The New Jerusalem: A Chance of Redemption for Detroit

Downtown Detroit

In short, the sh*t finally hit the fan in Detroit.

It was just as bad as all of us had heard and feared.

For the better part of the last ten years or so, Detroit made national news for all the wrong reasons and uncomfortably, the faces were always black.  Who can forget the antics of the following Detroit politicians:

I think it’s safe to say Detroit has lacked good stewards over the past few years.  But I think to lay this at the feet of city officials in totality misses the whole point and doesn’t play well into the metanarrative that I think dominates this conversation: economies change.

The site of the former Packard automobile assembly plant
The site of the former Packard automobile assembly plant

This was a simple agricultural fact that farmers learned quickly in farming in North America and they called it crop rotation.  Eventually different crops needed to be planted in certain fields because those crops would eventually drain certain nutrients from the soil, or even they just wouldn’t plant in certain sections and let the land lay fallow for the same reason.  Instead, Detroit, was like the Great Plains wheat farmers leading into the Dust Bowl years: they had too much of a good thing going that eventually led to their downfall.  The farmers in the Great Plains kept believing that the next year would be their year and their hope was that if they plant even more wheat than last year, then they’ll make more, all while the price of wheat consistently fell.  Detroit kept hoping for that next big thing, that municipal “silver bullet” and it never came.

But as I said, economies change, Detroit just learned it the hard way.  Everyone keeps spouting this 1950 census population of 1.8 million, but if anyone looks at census records in the U.S. every major city saw it’s highest census recording.  Chicago had burst through the 3 million mark and hasn’t seen it since then; other large east coast cities like Washington, Baltimore and Boston saw record numbers and this was all the post World War II boom, and then shortly after the cities saw this major boom, the word suburb was finally invented and those numbers plummeted.

William Livingstone House Constructed in 1893 in the once elegant Brush Park neighborhood, this home, designed by architect Albert Kahn, was moved from its original location several years ago by preservationists who hoped to maintain it. It was demolished last year.
William Livingstone House
Constructed in 1893 in the once elegant Brush Park neighborhood, this home, designed by architect Albert Kahn, was moved from its original location several years ago by preservationists who hoped to maintain it. It was demolished last year.

The question one asks is how did the dozens of other large cities survive when Detroit didn’t seem to fair as well.  For instance, Cleveland had a population of 900,000+ in 1950 and now that number is less than half, what’s the difference?  Well for starters, Cleveland’s economy was not so intricately tied to the automotive industry and when the time was appropriate with suburbanization depleting a tax base, Cleveland opted to diversify its portfolio so to speak and was able to garner other avenues that would knock back unemployment numbers and would in turn attract residents and keep those that were there.

The other challenge Detroit has that places like Cleveland don’t have is the actual problem with land.  Detroit is a big city by land comparisons.  With 142 sq. miles, it places it in the position to roll with the bigger cities such as Philadelphia, Memphis and San Francisco.  Therefore, the land alone poses a problem: how to police it, how to provide basic city services such as street cleaning and snow removal.  The dismal numbers that the average response time for 911 calls is 58 minutes with a national average of 12 is scary when one thinks of violent crimes where medical attention is required and every second counts.detroit square miles

Like most urban centers that aren’t named New York and Los Angeles, the mainstream media tends to overemphasize the worst parts that the city has to offer.  Chicago has dominated the national conversation on gun violence and nothing else is spoken well of city, and public schools closing in Philadelphia bespeak of the current climate.  Meanwhile, as a whole the country doesn’t seem to look at the “bright spots.”

The concept of “bright spots” I’m sure isn’t a new one, but it was one illuminated in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.  The authors give the example of a food aid worker sent into a country in the South Pacific to address the malnutrition problems amongst local communities.  Given little resources, a short time frame, a language and communication barrier, uneducation and illiteracy amongst the people of the community and overwhelming numbers of malnourished children, it seemed like an uphill virtually impossible struggle that would net little if any change.  However, what the aid worker realized was that there were some children who were getting fed and fed well.  Upon observation, he looked into these “bright spots” to see just what were the parents doing differently than the vast majority.

In this culture, food, generally rice, was served communally and the children were expected to “get in where you fit in” essentially, and there was usually one or two big meals a day and that was it.  What the aid worker noticed was that if the children weren’t aggressive enough it would affect their eating habits.  On the flip side the families of the children who weren’t suffering from malnutrition had families where they ate more times during the day.  But also, the adult of the community would take the small shrimp or crawfish that inhabited the rice paddies and throw them in the rice–and it was just enough protein to prevent malnutrition!

As a result, the job of the officials who have been entrusted to manage Detroit, mainly the city council and whomever will be elected mayor next, will be required to look out for the “bright spots” and steer the city in the right direction.  What the occurrence in the South Pacific and even Detroit illuminates is that even when a LOT goes wrong, that not everything goes wrong all at once.

Detroit housesAlmost immediately as the news broke about Detroit making the intention to file for bankruptcy, a small circle of my friends all quipped that we should all go and move to Detroit and more specifically, go and buy a house.  Just a quick look on show just how abysmally cheap some houses are.  Houses worth over $100,000 are selling for half that price–nice, full, single family homes that are ready to move in and be occupied.

So this got me to thinking.

What if a whole bunch of upwardly mobile young black people suddenly flooded the city, bought up the houses and the vacant lots just to own property which over time will always gain more value than it will ever lose.

The reason I suggest that is because what’s going to happen is that either parts of the city will be annexed to the neighboring suburbs in order to cut the land footprint and centralize city services differently.  Or they may even take the route of places like Nashville-Davidson County in Tennessee or Jacksonville-Duval County in Florida and petition Wayne County to merge with Detroit and subsume some of the smaller areas while other larger municipalities like Dearborn or Auburn Hills still maintain their own city governments.

I think what scares many the most is the potential for large wealthy land grabbers come in and potentially develop property to the point where we see the reverse of “white flight.”  And for the record, this phenomenon is very real.

I remember watching the move of blacks from the inner cities to the south and west suburbs of Chicago and I saw the quick and steady decline of these once mostly white suburbs see their black populations skyrocket.  But this migration of middle class blacks from the inner cities to the collar suburbs was quickly augmented by the closings of inner city public housing developments with no real offer for that fabled “mixed income housing” in the city.  As a result, once stable suburban municipalities were burdened with populations that required social and municipal services (such as reliable and timely public transportation, distances to supermarkets, accessibility to social service offices) that were not available to the new citizens.  And unfortunately, some who were associated with criminal elements while in the city merely transferred their lifestyle and operations to the suburbs with smaller and ill-equipped police departments.

Joe Louis Fist at Woodward & Jefferson Ave.
Joe Louis Fist at Woodward & Jefferson Ave.

Right now, its chic to live in cities.  Urban dwelling has now become what’s en vogue.  This newer generation is shedding the suburban life that their parents fought to get and are moving back to the cities.  This is especially true for the back enders of Generation X and the millenials who make the decision to move into urban centers in the midwest and on the Atlantic seaboard.  As we are the generation(s) that are grappling with global threats of overpopulation, global warming, and pollution, no one want to live in the suburbs or the exurbs where riding a bike or catching the bus or train to work is more of a hassle than anything else.

Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC
Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC

To put a fine point on it, young upwardly mobile blacks, or the buppies (black urban professionals) aren’t at all excluded from this regentrification move back into urban centers.  Many of these blacks are the products of second or third generation black migrants up north due to the Great Migration in the early 20th century.  Aside from it being fashionable to have a coveted 212 area code number in New York City or to actually have an address inside the District in Washington, for many in this generation we feel some sort of loyalty to the land.

With ancestral homelands an impossibility to trace and lay any nationalistic claim to unlike all other demographics in this country, blacks have always had this weird connection to these urban plots.  Anyone who paid some semblance of attention did notice that there was some near visceral soul rendering for former residents of the Cabrini-Green housing development when the last high rise building in Chicago was demolished.  Even still, when I go home and drive down King Drive or pass by on Cottage Grove, I look over and no longer see Ida B. Wells housing, I feel some type of way: it was the place my mother grew up.  The winding housing tract streets of 37th street and 37th place have long since been leveled, redrawn and paved over with houses starting in the low $200s placed on top.  Now I just have a fleeting memory of the times my mother would ask my father to drive down Vincennes and turn on 37th place to point out the row house style unit my mother grew up in.

great migration
A family headed north in the Great Migration

That being said, Detroit, along with other northern destinations of Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, Ind., Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to name the larger ones, were places where it was considered the “promised land” for black migrants.  I posit that Detroit could yet again be the place for young blacks to move to and make a difference–before it’s too late.

Without a lot of doom and gloom, there will be some sale of some major assets to dig Detroit out of this hole, one of the largest probably being the Detroit Water Works and the city’s art collection, but also, I wouldn’t want to see what was threatening New Orleans: a bunch of companies that come in and buy up the cheap land and hold it for a while to get it rezoned and next thing you know it’s one large industrial park.  Or we may see whites slowly trickle back into the city–which is fine.  It’s not that I am opposed to white folks moving wherever they please, it’s just that the numbers of whites moving between the city and the suburbs always seems to be inextricably linked to the displacement of black homeowners.

The other thing is that the basic municipal infrastructure is still in place in Detroit and it’s ripe for the taking.  I think it would be ultimately beneficial if buppies from other areas would adopt a LeBron James attitude and “take their talents to the Motor City.”  Detroit is a city that does have a rich history, and also has one that is intertwined with the black cultural experience of this country.  Without Detroit we wouldn’t have Joe Louis or the major contribution to the musical landscape with Motown Records all birthed out of the black American millieu.

So, yes, I am encouraging young black folks in this country to move to Detroit!

There are tons of nice houses that are there, ripe for the buying for the cheap prices which benefits you as the homeowner for a low mortgage rate that could be paid off quickly and it helps the city by bringing in property tax revenue.  It’s still a city with major league professionals sports with the Pistons, MLB with the Tigers (and we’re gonna politely mention the Lions) as well as a vibrant hockey team.  The way the news portrays it, there’s downtown and the rest is just a vast wasteland.

Couldn’t you imagine some great Detroit Renaissance of the 21st century some 100 years after the great Harlem Renaissance?  A place out of where this cultural outpouring of nouveau black intellectualism would be able to cultivate itself would definitely be a positive not just for the black community but for the city and the country as well; people contributing to society is always a good thing.  There are cultural enclaves in existence today in many major cities that automatically attract black young adults (for instance the crowd that shows up at Busboys & Poets in Washington), but there isn’t an intentional living community in which they dwell in the same way it existed in Harlem in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Perhaps I am being overly ideal, but it’s always worth a dream, right?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


3 thoughts on “The New Jerusalem: A Chance of Redemption for Detroit

  1. As a lifelong Detroiter, I’m grateful you didn’t bash the city. I’m tired of the media, big or small, making statements without substantiating evidence. So, Thanks.

  2. Great take on the ‘de-urbanization’ without the ‘re-gentrification’ planning in place. It’s about Michigan and the Koch-fueled overriding democracy to create pockets of plutocracies with appointed ‘city managers’ to do the best for the have-mosts that have nowhere else to flee.

    Consider gated communities in Atlanta (and elsewhere) that lobby for de-annexation (or annexation) to create mini-Disney world ‘clean & closed’ communities while still receiving city services (water, fire), some sort of ‘privatized’ police force, private subsidized schools, etc.

    Glenn Beck is either selling plots now for his ‘Glennbeckistanstan’ utopia (or planning to) for those who can afford it and who can pass the politically ‘conservative’ qualifications to be invited to live there. Woe to those who grift for gold in the name of God with guns.

    I appreciate your ‘investment’ opportunity in Detroit by the children of those who toiled hard and who made real cultural and financial contributions to Detroit scions (think Mitt Romney, et al), Michigan, and America. Creativity is indeed welcomed in Detroit’s new future. Thank you for this forward thinking post.

    I wonder if Idlewild, MI has been auctioned off to the highest paying plutocrat bidder yet? Benton Harbor is ‘city manged’ as assets are sold off and or simply folded in to new enclaves (golf courses, beach from living) of privilege and power for the re-segregationist gerrymandering for the idly wealthy who want desperately to ‘take their country back.’

    New domed cities for the 2%? If you can’t afford to buy air, then you can’t live there, right?

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