Every so often, Detroitseems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way. Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City. Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit. But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Americaneeds Detroitto be our national whipping boy. Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go.
Before some Detroiter comes looking for me to do bodily damage (OK, even I couldn’t resist a nudge), let me explain. I grew up in Detroit. Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family. I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams. I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet. And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city. I root for the city’s revitalization.
I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path. As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix. I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings. I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking a defiant political stance on most issues that may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion. And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”. That kind of environment might prompt – and in fact, did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better. I was exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.
Today, the national image of Detroit is one shaped by, among other things, the 1997 Tupac movie Gridlock’d and the 2002 Eminem movie 8 Mile– a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings, huge swaths of vacant land, and substandard housing. The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy. At worst, they are poorly educated and ill-equipped miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th(“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.
This could describe so many cities – Cleveland, St. Louis, Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia; and yes, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even the Sun Belt cities I mentioned earlier. Yet, Detroitis the one that shoulders the burden for all of them. Why is Detroitour national whipping boy?
The image of Detroitserves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here. City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroitas the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling infrastructure. By doing this they can garner support for (or more likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city? We could become like Detroit!
The image of Detroitallows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad in their own communities. I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip. No one associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable to the average guy when talking about Detroit.
The image of Detroitallows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. Yes, people tend to display a sense of superiority over Detroit. Get over it!
Detroit needs a reprieve. It needs a second chance. Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future. And I’m not talking about letting the city host a Super Bowl every 25 years, or a Final Four; that’s like going on sympathy dates with ugly girls so we can remind ourselves that we reallylike the cute ones.
There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them? Well, OK, sometimes we do. There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products. There are Hollywoodactors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick. There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back.
America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city. Detroithas paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.
By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems. Housing affordability on the East and West coasts? Economic disparities? Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads? A western drought that may lead to a water crisis? Yeah, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.
But America should rooting for Detroit’s revitalization, not hoping for its demise or using it as an example of past mistakes. I look at Detroit like this. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.