The New and Next in Detroit


“It’s time to meet what’s new. And what’s next,” says Time Allen during his voiceover in the newest Pure Michigan national campaign that centered on Detroit. The commercial is depictive of revitalization in Detroit. As urban policy Professor Peter Eisinger puts it, the revival efforts of the city are, “trying to create a new city, not reconstruct the old”. Snapshots of some of the revitalization efforts in Detroit are portrayed in the commercial, such as Campus Martius, the Riverfront, the Eastern Market, the Fox Theatre, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Many of these efforts have been concentrated in certain neighborhoods like Midtown and Detroit that is comparatively whiter, wealthier, and better educated than the rest of the city. Moreover, many are headed by white business elites or run by nonprofits with their own interests in mind. The commercial is not reflective of the balance of the city, and neither is the city center itself. The history of racial segregation, poverty, political scandal, disinvestment, and abandonment still haunt the city. This history of the “existing” must be remembered in the revitalization efforts in the “new” Detroit. I propose several ways that new and existing Detroit might come together to revitalize Detroit through: more civic engagement, restructure the Detroit Public School System, annexing the suburbs into the city, and expanding immigration.

Detroit revitalization efforts have produced city, “…mainly for visitors”. Much of Detroit’s revitalization efforts have been funded by white business elites and outside sources like the suburbs. In a city with extreme financial circumstances these business leaders have led much of Detroit’s decision making than the residents themselves. Likewise to the Pure Michigan commercial, revitalization efforts have largely overlooked the poor, black, uneducated, and disadvantaged populations of Detroit. Plans like public transportation systems, Midtown, garden planning, etc. have all involved the interests of private agencies that has largely ignored the needs to Detroit residents. Many fear that the budding affluent businesses and neighborhoods will become insular and unconscious of other areas of the city. To combat this, some organizations have integrated civic engagement in their planning for the city. For example, Detroit Future City included the views and opinion of Detroit residents and civic leaders as well as public engagement into its plans. Likewise, initiatives like Focus Hope are getting more Detroiters involved in the city through work and education. In Los Angeles, community partners, students, parents mobilized and developed the Esteban E. Torres High School. For decades, Los Angeles had one high school to serve 1,500 students. The school was overpopulated and understaffed. Organizers and partners knew that they had to go beyond academics to succeed. Embracing a holistic school operational framework concept, the school has been able to face the challenges of poor families, poor health and wellness, and gang violence. Students have also been involved in the planning of Torres. Juniors and seniors have created a mentorship program to create positive change within the school. Torres is a testament to possibilities of engagement in creating a beacon of hope and opportunities for their students, families, and neighborhood as a whole. Similar initiates between community organizers and city leaders can likewise create opportunities for the region as a whole. For while making the center city strong is important, the communities and the neighborhoods outside the 7.2 miles are essential in the sustained revitalization of Detroit.

In order for this vitality to extend outward, the city must fix its school systems. An article title from MLive recently proclaimed that, “Detroit’s revitalization hinges on successful schools”. The claim has backing. Detroit’s school system is broken in several respects. For one, the school performances are chronically low. Detroit Public Schools are rated the worst in the country in reading and math according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Scores across all areas fall far below state averages. DPS is also in severe debt estimated at around $750 million dollars. In correspondence, school closures and teacher “sick-outs” are abundant throughout neighborhoods. Recently, the hazardous conditions of the schools have gone viral on the internet with pictures of mushrooms growing in the ceilings, wood floors severely warped, and water damage. The condition of DPS has driven an exodus of many middle class families in search of private or outside schooling. Enrollment is at an all time low in the city. The Public schools must be improved to not only retain but also attract families. In order to keep the new young generation of Detroit new comers in the city after having kids the city must have sufficient schools. Without better achievement and security the city cannot expect many families moving in to revitalize the neighborhoods. Also, schools can play a role in economic growth and also in supporting a stable workforce. Education is a necessity in order to bring and create talent in the city. Four emergency managers have failed to increase academic performance or reduce the deficit. The problems transcend the issues of governance. Regardless of the state of governance and economics, Detroit schools would still face the structural inheritances of deindustrialization, discrimination, and regional segregation. These challenges are not going away anytime soon. However, resolving the financial crisis could be the first step in fixing these woes. In order to do this, Governor Snyder has proposed that the state assist in paying off the debt. State investment will help avert a collapse that could resonate for decades. Moreover, state assistance could help not only the children of Detroit, but also the Detroit region as a whole. Additionally, the State of Michigan could annex Detroit into the surrounding suburban areas. This could give DPS increased funds and Detroiters more school choices.

Moreover, super-sizing Detroit could likewise benefit the region as a whole. The annexation of city and suburbs in Indianapolis created economic growth, and more stable tax base for the region as a whole. Likewise, Los Angeles largely grew through annexation. The annexation promoted metropolitan growth, real estate investment, and extension of public services. Mergers and consolidations of municipalities in Los Angeles reduced fragmentation of the core city. This annexation has been important in the global economy in which physical space and boundaries have been reshaped. Annexation in Detroit creates the possibility of more state and national power, and elimination of the costs of maintaining multiple separate municipalities. It likely would not reduce sprawl, however, it could help establish one unified public transportation system to help. Nonetheless, stark division like race, class, and unequal development between Detroit city and Metropolitan Detroit that has undermined regionalism in Detroit would likely extend to annexation. As Sociology and Anthropology professor, Michael Indergraard points out, alliances between the city and the suburbs have been sustained through incentives from foundations and federal agencies coupled with judges ordering cooperation of municipalities. These coalitions between the city and the suburbs, largely driven by economic necessity, have reluctantly increased city and suburb interdependence.

With the economic downturn, Detroit was unable to finance services and was receiving less money from the state. Operational control of institutions like the historical museum, the zoo, the Eastern Market, COBO hall, and Detroit Institute Arts (many of which were interestingly featured in the Pure Michigan commercial) have shifted out of Detroit’s operational control into the hands of surrounding counties. The Detroit region is following a national trend of loose metropolitan and regional formation. With increasing globalization, cities and suburban areas have become increasingly economically interdependent. This interdependency generates a sense of shared interests. Although these interests are intrinsically shared, and annexation could benefit the region as a whole, annexation of Detroit is difficult. Between strict Michigan law, and the racial resentments between the city and the suburbs, annexation is unlikely. For annexation to occur, the suburbs need to recognize the importance of Detroit city in the suburbs’ success. Detroit’s problems aren’t Detroit’s alone. These problems echo into the suburbs. And, the metropolitan area must cooperate with the city to revitalize the region as a whole.

An additional effort of revitalization is expanding immigration to Detroit. Governor Snyder has asked President Obama for 50,000 employment-based visas for Detroit. Highly skilled, entrepreneurial, immigrants who commit to living and working in the city can contribute to the economic and population growth. Immigrants have had an important role in creating small businesses in Detroit. Dow, Meijer, and Masco are all examples of successful Michigan companies founded by immigrants. Hispanic immigration in Southwest Detroit has created retail development, investment in homes, and a rich cultural region. Likewise, immigration in metro-Detroit regions like Dearborn has transformed the cultural and physical spaces of the region. The effects of immigration can be seen in Los Angeles in which immigrant workers largely drive the city’s economy. Such immigration has been important in post-Fordist economy of Los Angeles. The financial and cultural opportunities of immigration in Detroit could help transform Detroit into a global city like Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has established itself as a global city based on its features of: 1. Extensive international capital investment, 2. Concentrations of corporate command and control functions, and 3. Large-scale international immigration from the global periphery. Detroit is not yet a global city. In fact, until recently, Detroit hasn’t been much of major national city. Recent revitalization efforts have been important in re-establishing Detroit. Urban planner’s Richard Florida’s tools to vitality, tolerance, talent, and technology have grown within the center city of Detroit. Investment in downtown areas has been important in this process; however, revitalization efforts must extend outwards to areas that are disadvantaged. I argue that this could be made more possible through multiple ways: annexation, immigration, improvement of Detroit Public Schools, and civil engagement. Many of these efforts have been successful in Los Angeles and have the potential to form Detroit as a global city. A larger city with increased immigration, great schools, and community involvement could create economic and population stability and growth for the city. In the revitalization of the city, surrounding regions and even the state as a whole will need to participate. Moreover, this progress must forge the future without obliterating the past. In the creation of “new” and “next” in the future of the city the existing must not be forgotten.

Leave a comment