Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong

Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.

I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:

We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.

But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.

You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.

Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).


Religion and the City
Desolation Angel
Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?
Faith and City Planning

Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

15 Responses to “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong”

  1. Hipsturbia says:

    I’d rather die a thousand deaths in Detroit than live in Indianapolis.

  2. Rico says:

    I think Detroit will be the subject of study and the topic of Academics / urbanologists / authors for years to come. It may be a little patronizing or demeaning to the people who live there but at least the country is paying attention.

    Cities that fall, fall fast and recover slow. Its good to hear that Detroit still has strong communities and is making some progress but it will take decades before it recovers if it recovers at all.

    I think the most important lessons to be learned from Detroit are.

    1. A cities dependance on a single industry is dangerous. Every industry will have ups and downs. And people who slip into poverty are often unlikely to recover.

    2. Race, When racial diversity exists it must work, mutual respect and a common culture (not identical cultures, but compatible values, expectations, behaviors, etc are a must). If you have animosity on all sides you can not have a fully functional society.

    3. When decay is visible, a city must act quickly. All cities decay to a certain extent, but when it is in plain site its almost terminal.

  3. John Morris says:

    But, Detroit thought it was acting. “Progressive” policies like “slum clearance” highway construction and urban renewal were sold as things that prevented “decay”.

    Ironically, these very actions destroyed the organic business communities and social connections that might have given the city some resilience.

    It’s disturbing people can think human lives are theirs to play with.

  4. John Morris says:

    If one thing comes out from films from the 1950’s and 60’s Detroit, it’s how certain such a broad range of people seemed to be that they were doing the “right thing”, and paving the way to a “bright future”.

    Of course, a lot of this was sales pitch in a company town in which only one future seemed possible.

    The whole thing is a lesson in the limits of human knowledge.

    Don’t get me wrong- I strongly suspect the boom town growth and single industry nature of the city, made it unlikely anything like a pretty transition could happen.

  5. mmdindy says:

    Detroit’s multi-leveled brokenness is apparent to anyone who reads the Detroit papers even occasionally. One investigative news article from this week tells how half of all homeowners don’t pay their property taxes. That’s don’t pay, not “are excused” from paying (a la federal income taxes.)
    And have you followed the corruption trial of disgraced former Mayor Kilpatrick? Or the city’s inability to provide street lights, or maintain parks?
    So fine, challenge the perception that nothing’s good in Detroit, or that all is hopelessness, but don’t insult us with headlines saying that all our perceptions of Detroit are wrong.

  6. costanza says:

    According to 2011 Census, Detroit’s real GDP growth was 3.5% for a #34 ranking.

  7. costanza says:

    Indianapolis grew rather pathetically by 0.9%, which was slighly better than NY metro at 0.8%.

  8. costanza says:

    Philly is at 1%, better than NY as well.

  9. costanza says:

    How could I forget the glorious Capital grew by 1.1%.

  10. Eric says:

    It’s interesting how so many non-Detroiters are interested in Detroit. It’s like the celebrity that doesnt know why its popular and doesn’t want the attention. Maybe its all those Chrysler ads.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Costanza, the one-year estimated GDP growth is not a particularly valuable statistic for serious comparisons. Detroit’s auto-based GDP has always been cyclical and volatile, and it has recently been so depressed that the current auto recovery has produced a large increase on a low base. Other cities didn’t fall as far.

    One good or bad year isn’t a trend. The better measure of a city (and for comparing cities) is a time series with a benchmark date at least one economic cycle back.

  12. mike says:


    I think you fall into the same category that you’re telling your readers to “only take with a grain of salt?” You’re painting YOUR view of how YOU perceive Detroit. More than likely, if you’re not a life long Detroiter, you’ll truly never be in a position to give an accurate assessment of the city/region. Detroit is not one persons experience or anothers. Detroit is each individuals own experience. That’s Detroit. As Detroiter’s and outsiders we can all see the same realities through our eyes but each Detroiter has their own views of life in Detroit.

  13. costanza says:

    I take everything Aaron Renn writes with a truck full of salt. You should too.

  14. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, good article. It’s important to remember that for any community, but particularly one as “romanticized” so to speak as Detroit, the reality is always more complex than any one stereotype or impression can show. You can get ideas of a place, but not really know the heart and soul of a place unless you are part of it.

  15. Chris Barnett says:

    This “no one knows a city like a local” has the potential to approach absurdity: Who knows a city/area/neighborhood/block/building better than someone who lives there?

    What matters more in a metro area of several million American people…the impressions of the several million who live there, or the several hundred million who don’t?

    While this is partly rhetorical, it does matter a lot what “outsiders” think of a metro, as it’s “outsiders” who will consider moving there (or not). These days, all population growth is “outsiders” and every Northern metro is competing with the “cool cities” and the warm ones.

    Analysts and writers with a national following probably “punch above their weight” (Aaron’s phrase) in shaping general opinions of metros around the country.

    You don’t have to like this fact, or what any analyst or writer says about YOUR metro, but it’s the reality.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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