There is No Blank Slate: Reimagining Detroit Reviewed

Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City by John Gallagher, Wayne State University Press, September 2010.

To start off this review of Reimagining Detroit, I wanted to air out some of my fears and doubts that I felt while writing this review. Like everybody I know from Detroit, I have a sense of hometown pride that is second to no one.  Detroit is a proud city.  We built this country, and were a metaphorical motor of the 20th century.  In the 1940s we were, and in a sense still are, “The Arsenal of Democracy.”  We served as an epicenter of culture, progress and protest.  When the Motor City boomed, the country danced to our sound; when it burned, they watched in shock.  Eight decades ago we proudly built B-52’s and M2A4’s to halt the march of Hitler’s army.  Today, against another horror that goes by many names, “capitalism,” “neo-liberalism,” “post-industrialism,” and so forth, we are creating new forms of resistance and struggle.

This system of competition and private profit decided that the people of Detroit were no longer useful, especially after the Great Rebellion in ’67.  Detroiters asked for too much dignity and respect from the society they helped to build and defend, so instead, business elites abandoned the city in droves, through automation and outsourcing, leaving the city to rot in their stead, falling to crime, poverty and so on, forcing young people to choose between an education and having food on the table.

This new horror has made Detroit ground zero for a crisis that has turned a city of several million into a scene from post-war Berlin, irony notwithstanding.  It has left some 450,000 plus people without means of earning anything near a livable wage.  The city is beholden to a crisis in education whose scale is virtually beyond comprehension, with three of every four high school students dropping out.  Only 2% of those students who do graduate are considered “college ready.”  Half of the city’s adult population is functionally illiterate.  The city government is in complete disrepair.  Corruption, cowardice and politicking render them useless in using their power to create solutions.

All that being said, I wanted to explain that I wrote the following from a point of humility and comradeship.  There is a sense, I think, that in the face of such a huge challenge there is no room for dismissing any idea.  That we need everything at our disposal.  But I respectfully disagree.  While I have respect for anybody taking part in the struggle to save our great city, and the struggle for peace, justice and humanity more broadly, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss constructive debate and criticism.  I think friendly criticism, conversation and debate sharpens our minds and hones our ideas — the way a stone sharpens a blade.

So in writing this, I was often struck by the concern that I may offend many friends, comrades, acquaintances and so forth.  I wanted to explain that my thoughts here are made in a spirit of humility for the struggle we have ahead of us in rebuilding Detroit, and winning a just, democratic, peaceful and sustainable world, where we can all thrive in our creative and ingenious human capacity.  I also want to invite any comments, feedback, and criticism.  I’d like to create a conversation with this.

Author John Gallagher

So with that out of the way, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about a book titled Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City by John Gallagher.  I never heard of the book or its author, a former journalist for the Detroit Free Press, before.  I was excited to see what the book would propose for the Motor City’s future.

Gallagher starts his book out saying that he chooses “neither to question nor to quibble about how Detroit got where it is today,” that instead he seeks to answer “a more pressing question: Where do we go from here?”  I’ve never heard of an author tackling this question seriously.  Most writers usually choose to cover the origin of Detroit’s crisis, rather than its solution.  So seeing a book like this was refreshing, even as it aroused my skepticism.

Aside from seeming expressly ahistorical, I wondered, will the book break with the “boosterism” that so often passes for activism?  Will it go beyond “shop localism” or yearning for the “creative class,” which is usually just code for young, white professionals?  My hopes were that Reimagining Detroit would instead present just solutions that aim to substantively improve the conditions and the quality of life for Detroit’s mostly poor population of color, rather than trying to brush these problems under the rug.

For Gallagher, the key to Detroit’s future is accepting the fact that Detroit’s population is in decline and to opt for strategies that uncover the opportunity shrinkage leaves us with.  As Gallagher puts it,

“Detroit will have to embrace getting smaller as an opportunity, not a curse.  That vacant lot that we were holding for some hoped-for development?  Now maybe we can turn it into a community garden to help feed the neighborhood.  That eight- or ten-lane thoroughfare that no longer carries the volume of traffic for which it was designed?  Now we can put it on a road diet, reducing automotive lanes for bicycle lanes, widening sidewalks, and running a transit line up the middle.  The streams and wetlands buried generations ago to provide sewers for a growing city?  Now we can rediscover these natural treasures, restoring the ecology to create a greener environment that’s cooler in summer and healthier year round.  With the auto industry’s collapse, we can foster a more entrepreneurial economy, nimble rather than sluggish.  With city government broken, we can create new models of local leadership.”

In a small way, Reimagining Detroit defies the mainstream neoliberal logic around recovering rust-belt cities like Detroit, which typically focus on regaining lost residents and tax revenues through privatization, cut backs in city services, tax breaks for corporate investors and so forth.

In other ways, however, the book takes a typically establishment approach.  I find it a little distressing, for instance, that at one point Gallagher uses the standards from Forbes, “The Capitalist Tool,” to make his case for “smaller-is-better,” showing that they typically prefer smaller cities to larger ones.  But that could just be tossed up to a matter of personal taste.

"Reform, Lamar! Reform."

For Gallagher, it seems, the only way out of Detroit’s problems is through the same door it came through in the first place, through the logic of neoliberalism.  Gallagher sees a “reimagined” Detroit that is “greener, first and foremost,” and denser to “attract retailers.”  While these create opportunities for some, what does it do for the rest of Detroit that won’t work in high-tech green business, or own their own retail outlet?  These are largely cosmetic, superficial changes aimed at attracting moneyed investors, instead of improving the substantive conditions for the majority of people in the city.

While Gallagher makes note of some compelling opportunities emerging “from the ashes,” such as embracing urban agriculture and worker owned cooperative businesses, I’m left feeling underwhelmed.  Bike lanes and gardens are good, but on their own feel inadequate when faced with the enormity of the crisis.  One could discuss how the depth of Detroit’s crises open up possibilities for redefining work and education.  Gallagher does not.  Even if he did though, what is the plan for the interim?  How do we pull the numerous ideas and plans, the numerous priorities, together into a coherent model for making change in Detroit and the world?

The shortcomings in the book, made me think of the common refrain that Detroit is a “blank slate.”  Gallagher himself doesn’t use that phrase, but early in the book he establishes the familiar sentiment by quoting a Japanese poem, saying, “Barn’s burned down – now I can see the Moon.”

But for whom is the slate blank?  Whose barn burned down?  The spirit is perhaps familiar precisely because it speaks to the ever vacant and abandoned visage that prevails in Detroit.  However, there are still very active challenges to Detroit’s future.

  • Polluters continue to invade Detroit, using the cities vacancy and poverty as a justification for the destruction and harm it brings.  Within months of it closing, the Detroit Waste Incinerator is to be reopened after it was bought for $50 million, and the Marathon Oil Refinery is currently adding an $8 billion expansion to refine the dirtiest oil in the world from Canada’s tar sands (despite Gallagher’s talk of a “greener” Detroit, he fails to talk about dealing even once).
  • In addition to a staggering murder rate, there are over 800 cases of aggressive rape a year, and those are just the ones reported to police.
  • The US Border Patrol is actively ramping up raids on immigrant communities as part of a nationwide campaign of state sponsored violence and repression.
  • The capitalist supervillain Matty Moroun, who would make Ebenezer Scrooge blush, owns vacant buildings across the city, refusing to sell any to the numerous willing investors, opting instead to let the buildings rot.  In the winter, these buildings serve as deathtraps and frozen tombs for many homeless people.
  • In an infamous incident that happened last summer, 7 year-old Aiyana Jones was shot to death by trigger happy Detroit Police while in pursuit of a suspect in a robbery incident.  The police were being filmed for a reality TV show about cops in Detroit.

In these few examples, the slate is not blank, but is instead covered in the scrawling of capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism and the scars left by ecological destruction.  This is writing that needs to be actively erased as we write our own vision for a new world on the board.  The two go hand-in-hand, and need to be brought together cohesively and strategically.

Gallagher, and many other publications, like to cite examples of the creative urban pioneers that sprout up around Detroit like dandelions in an vast field, and rightfully so.  However, while Huffington Post likes to cheer on ex-designer clothing models turned capitalist-restaurateur as a hero (not intended to be an example of the aforementioned pioneers), other leaders in Detroit, like the warriors confronting the greed of bloodthirsty megabanks or the community leaders fighting against the din of anti-Muslim/anti-Latino xenophobia, go practically ignored.

Among all the ideas Gallagher presents, he fails in the end to bring them together, either systematically or programmatically.  He suggests no way of building power against dynastic city council members, draconian businessmen or an elite system that sought to let the city rot.  In the end Gallagher’s vision of the city seems to be a denser city with gardens and bike lanes, more retail shops, and presumably benevolent nonprofits carrying old city functions, maybe some mass transit is there too.  But seemingly, the same mega polluters, the same violent police department, the same education system, the same segregation and so on is left to hang around.

The good ideas Gallagher leaves us with are still short-term, relatively speaking.  The crisis in Detroit is a crisis written in the logic of global injustice, the only just path out for Detroit is a pathway that leads to liberation from this world system.  Hence, one urgent-yet-patient task on the agenda is determining what the long-term, revolutionary vision for the city is, and how that relates to the broader struggle for liberation from oppressive global systems; capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism and so on.  How and where will people work?  Who will live in the city and how will different groups relate?  Who makes decisions in the future Detroit?  How will people be kept safe?  But these are many questions that need to be determined at the national and international levels as well.  Detroit doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  The fight for Detroit is a fight for a new and better world, a world where people are no longer left behind to bear impoverishment and violence for the sake of power and profit.

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