Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Detroit misconceptions, David Zirin article on the Spartans

Zirin's article is really good, about the MSU Spartans making it to the NCAA finals, but the end of it contains a false perspective on Detroit.

"But a city can't walk away from itself. Even some of the surrounding suburbs on the other side of 8 Mile are in tough straits. That could have been said any time in the last twenty years. What makes now different is that the pockets of gentrification that developed in the 1990s also seeing shuttered boutiques, coffee shops and galleries. For working people, it's been a generational journey from union jobs to service jobs, to no jobs."

True enough, and it's a sad story, but one thing that you have to understand is that "Suburbs" have a different meaning in Detroit than they do elsewhere. When I mention being from the Detroit suburbs up here people automatically think of the thin layer of 'burbs around Seattle like Kent, Renton, Everett, Shoreline. It's not that way in Detroit. The metro Detroit area has four million people in it. Detroit itself only has one million people in it. Detroit is 81% black and only 12.1% white, while according to Wikipedia 80% of the black people in the Detroit area live in Detroit. Because Detroit's one million population is a nice round number that means this: although one million black people live in the Detroit area, only 200,000 are among the 3,000,000 people living outside of the city of Detroit in the Detroit area, or in other words Metro Detroit is only 6.6% black.

With demographics like that, the city is clearly not where the action is in the Detroit area. The suburbs in Detroit have many, many features of cities elsewhere, and if they were someplace else many of them would have been annexed and become part of the city of Detroit itself. The white flight of the Detroit suburbs is not just wealthy people wanting to get out of the city but virtually the entire white population of Detroit previous to the riots, working class and well off alike.

Most, if not all, of the new auto factories that went up post-riots were outside of the city limits, meaning that places like Pontiac and Sterling Heights, places that are technically suburbs, are in point of fact dense industrial areas. The workers live around the plants, their kids go to school around the plants, they shop in the area, go to movies in the area, etc... there's everything that a city would have without there being a city, and with their being the terrible lack of urban planning that is the areas' evidence of suburban origin.

Sterling Heights, Wixom, Lake Orion, Auburn Hills, Pontiac, as well as Dearborn, these are just the industrial areas outside of the city of Detroit that I can think of off the top of my head.

Not only that but there's virtually no reason to go down to the city of Detroit. There are no cool stores down there, the are virtually no night clubs down there, only a few scattered interesting businesses that are few and far between. The suburbs are where the innovative culture has moved to, with fashions coming out of Ferndale and Royal Oak being the hip alternative mecca of the Detroit area. When I was a teenager no one said "Let's go down to Detroit!", it was more "Let's go to Royal Oak!". It wasn't because we weren't tough enough to down to Detroit, it was because we weren't masochists: didn't want to go to a high crime environment in order to get a few crumbs that we could get elsewhere. It's no doubt different if you go to school down there, say to Wayne State, because you probably live there and know what interesting spots there are in the city, but for someone outside of it it's more like 'why bother?' There stereotype some Detroiters have is that there are people in the suburbs that have never in their entire lives been in Detroit, and while that is overstating it a little bit they do have a point. It is possible to totally cut the city of Detroit out of your loop and not miss all that much, unlike, say, Seattle, where if you refuse to go into the city itself you're missing out on an insane amount of opportunities and would have to be, I don't know, missing part of your brain, to do that.

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