Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Detroit – America’s Whipping Boy by Pete Saunders

[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don’t forget to check out his blog – Aaron. ]


The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect

Every so often, Detroit seems 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.  The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement. 

But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – 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.  America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy. 

Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England.  I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:

They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.

Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again
(emphasis added).

If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.

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 heartily 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 such a defiant political stance on most issues that he 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 – 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 first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.

It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did.  The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape.  It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.

In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions.  The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit.  The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling.  The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother.  And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise. 

Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit.  Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings.  Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing.   Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”.  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 isolated 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.

There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America.  You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.  You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix.  You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.  And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.  You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country.  Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?

The image of Detroit serves 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 Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure.  By doing this they can garner support for (or just as 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 Detroit allows 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, or even worse, 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 immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit.  Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it.  Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.

The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions.  Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing.  Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions.  Or the Big Three.  Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters.  Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption.  And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people.  We are not you, they say, because we made better choices.  But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives.  This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.

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.  There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them?  There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products.  There are Hollywood actors 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.  Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.

More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique.  It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large.  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.  Detroit has 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.  There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership.  Dealing with foreclosures.   Crushing income inequality and economic disparities.  Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads.  Crumbling infrastructure.  Unsustainable sprawl development.  The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt.  That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.

But 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.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.

17 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

17 Responses to “Detroit – America’s Whipping Boy by Pete Saunders”

  1. Jon says:

    As a Detroit resident and stakeholder, what frustrates me about this piece is it’s more cheering than skin the game. I appreciate that former residents still care about their hometown and want to support it. However, those words of support ring hollow because they are more people calling from the sidelines saying get up and fight than people walking over and offering a helping hand up.

    Overall, I agree with the premise of the story but what bothers me about it is it doesn’t point to any of the worthwhile efforts at renewal going on in Detroit so people can actually have something to grab a hold of to move on from the late-20th Century perception of the city. Instead most of the story goes on to rehash that stereotype. In a way the story is a bit self-defeating.

    The kind words ex-patriots and out-of-towners offer are nice, but too often it seems like they are just trying to leverage the city’s strong brand for their own gains. (I am not saying that is the case here but it happens far too often.) What I would like to see is these people actually do something to help the city they say they want to see succeed. Maybe its help fund an aspiring young entrepreneur through Kiva Detroit or buy a membership to the Detroit Institute of Arts or spend a day riding with the Detroit Mower Gang or support one of the many groups that are working to make Detroit a place people want to call home. I don’t know. There is no lack of ways to actually make a tangible difference in this city. However, the more people that have skin in this game the more will be done to help the world form a new perception of Detroit for the 21st Century.

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    Detroit certainly is an object lesson in failure. But, I think that can be a good thing. It can spur efforts in other places to avoid the same fate. Whatever Detroit did, or didn’t do, do the opposite.First and foremost that means don’t indulge in ethnic identity politics.

  3. Chris Godlewski says:

    In reading a lot of literature on Michigan recently, Detroit always sticks out as the poster child, “of what not to do”. Pete, you hit that one dead on. And I appreciate your message you wrote on the stigma Detroit carries which is an unfair one.

    Jon mentions the hand up and skin in the game, rightfully so. You also mentioned the active civic groups and organziations that are making a difference. Thats great.

    Sounds like one of the toughest battles to be won and especially with the circumstances facing Detroit.

    I happened to research Wayne State University and its location in Mid-town. Mid-town sounds like a culturally diverse and active area. Two new stadiums in downtown accompanied by some residential reinvestment. Its not all bad. As Pete said Detroit needs a second chance. They can build upon what is already working.

    Five million people still live in greater Detroit. They all know the city is struggling and hopefully get fed up enough to make a difference in their own commuity like you are Jon. All the best.

  4. TMLutas says:

    You can objectively detect if a whipping boy effect is in play. If it were, Detroit property would be oversold. If Detroit were oversold (property values lower than they should be) a smart operator with an extended family could come in and buy up a block of property, fix things up, and bring in family to safeguard the investment. Underemployed young men with big muscles and a healthy respect for the elder funding the venture are perfect. Property values would naturally rise, you sell and buy two blocks and so on.

    This is not particularly rocket science. I can describe how such a scheme works because a former coworker of mine had an aunt who was doing it in Cleveland and having good success doing it.

    So why isn’t this process in full swing in Detroit, raising property values and coming to the attention of specialists like the proprietor of this blog? I suspect it is because the article thesis is nonsense. There is no major exploitable gap for people to go in and make winning real estate investments in Detroit.

    If I’m wrong, don’t feel too bad. I’ve just handed you a multi-million dollar business plan. You just have to go buy up Detroit real estate.

  5. Shel says:

    As another Detroit resident and stakeholder, I agree with Jon’s comments. And I wish a second part of this essay/article weren’t missing –the story about not just what people should be doing about it, but what people actually are doing about it.

    For example, just today I attended a launch event in Detroit for BMEComunity.org which stands for Black Male Engagement. It’s a group that has sprung up in a few American cities that share some of Detroit’s stories like Baltimore and Philly. They’ve risen because we all know the bad statistics about black men, like 1 in 3 don’t graduate and 1 in 4 end up in jail… But how many Black male millionaires are there? And guess what? They aren’t all sports stars and hip hop artists…. In fact success doesn’t even have to be measured in millions, but in action.

    So they are collecting stories from men in these cities, everyday men who are doing good by their communities just because it’s the right thing to do… The men that fix kids bikes and help them understand school is actually worthwhile and shovel Mrs. Roberts driveway not because they have extra strong backs that crave to work extra hours after already really long days(!), but because she can’t do it for herself anymore. They’ve collected over 1000 of these stories in Detroit — successful business owners and high school drop outs — all working together! How many writers for the New York Times are going to pick up this story? How many urban planning blogs?

    This is just one little group and there are dozens and maybe hundreds of others in Detroit – people painting houses left for dead and turning them into community theater, people setting up vegan soul food restaurants in formerly abandoned shops, people hosting weekly art and music nights… Not to mention all the mainstream successful businesses like Great Lakes and Astro Coffee, SlowsBBQ, and yes, Whole Foods is coming to MidTown. There is a lot of color in this city. A lot of life.

    I understand the frustration with the bleak imagery and agree many people use it to prop themselves and their own cities higher. Good point! The whipping boy analogy is clever. And I’m not suggesting that this piece isn’t strong — I like it! But as someone who’s stated they care about Detroit, take it to the next level. Yes, people/media/etc need to move on. Perhaps we can begin with you writing a part two — taking some of your time and skill as a writer to start telling some of the other stories.

  6. James says:

    You wrote: “I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions.  Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing.  Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions.  Or the Big Three.  Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters.  Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption.”

    This is the truest thing you have ever written.

  7. Rod Stevens says:

    The fundamental issue is racism. If the residents were white, we wouldn’t let them endure these problems.

    In 1998 I moved to Vancouver, BC with my wife. We went to a musical production there on the history of tap dance, in the Ford Theater. The irony of being in Canada, watching a musical about an American idiom, in a theater named after an American motor company was not lost on us. Neither was the site, at intermission, of looking into a multi-faceted, three-story tall mirror and seeing that our fellow theater-goers were made up of multi-racial couples. It has gotten better in America since then, but race is still a major issue.

    At that time, East Hasting Street in East Vancouver was the highest drug use area in Canada. Locals bemoaned the poverty there but, truth be told, half the big cities in America would have killed for the vitality that street had. That’s when it really hit me that race is a much bigger issue that we want to acknowledge in America. They don’t let their cities get nearly as bad as ours because they see themselves as one society, not two or three or four.

    There are big problems in Detroit, both economic and social. We won’t solve the economic problems there, at least for current residents, until we deal with the social problems as well. A big part of that will be the rest of America, multi-racial but still majority white, viewing the largely Black residents there as fellow citizens whose lives we care about.

  8. Racaille says:

    I would rather live in Detroit than Houston.

    Detroit has a better quality of people.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this. I have been trying to find a way to voice this sentiment for quite some time. I come into contact with a lot of people from all over the world, and Detroit is a hot topic everywhere I go.

    One trend I’ve noticed is that the closer, geographically, you get to Detroit, the more venomous and hateful the rhetoric gets. People from the suburbs of Detroit are the absolute worst with the bashing; people from further away (Grand Rapids, the UP, Chicago) say an awful lot of horrible things, and as you get further away, the hate turns into morbid fascination or downright pity. I wonder if this is a by-product of white flight as the generations slowly moved further away from the city.

  10. brimcmike says:

    Detroit is an interesting place, I lived there for 2 years, a year in a suburb and a year in Midtown. I think the 2 biggest problems Detroit has is 1) how much the local White suburbanites (I’m White) are the ones that I saw so deeply committed to local ethnic-identity politics, and deeply invested in Detroit (the city) being a terrible, scary and dangerous failure. I heard many of them repeat variations of this meme like it’s some kind of unassailable fact, when it is a narrative-driven idea and not objective reality. Not having been raised on the meme or invested in this whipping boy dynamic, I was flabbergasted how afraid they were to set foot in, where I lived and worked, with no trouble, no crime against me and no crime that I directly witnessed. 2) Detroit needs to get gay-friendly. That will solve the stymied redevelopment process. Enough said.

  11. m@ says:

    To piggyback on some previous comments, and to perhaps carry this “whipping boy” analogy forward:

    Imagine Detroit as you say it: the country’s whipping boy, a spectacle for other urban landscapes to be ridiculed and scorned.

    Now, I can assume that the whipping boy has a family, one to whom he can confide as he struggles with the mind-altering notion that he’s been selected to bear the punishment of someone else’s faults. He has some type of support structure as he wonders what he did to deserve said punishments.

    Stop right there: Detroit, on the other hand, has no “family” to support it and provide guidance. The suburbs hope it rots away into oblivion; those that remain in the city have neither the political clout nor influence (nor, sometimes, unfortunately, the right skin color) to induce the sweeping, painful, yet necessary adjustments in order to allow for the city to return to…well, not what it was, but at the least something of sustainable merit.

    I’m a Detroiter myself, one that moved here with the distinct hope of making a difference. And it’s not so much others like me that I’m concerned about, rather the bevy of people who look, think, and talk like me that seem to drown out my voice through their continued rhetorical lambasting of the city’s identity. It’s an incredibly complex problem that may take multiple generations beyond my own to resolve.

  12. pete-rock says:

    Thanks for the kind (and not so kind) comments on this piece. What I really wanted to convey is that Detroit is confronted with social — and even psychological — barriers that stunt its revitalization. I wasn’t trying in any way to diminish the successes and good works of people in my hometown, but to point out that those efforts are swallowed up by the whipping boy narrative. Detroit needs the narrative to change for revitalization to accelerate.

    Thanks again.

  13. Shel says:

    I love that reply Pete. Thank you. And I agree. In fact I am creating a whole building and extended community platform for this new narrative — a hotel built on/off/from stories. I’d love to know what you think. detroitcollisionworks.com

  14. Jeffsi Morleand says:

    Rod Stevens: But there are many reasons to improve Detroit – As Michigan’s keynote city it is an embarrassment, and in most other areas people are moving back into the inner city in droves. Washington DC and Atlanta are majority black, but they are prospering from yuppification.

  15. Rod Stevens says:

    Jeffsi Morleand:

    I agree. In fact, answering the question, “What would a healthy Detroit be like” provides direction not only for that specific place but America overall. My guess is there are “systems” questions about better education, health, mobility and financing. John McKnight, a Northwestern University sociologist who pioneered the concept of community assets, has great suggestions of how to approach places when you start with the assumption that the glass is half full and not a “problem.”

  16. Rod Stevens says:

    Jeffsi Morleand:

    P.S. Re. gentrification: it is not a question of whether the place is prospering but whether the people who have lived their long term are prospering. Otherwise you can simply change out the people with those who are wealthier and more highly educated and call it a day.

  17. John says:

    The final conclusions/recommendations don’t seem to help much. “Allow Detroit to move on.” Okay, move on. Now what? Once people stop saying mean things, the city will turn itself around? Is it really tht easy? Seems like a way of trying to blame others for keeping you down instead of coming up with an actual strategy.

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