Jul 24. 2011


by Hélène

This article is not meant to be an encyclopedia entry but will provide you with some insights on how to enjoy our blog better with some “customized” background information on the city of Detroit. 

From Cadillac to Eminem ”Détroit”, a former French city founded 310 years (in 1701) ago by Cadillac (the real man behind the car brand) is highly emblematic of the American industrial revolution. It is the birthplace of the automobile manufacturing industry. But its heyday are way behind. The D now belongs to the “shrinking metropolis” category. The city is going through a breathtaking decline since the 1970s (Detroit counted 1,8 million inhabitants in 1950 and counts less than 720,000 dwellers today), and people are still moving out today. From the outside, Detroit bears all the symptoms of a city in deep crisis: high unemployment (with an real estimated rate of 1 person out of 2 being actually jobless), abandoned houses by the thousands, industrial ruins, high unemployment, school drop-out and illiteracy (skyrocketing at 47%), ramping crime, residual segregation (Detroit inner city population is African American up to 85% whereas the suburbs are predominantly white)… But Detroit is not what you think. It’s not just the city of Robocop, Eminem, the White Stripes, the cradle of Motown, the hotbed of Techno music… it’s much more than that. It’s hard to make one’s mind about Detroit from the outside (and in fact, we advise not to). The images of Detroit as portrayed by the media are either overwhelmingly positive (“young Brooklyn artists are moving in, Detroit is so sexy!”) or blatantly negative (“with all those ruins, crackhouses and disappearing industries, this city has no future”!). Detroit fascinates Europe and the world. Crews of journalists and documentarians patrol the city permanently. To say the truth, Detroiters have enough of them, especially when cameras show up to feature the decay of Detroit. All this hardly helps to understand what’s going on in the city. When you spend only a couple of days or even a few weeks here, you’re likely to end up focusing on the same issues and characters… It took us weeks to have a clearer view of what the city stands for, and we now feel we can sanely talk about it. Here are some observations we made.  

Size matters

A Detroit Works planning

First key factor which makes Detroit so particular: space. The D is a huge city (one could put Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston within its city limit – though it is a controversial mapping in terms of density), it’s more than three times the size of Paris. Which makes it a “blank canvas” for some, a nightmare for others. Deeply in debt after years of mismanagement, Detroit City Council is now facing the issue of having to shrink the city. “Detroit Works project” is the plan that Dave Bing, former NBA champion and Detroit’s Mayor since 2009, recently came up with. Detroit Works identifies strong and weak neighborhoods (see mapping above). The idea is essentially to help steady neighborhoods develop and urge “blighted” districts to eventually disappear from the map. Some say you have to start somewhere… Yet an essential question remains: on which ground can you cut public services and “force” people to move? Does concentrating wealth in one place help create a dynamic that will spread all around? There’s no easy answer… To this day, those in charge of Detroit Works promised to take the direction of more public hearing and community-survey. Let’s see…

Detroiters know how to make it happen
The second thing that sets Detroit apart is the people themselves. Detroiters (born-and-raised Detroiters as well as “transplants” from the suburbs) are highly committed to make things happen, to transform the place they live in (by choice or forcefully). There’s a strong sense of pride, made obvious when it comes to supporting local sport teams. Challenges are huge, they really are. But the energy is here. Detroit is reinventing itself in front of our very eyes… Detroiters are getting organized and great initiatives are blossoming in various neighborhoods.
Mark Covington is a role model for those involved in grassroots green initiatives. Mark decided to become an urban farmer after getting laid off 3 years ago. He

Entrepreneurial Detroit is blooming, important companies such as Compuware, Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan “repatriated” their employees downtown after years of headquarters in the nearby suburbs, joined by others they offer incentives to move to the greater downtown area. A significant move. But the 8 mile boundary is still standing. It has eased up, to some extent only. Detroit stigmas are anchored deep in the mind of those who left the city after the 1967 riots (or “rebellion”) to join the comfort of the reassuring middle-class suburbs. It’s also sticking in the mind of some African American city residents’, who experience a form of “déjà vu” when presented with big-scale urban farming projects – reminiscent of the Southern “plantations.” There’s a divide to be bridged and more diversity to bring.

Strength lies within yourself, a Detroit lesson 

Beyond that, in Detroit, there’s a clear awareness that the current world economic system is leading to failure, that the global recession can only be countered with local resources. This is a vision shared by the many wisemen and women of Detroit, including Grace Lee Boggs, a remarkable lady of 96, who lived through the major changes of the 20th century (from feminism to the Black power) and recently published the Next American Revolution. Detroiters don’t believe in miracles anymore. Deceived by the after-effects of mono-industry (from Poletown to Zug Island), they believe in the power of micro-projects and acting locally. They know how to speak up for their rights and get things done (this is “Union City” too after all). In Motor city, there’s a need to cure the problems at their deepest roots. Food and community-empowerment are the pillars of the new Detroit we see everyday. The D is going back to the land. Motor City gave birth to a new generation of urban farmers. Again, this is certainly not a cure-all (and raises many issues left unaddressed), yet growing food within the city limit has already changed Detroit for good. A trend that is more than a mere coincidence to the prevalent Detroit “Do It Ourselves” culture. The city has been left aside for decades now by both public services and businesses. Detroit is well-known for being a “food desert“: there are very few grocery stores inside Detroit, most supermarkets and retail stores shut their doors close long ago… instead, ”party stores” (liquor stores) abound. In those, you can buy liquor and Lay’s – but no peaches, nor greens. As the city’s economy went down (remember 2008, the crisis? It was time for two of the “Big 3″ to announce they were going bankrupt. They got bailed-out since thanks to Obama), Detroit’s communities continued to grow their own food on vacant lots. Today the city boasts several well-established urban farms and hundreds of community gardens, scattered to the four corners of its vast territory.

Detroit knows that strength lies within oneself (one of many Detroit lessons!). In the D, you can learn how to build your own means of transportation (such as a bike), recycle every single item you have home, buy second- (if not third-) hand, compost and grow your own food… All that is done collectively, with the help of housemates, neighbors, family and local organisations. These things aren’t just cool attractions for hipsters (sorry for the word, to be defined soon!), it’s simply the only choice left – and it’s today become an opportunity for another way of life. Community leaders and “good-doers” are doing their best to reach out to those who are truly in need. There’s still a long way to go. But the fight for food, social, environmental, racial (and even digital) justice has clearly started. And it’s great to be a part of it.