“Will it work?”
We talk gingerly about Detroit’s nascent revival — like we’ve lit the last match in the box and are holding our collective breath, hoping it won’t go out before the kindling ignites. Over drinks at Green Dot Stables, sandwiches at Slow’s, amongst the produce filled sheds of Eastern Market and the art covered walls at Red Bull House of Art, we ask each other, “Will it work?”
Instead of “Will it work?” the better question is, “Are we working towards the right thing?” While the development of downtown Detroit led by a vanguard of artists who create welcoming spaces for professionals to move in behind them will bring prosperity to some, it will also ignore a century’s worth of deep racial wounds, and social and economic inequality.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is an opportunity to develop Detroit in a new way afforded, in part, by The Wayne County Tax Foreclosure auction, where more than 20,000 properties – 5% of the city – will go on sale for $500 opening bids on October 19th. It is an extraordinary opportunity to exert influence over the future of the city.
City-wide action should be coordinated to purchase and protect the land available in the auction. Tools like Why Don’t We Own This? can empower neighborhood organizations and residents to determine the best course for the properties purchased. Money can be raised through crowdfunding and used to dismantle dangerous structures, or develop neighborhood centers, providing residents the goods and services they require, giving Detroiters jobs and reasons to stay and invest in where they live.
Detroit has the opportunity to reinvent the way a city redevelops.
Last weekend, in the city that birthed the assembly line, mass-produced the automobile, and built enough armaments to win World War II and earn the name “The Arsenal of Democracy,” the Detroit Design Festival advertised the potential for the “creative, entrepreneurial community to encourage social-economic change in the city of Detroit.”
Detroit now expects its “creative, entrepreneurial community” to stimulate growth. Setting aside the bizarreness of that formula for social change and economic progress, consider what happens if our artists fail. Are we to blame Detroit’s creatives for not being creative enough? Our painters for not painting well enough? Our chefs for overcooking the veal?
It’s a low risk prospect for corporations: If the artists colonize the land, professionals will move in behind them attracted by the trappings of the creative class. Companies will capitalize on cheap real estate and a city desperate to cozy up to business. If the artists fail and the downtown reverts to a crime-ridden wasteland, then, oh well, you only spent money on a few gallery openings anyway, and the artists will be ok because they didn’t have far to fall.
New York City was able to tame its wild neighborhoods on the backs of a huge police force and artists who pushed farther and farther out in search of cheap rent and “authentic” areas, but gentrification displaced crime rather than eradicated it. Wealth whitewashed over social inequality rather than confronting it. New York warehoused its crime in prisons, and exported it to decimated Hudson Valley towns hollowed out by deindustrialization, not unlike Detroit.
Here it could be Flint, Plymouth? That new jail on Gratiot? Or maybe a reverse migration to the suburbs as the wealthy classes that fled the city and decides to return downtown once it’s been re-settled. The only remnants of Detroit’s unfortunate era of depopulation will be a few houses maintained as a nostalgic reminder of how things were, and fetishistic artifacts of the city’s perdition sold at a healthy markup — blight chic for the urban pioneer.
Detroit did not become the most important industrial site of the 20th century by following another city’s lead, by copying another city’s model. Detroit invented the model. To become a cargo cult now, building icons and doing rain dances to bring the gods of capital to our city, is to admit that we have run out of ideas of our own.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We have the opportunity to invent a new model, to set precedent, to lift ourselves and our neighbors. We should seize it.
Anyone interested in joining this conversation – discussing the tools and options available in the 2012 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction – is invited to PJ’s Lager House every night this week from 6pm – 7:30pm to learn and plan with the the Why Don’t We Own This? crew.