replace the city’s production power and “driving” economic engine. To the rest of the world Michigan is Detroit and until politicians in Lansing recognize that fact – then the state may be doomed. However, the issue goes far beyond image, as I wrote before. One important point made in Professor Ritchie’s post, Is Michigan a Third World Economy?, is the need for “strong political leadership” which is missing in both Detroit and the state of Michigan as a whole.
The one thing that I have found to be a constant in Detroit is the sense of community. From people who live in the city at large, the various enclaves and districts of the city, and the groups and organizations that work to make Detroit a better place. Unlike any other major city, this sense of community needs to be fostered and developed. The city needs to stop trying to bring in people from the suburbs and from outside the city. There needs to be a greater focus on the people who are already here. Living the struggles of Detroit and working to make the solutions.
Thankfully there are examples from initiatives in other struggling cities across the US to give direction as to how Detroit can begin to thrive again. The Governor and many experts have talked about innovative industries. Detroit and dense city centers like it can capitalize on the new “green” industry. But will “green” be enough to “save” Detroit? Hardly, and the third installment about Detroit will highlight solutions happening and the people who are pushing to make their communities better.
Michigan’s “third” world city, as it is often referred to, is a place where community stands out over commerce. It is best known as a place you would not want to visit and best recognized (on the big screen) through scenes of armageddon and the end of the world as opposed to its architectural prowess; qualified as “the nation’s finest.” Since the race riots of 1967, and earlier, the city has never been able to recover its image. Continually in movies and the news Detroit is marked as a pit of a city resembling in some parts a war torn city where bombs have reduced neighborhoods to rubble. Where is this gothic city’s batman? How is it that Detroit matches the “third” world?
I will answer the second question first.
Since August I’ve been living and working in Detroit focusing on youth empowerment and community service/ engagement. What I have seen has been this common image of a destroyed Detroit, but I have also had the privilege of seeing some of the incredible initiatives launched by the communities and people of Detroit. I have to disagree with the many who would say Detroit is “third” worldly. The majority of its population may fall far below the poverty line, but it is absurd to describe the city as a “third” world.
The recent Time Warner “Assignment Detroit” journalists “embedded” in the city have taken to writing similarly scathing articles of Detroit and have perpetuated the destroyed image of Detroit. Example from the New York Times: Ruin with a View. There are a few organizations attempting to recover and reclaim the image of Detroit from these corporate story weavers, notably Inside Detroit tasked with getting more people to know about Detroit: “they know it, they love it.”
Many people that I have worked with talk about the similarities between the developing “third” world and Detroit. Poverty has many similarities and often looks the same from the outside, but poverty has many stories and the circumstances are never the same. My friend Cory recently described what is and has been happening in Detroit as a man-made disaster. I couldn’t agree more. It is no hurricane, flood, or earthquake, but definitely comparable: from rapid industrialization, capitalism, racial tensions and white flight to relying on a solitary automobile industry, even the long running political climate in Detroit has been a contributing factor. “Third” world is just another negative descriptor for the city and an attempt to glamorize the city’s economic decline.
Stay tuned for the my answer to the first question this week (to be continued. . .)
* Note: I am not really giving “answers,” but my thoughts based on learning about and being located in Detroit over the past year. I wouldn’t dream of giving Detroit answers after just one year.