21 Sep

How does a city evolve?

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in Detroit. Among other activities, I got to hang out and work with some incredible artists who’d just been awarded fellowships from The Kresge Foundation, I had beers with a couple radical priests, one my father-in-law, I drove through the always mystifying cityscape, and I talked to Grace Lee Boggs, an amazing 96 year-old activist and writer who has been inspiring me a lot lately.

One of the through-lines over the weekend was the sense that Detroit is in the midst of a set of changes, the outcome of which no one can predict. It was sort of shocking to hear folks who’d been there for 30, 40 or even 60 years, who’d witnessed many cycles of ill-conceived urban renewal and thwarted hopes for their hometown, tell me that things might work out for the better this time. Or they may just continue to collapse.
Detroit is undergoing what Boggs calls a “dual power structure.” There are small enclaves that are basically taking on everything from farming to policing to education, as the city becomes less and less able to provide those services in our declining economy. At the same time there is a lot of speculation going on by real estate developers and politicians about the possibilities of a creativity-led rebound for the city, fed by a combination of cheap housing, fine architecture, and what locals sometimes refer to “ruin-porn” (the fetishization of decay into an attractive commodity).
Even Boggs, an activist in Detroit for nearly 60 years, a PhD, one of the most forward-thinking writers I have ever read on the subject of political change, when I asked her what she would imagine for the city going forward, said, “I have no idea. It is impossible to predict.”
Perhaps what we are witnessing is a tension between Detroit as the city American capital has left behind, and as a city that is forming the next iteration of whatever a new predicament could become. Meaning, five or ten years from now, perhaps it will again be impoverished and neglected, its population again abandoned by corporate and government misuse and disorder. Perhaps it will embody a new communitarian movement. Perhaps it will be gentrified into a mall-like version of its former self. Ruin porn with fairtrade lattes.
Maybe all these potentialities will exist there. It will be the city with the hip gallery district, rehabbed Victorian homes and Niman Ranch barbecue, next to the inventive and inclusive projects that Detroit Summer has undertaken, next to the $1,000 homes complete with available farm plot, where you just have to provide your own electrical wires, neighborhood patrol, home school and art event.
Like the residents I talked to, I find myself hopeful and harrowed at the same time. It is possible there in a way few cities could imagine: the footprint of Detroit is the same size as Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston combined; the population is only 720,000. So there’s a lot of space.
I like to think it’s not too late for an alternative strategy to emerge. I like to think people taking the shortcomings of the existing power structure into their own hands could actually amount to a real and profound change, person by person, in a city that is struggling and growing and celebrating itself anew.

Further reading
Bill Wylie-Kellerman
The Boggs Center
Detroit Summer
Invincible