'Detroit Isn't Some Kind of Abstract Art Project'
Detroit is now the largest city in the U.S. to lose self-rule. For the foreseeable future, the dead-broke municipal government won’t have control over its own finances, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s decision last week to place the city under emergency management. Yet at the same time, Detroit is hot — at least, that’s the impression you’ll likely get if you read major American newspapers or follow culture blogs. In 2011, The Los Angeles Times seemed to echo many when it took stock of the Motor City’s transition as a "haven for artists." A segment on NPR asked, "Is Detroit the Next Brooklyn?" Just as the city’s downtown seems to be poised to return to the living, it has lost its ability to participate and control its rebirth.
Detroit has long been a mythic city, a sort of metaphor for America. By the 1950s, it symbolized the American Dream, the power of industry, and our car-obsessed culture. It gave rise to a blue-collar middle class that helped birth a new political order: the so-called "New Deal Order" of urban liberalism. Then, in the late 1960s, it symbolized racial strife, riot and the limits of that same urbanism. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Detroit had become the poster city for urban blight. It lived the entire life-cycle of American cities within a mere 50-year period, complete with a rise and fall. There was a certain point in the mid-1990s when many wondered if what was happening to Detroit would soon, or inevitability, happen to most American cities.
On the surface, Detroit is indeed a contradiction. It’s lost 97 percent of its property value in just eight years. And yet, its cheap rent and frontier sensibility is attracting creative types. Mark Binelli, a Detroit native and journalist, helpfully unpacks some of this complexity in his excellent new book, Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.
Binelli burrows into the city and tells the story of those who have stayed behind and dug in. His book is about those ordinary people who, through living their lives, are doing the hard work of saving the city. What he discovers is that there are indeed creative and remarkable things happening on Detroit’s streets and in its neighborhoods. At the same time, he stresses that all this attention on the new urban pioneers, those hipsters, artists, and entrepreneurs constantly being painted as the saviors of the city, misses the point of what is real and what is most likely to save the city – if anything can. Detroit is big and its problems equally massive. And no small band of artists can do it alone.
As a majority-black city, how Detroit comes back, if it comes back at all, is going to be a black story, Binelli argues. And so he follows the members of a dedicated core of local black activists and community organizations that are seldom the subjects of national news stories. Take one scene where Binelli finds himself in a crowded room that was pulled together for a discussion of how Detroit is being defined from the outside. At one point, a speaker implores the crowd that "we're not gonna let New York City reporters come here and define us!" With that local activist Marsha Cusic, who is black and one of Binelli’s main characters, stands up and tells the nearly all-white crowd, "I don't want to insult anybody, but when you talk about how 'we' need to take this city back, I look at this room, and I'm not sure what 'we' you're talking about." Later, Cusic tells Binelli that "Detroit isn't some kind of abstract art project…it's for real people."
Ultimately what Binelli uncovers is that amid all the gloom of financial ruin and cynicism about white newcomers, Detroit still has plenty of people like Cusic who are hard at work on practical, on-the-ground solutions. Cusic, the daughter of Joe Von Battle, owner of a legendary Detroit record store, is important because she hasn’t give up on the city, recognizes its past, and is there to educate its present. Binelli follows organizations like the Detroit Blight Busters and nameless groups who rescue stay dogs, plant gardens and put cupcakes in empty store windows. He spends time with Grace Lee Boggs, the legendary civil rights leader and author of the recent The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. This 95-year old revolutionary, along with her followers at The Boggs Center, have created a resource and model for the next generation of community activists. Detroit's future will depend on the Boggses and Cusics to bridge the past and present to the vitality and creativity needed for the future. And the road Boggs and Cusic are on has suddenly gotten a lot bumpier.
Top image: A 24-foot long cast bronze arm and fist monument to boxer Joe Louis is seen hanging from a balance suspension on Jefferson Ave at Woodward in downtown Detroit. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)