Kiss of Death: Of Detroit and other urban futures

Tony Roshan Samara, 7.28.13

The fall of Detroit, a city beleaguered for years and now officially bankrupt, may hold a lesson for us all according to veteran reporter Charlie LeDuff. After leading a brief and harrowing tour through the city, he closes his recent New York Times op-ed, with an invitation: “So come visit Detroit, my fellow Americans. Come take a look at your future.”

The Detroit LeDuff  shows us is a city of abandoned buildings used as crematoriums for murder victims, of an ambulance fleet with two thirds of its vehicles out of service on any given day. It is a city whose public service infrastructure has imploded.

He also talks about corruption, not unique to Detroit by any stretch of the imagination, but deep there, endemic. Spectacular, in his words: a former mayor convicted of extortion, racketeering and bribery, on his way to federal prison.

There’s more: decades of racial conflict, labor/management conflict, and, finally, auto bailouts . The end result? The largest municipal default in US history – $18 billion at a minimum.

His warning about the future suggests that much of what is happening to Detroit – and in Detroit – is happening to and in many cities, and if we’re not careful, they too could become Detroit. It may be hard to imagine, but we must remember that it was once hard to imagine about Detroit as well.

LeDuff’s warning is an important one, and his observations about the city are at once depressing and morbidly fascinating – Detroit as modern day necropolis, not in the sense of the cemetery of the city, but the city as cemetery. His book on the subject is titled, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

And, yet. The same day LeDuff’s piece appeared CNN Money carried another story on Detroit, this one a story of (potential) rebirth. It seems that despite the popular notion that Detroit is beyond saving, it is also the future home to a $444 million investment in the form of an ice skating rink, an arena for the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings, paid for by the good citizens of Michigan. The arena will be part of a 45 block entertainment district carved out of downtown, and its supporters tell us it will anchor an urban revitalization centered on consumption – shopping, restaurants, bars. Maybe even a casino.

I’ve become familiar with the claims of city boosters about the benefits of stadiums and grand events. I’m also aware that these are mostly false promises. Financial gains generally go to a few vested political and economic interests, and the venues themselves disproportionately cater to more affluent residents and out of town visitors. Working class and low income locals lose out directly, through being priced out of the predominantly private entertainments, and indirectly through being largely excluded from spending priorities by municipal governments. To be fair, some do get low wage, often seasonal, dead end jobs.

But there is no denying that this approach to city development has taken off. You can see some version of it in almost every city that I know of, large, medium or small, rich and poor.

So what do we make of the apparent contradiction between the Detroit of Charlie LeDuff and Detroit of the 500 million dollar ice rink?

Over ten years ago, urban scholar Peter Eisinger wrote a piece for Urban Affairs Review titled “The Politics of Bread and Circuses: Building the City for the Tourist Class.” In it he argued that cities were turning to entertainment themed development as part of a larger transformation aimed at luring middle class suburbanites (and their disposable income) back into cities. Eisinger’s article was part of a broader trend in the very wide field of urban studies to track the structural changes in urban form and urban governance. What he and others discovered, though not all would necessarily describe it this way, was a city in the process of profound social and spatial division.

A decade earlier Saskia Sassen’s classic work, The Global City,  put the question of social polarization on the front burner of urban studies research. Her focus, though, was on so-called global cities, cities that play a central role in shaping the global economy.

Detroit may once have been such a city, or a precursor, as its glory days predated the most recent wave of globalization, but increasing social polarization there today is not a consequence of its increasing centrality to the global economy. Instead, it seems to suggest that polarization is not linked to one kind of city, but may in fact be an overarching trajectory in many cities that in many other ways may be very different.

Detroit may well be an important window into the urban future, but we need to understand its bipolarity in order to bring into focus what we see through that window.

Two observations here may help. First, Detroit is not collapsing so much as it is dividing. And this division is social (that is, having  to do with socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, national origin, and so on) and it is spatial (having to do with where distinct groups are located within the metropolitan region and in relation to each other). The rise of a sizable entertainment district in the heart of a city that by many accounts is in a death spiral (it’s important to add here that not everyone sees this assessment as entirely fair) is the clearest sign of this splitting process.

Now, cities are carved and re-carved  all the time. Suburbanization and white flight produced new forms of socio-spatial division, as did earlier dislocations and relocations driven by European immigration and black migration from the South. Cities, as Carl Nightingale reminds us, have almost always been segregated in some way.

Where Detroit may be important is in giving us a glimpse today of the coming urban future, of how this process is morphing, and possibly cloaking itself in new language, new policies, and new practices that function to obscure the historical continuity. And to the extent that forewarned is forearmed, this is something we want to pay attention to.

I think describing what we are seeing as a city dividing rather than collapsing is important. Some parts of Detroit metro, just as some parts of any city, in the US or elsewhere, can end up doing quite well once they have freed themselves from the shackles of the city in its entirety. These parts, their residents, and their political representatives, we could argue, are right now involved in a process of resource hoarding, of gathering together and securing assets for the coming winter.

Put another way, we could say that affluence is concentrating, a concept I’m borrowing from Tom Slater.  As inequality rises, more affluent residents, acting directly and through government, extract themselves from the public realm, or reshape it to serve their interests. We heard a lot about gated communities starting in the 1990s, and this is in a sense that same dynamic writ large across entire metropolitan regions. In the process, the city itself is split apart in a process of triage that saves what is seen as valuable, while what is less valuable is left to fend for itself. This is the next stage of austerity economics. We’ve gone in the US from shrinking the welfare state to jettisoning the poor altogether. The ship has sailed on without them.

But the various limbs of the city are too entangled to cleanly separate. The process is messy, it is resisted, and never wholly satisfactory. At the very least, the masters still retain some dependence on their servants.

What we can observe though is public money channeled towards certain constituencies, as in the Red Wing arena and quasi-privatized entertainment districts. On the flip side, genuinely public goods, like public schools, are starved of resources, and some simply wither. Or they are colonized.

Because the massive contraction of public services that we see in cities around the world, and which feature prominently in stories of Detroit’s demise, represent less the fall of the city, than they do a reshuffling of resources, a reengineering of municipal finance that guts the public, either through direct spending cuts or by rebranding what are essentially private interests as public interests. Certain hard luck neighborhoods, for example, may suddenly be showered with public resources, but only as part and parcel of gentrification and the displacement of those whose “bad luck” made them hard in the first place.

Viewed in this light, Detroit’s bankruptcy is not indicative of a city that has collapsed, but of a city that has pulled the rug out from the poor and working class. Bankruptcy in this reading is the final move of an elite exit strategy, and a kiss of death for everyone else.

But there is a second observation to make here. Once we leave the cities of the post-industrial West, it becomes clear that bankruptcy in its broader meaning, of being impoverished and in financial ruin, is the “natural” state of the urban inhabitant. Detroit may be a harbinger in the United States, but the kind of urban future it represents has already arrived most everywhere else.

In urban studies, there is momentum in the direction of comparative work. For the most part this is a good thing. But if our concern is with addressing the devastation that has been visited upon Detroit and other cities at a much more advanced stage of restructuring, then the politics of internal division are in some ways more pressing than similarities and differences between cities. Even if we accept, as I do, that there are transnational and global forces at work, partially explaining the similarities we do see between cities, between Detroit and Cape Town, for example, we must also realize that these can only be confronted from the local (though certainly not exclusively at the local).

If there is an emerging urban politics that has global implications and, potentially, reverberations, then it is rooted in the daily processes of division and re-division in which all residents and their infinite repertoire of activities are implicated – one way or another.

The contrast between a city that spends $500 million of public money on a giant ice box while bodies burn in the ruins of what was once a home does not have to define the urban future. But it does allow us a glimpse of the terrain on which the battle for that future will be fought.