Over the past couple of years, stories focused on the collapse of Detroit have become the norm everywhere—from blogs to talk radio.
People like Glenn Beck use the city’s demise as evidence of a failed welfare state or as a cautionary example as to why unions are bad for society.
Meanwhile, people on the more progressive side of the spectrum like to talk about urban farming. Cheap houses that you can buy for a hundred bucks (not really) and the new opportunities for young entrepreneurs.
While there may be a grain of truth to all of the above, they are only tiny fragments of a much larger picture in the MotorCity. It reminds me of the fable about a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant based only on the part of the animal that each of them touches.
Born and raised on the lower east side of Detroit, my perspective isn’t very popular in my hometown. This was the heart of the city, where the auto industry was born and later developed into an international economic giant.
I grew up surrounded by auto plants where good jobs were easy to get and where you could work, play, live and shop within blocks of your home. At that time, Detroit had the highest hourly wage in the world.
Anyone could put in their time, buy a house, raise a family and know that they would spend their autumn years with a secure retirement, a decent pension and lifetime health benefits. All you had to do was play by the rules, give the company thirty years and the rest would be taken care of. It was a social contract that was understood and trusted.
As I was growing up in what seemed like a thriving city, the cracks in that social contract had already begun to form. My city—in fact the entire country—was already in the post-industrial phase of history, the American Dream was already slipping away.
First, jobs moved to the suburbs, then to the southern U.S., and eventually to Mexico and offshore to other countries. Places where wages and taxes were low and the workers held no expectations of the kind of life that those in my neighborhood and my city had taken for granted. Then more jobs disappeared as the factories closed. Large swathes of neighborhoods were torn down for “urban renewal.” Others were removed via eminent domain to make way for new developments that were promised, yet never materialized. Soon, the schools and churches fell away like bloated dominoes—there were no people left to serve.
In less than a generation, the decay of my own abandoned neighborhood spread and metastasized in all directions, taking over the inner city and leaving behind what most of Detroit looks like now. A shell of its former incarnation; now abandoned, burnt up and falling apart into dirty little islands of despair.
You will find plenty of feel good stories in the local media about the resurgence of downtown Detroit and the energy some are feeling as the young hipsters and artists reoccupy the midtown area, waking it from a decade’s-long slumber.
Good news, yes, but the inner city and the old neighborhoods, which are the majority of Detroit, continue to quietly dissolve and die.
Each succeeding mayor promises to tear down abandoned homes and clear the blight. The problem is, even when they keep their promises, the result is acres of empty space with a lone home or two standing; sleeping sentries standing in the emptiness, guarding nothing.
Detroit’s dirty little secret is that there will be no development or rebirth for most of the city. Blight will be cleared and removed, exposing and displaying the endgame of the cycle of capitalism. Homes, factories, churches, resources, and people all have been harvested and used up in order to make shareholders money.
When no longer needed—and no longer profitable—they are simply discarded and displaced, cleared out like so much debris leftover after a victory parade. Every abandoned house that is torn down sends another homeless person scurrying for a new form of temporary shelter from the ravages of a city that has moved on.
Homelessness is now rampant and there are no real services or provisions for those left behind.
A city that doesn’t care about those who are unable to escape.
In fact, each little ghetto enclave that survives serves as a kind of urban mental health facility.
The patients, many are addicts, self-medicate and try to stay numb enough to survive. They are managed by a new breed of slumlords who serve as “new urban social workers.” They will let you live in their abandoned house if you let them hold your bridge card—the thing meant to get you food at the party store or gas station. That is, if your particular neighborhood is fortunate enough to even have one of those places still standing and functioning.
It all sounds pretty grim and gruesome, and it is.
Detroit is merely the canary in the coal mine for the rest of post-industrial America. What is happening here is beginning to happen all over the country in other wastelands previously considered our great cities. It just happened here, first.
Working on a documentary film about my childhood neighborhood and my city for three years, now, I have auditioned several young photographers and videographers to help me tell my story.
I meet up with them at a friend’s pizza place that is actually still functioning in the midst of the mess that was my neighborhood. I take them on what I call a “Ghetto Tour” of my old lower east side stomping grounds.
We visit all of the sites that are familiar to anyone who has followed the Detroit story; the Heidelberg Project, the old Packard Plant, the abandoned train station, my old CatholicChurch, now discarded.
I always end the trip at the ElmwoodCemetery, the oldest cemetery in Detroit, which lies at the southern edge of my childhood home. As I pulled my old Chevy van out of the Elmwood on one of these urban adventures, a young photographer who was along for the ride looked at me earnestly and said, “I get it! The old abandoned buildings and houses are tombstones and grave markers.”
I explained to him after a war, or any major catastrophe, the first job is to find and rescue the victims who are still alive. Bringing them to safety and tending to their injuries in the hopes that they will continue to survive.
The next step is one of recovery. Victims who were killed in the devastation are found, collected, and then given a funeral or burial of some kind. Only then is grieving possible—only then can some form of true healing begin.
The abandoned houses, buildings and neighborhoods of Detroit are not tombstones; they are corpses. The poor addicts and displaced people you see wandering these broken streets are not just homeless ; they are walking wounded victims of a failed city and a broken economic system.
To heal Detroit, we must rescue those who have fallen through the cracks and bring them to safety. Together, we can deal with the broken buildings, dilapidated homes and vanished dreams. Sadly, in most of Detroit, that is all that is left.
Let’s give these remnants a decent burial and a prayer. After that, we can truly and properly grieve the end of this cycle of capitalism from this particular industrial era. These things must happen first in order for any true regeneration and renewal to really begin in the MotorCity.
We live in a time where social contracts are no longer honored, we are forced into giving corporations huge tax breaks in order to keep them doing business in our states, balanced out by huge cuts to our cities and city services.
This makes it almost impossible to provide the kind of help we used to provide to the helpless in our cities.The resulting burden and misery that accompanies it are placed on the backs of those who are least able to bear it.
Unfortunately, this strategy is becoming the new status quo when it comes to how our country deals with the problem of urban decay. Detroit is the prototype for how the powers that be have decided to deal with the American urban crisis. Something that just might be coming soon to a city near you.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Lauryn DeGrado/Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr