Let's Invest in the Real Detroit

Over the past month, "Detroit" has lurched to the forefront of headline news. The New York Times, for instance, has called for "Saving Detroit from Itself." "Just Say No to Detroit," retorted The Wall Street Journal.

It's long past time, however, that someone pointed out the obvious. Not only do Detroit's proud residents take offense at the national media's use of their city's name as a synonym for the American auto industry; it also makes no sense to keep the label "Detroit" affixed to corporations that have long since been transformed by suburbanization, global outsourcing of production, and transnational mergers and acquisitions.

So, yes, let's debate what to do about the impending implosion of GM, Ford, or Chrysler. But in this period of widespread economic and social crises, let's also understand that more profound insights await us if we take a broader perspective of the dilemma that Detroit poses to America.

Detroit's story ranks among the greatest "boom and bust" narratives of history. The city was once of the world's great centers of industrial wealth creation and home to roughly two million people. East Coasters flocked to the "Paris of the Midwest" as immigrants came from the Old World. African American migrants, drawn from the South to help power the "arsenal of democracy" during World War II, would proceed to create the land called Motown. Meanwhile, visitors from around the globe marveled at the technological advances embodied in Detroit's assembly lines, while its labor movement created the model for industrial democracy.

But even amid the prosperous times of the post-World War II era, Detroit was losing jobs and residents to white flight and suburbanization. Living in Detroit for the past eight years while teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I became intimately connected to both sides of the city/suburb divide.

For four decades following the urban rebellion of 1967, Detroit and its suburbs became locked in a material battle over a shrinking pie and an ideological war over who was to blame for the region's problems. Castigating the crime and corruption of Detroit, the predominantly white suburbs acted to siphon residents and investment away from the city. Now these same suburbs are hemorrhaging from outsourcing, downsizing, and brain drain. I've watched scores of local students use the high-quality, subsidized education provided by the University of Michigan as a ticket to leave the state for jobs on the coasts.

For thousands of inner-city Detroiters, however, the auto industry collapsed more than a generation ago. The manufacturing base of the city proper plummeted 50 percent between 1967 and 1982 and has dwindled down much further since. As a result, Detroit's landscape is littered with abandoned factories scattered among tens of thousands of dilapidated homes and vacant lots. Cursed with the misfortune of taking power just as stagflation and global competition began to undermine the local economy, Coleman Young and a series of African American mayors tried in vain to stop the city's bleeding.

I have witnessed first-hand the pain generated by entrenched discrimination, escalating violence, and failing schools. And yet, what Detroit has ultimately offered me is the hope and possibility of a better future.

To understand why, we need to grasp the wisdom of Detroit's 93-year-old philosopher-in-residence, Grace Lee Boggs. Where others see "blight," Boggs sees "place and space to begin anew." She challenges us to see the demise of industrial culture as liberation from a way of living that has proven to be unsustainable.

While Michigan's automakers urgently need to produce greener cars to stay viable and curb emissions, Detroit's most visionary residents recognize that that there are no simple solutions to their problems. They have learned to delink their fate from both short-sighted corporations that view themselves as too big to fail and an extreme form of materialism that privileges money relations over human relations. Rather than wait for a purely technological fix, community activists, nonprofit organizations, and socially-conscious entrepreneurs are struggling to rebuild the economy from the ground up, creating new projects that reflect the values of a truly postindustrial society.

The credit crunch is wreaking havoc everywhere. Still, you won't find indoor mall sales down in Detroit this holiday season because there are no shopping malls of that sort within its city limits. You won't find any Circuit City stores shutting down in Detroit because neither that retailer nor most other national big box chains have any presence in the city. What you can find in Detroit are intensely local small businesses with an intensely loyal patronage.

Furthermore, reflecting a turn toward self-reliance in a climate of material deprivation, Detroit has been the birthplace of hundreds of community gardens, as well as a growing number of larger urban farms. While some grow organic produce, others grow ornamental flowers. But what they collectively grow is a renewed sense of community -- connecting neighbor with neighbor, elders with youth, and teachers with students while heightening the regard of all for the gifts of nature.

If vacant lots have been the wellspring of urban agriculture, empty buildings and low-cost housing have boosted the independent arts scene. Beyond the establishment of live/work lofts that are fixtures across urban America, Detroit is home to dozens of non-commercial collectives of hip-hop performers, spoken work poets, techno musicians, and visual artists who are revitalizing and remaking the city's image.

Even a nascent bike-driven economy of commuters, messengers, and distributors is taking root within Motown, offering a cost-effective medium for businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprint while making transportation accessible to those who are too young to drive or can't afford to own a car.

No one pretends that these efforts are transforming the city, let alone the world, overnight. What they provide is not only a local means of spiritual survival but also a concrete and replicable model of what real change from the bottom up looks like. These are the people we must seek out when investing in the next Detroit.