“Hope and despair are the prevailing Detroit moods, a classic mask of comedy and tragedy on one municipal face. Paradox rules. You pick: Detroit is having its phoenix moment, flying high. Or it is plunging ever deeper into the abyss. Emotional whiplash is the only constant.” – That is how Detroit News columnist Laura Berman put it her Tale of Two Cities piece on 12/6.
It has been a little more than three months since I arrived in Detroit, I have had many people ask me as an outsider being completely unfamiliar with Detroit, how do I feel, what is my opinion, how do I see it. I have never had a complete or definite answer, but now that the first quarter of my year is past, that difficult to pinpoint answer has come rapidly into focus.
At the primer of the documentary Detropia, which I attended at Wayne State University in my first month in Detroit, the creators said they intended the title to signify Detroit’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia. The title reminds us that this is an apocalyptic city of systemic decline, lawlessness, deep poverty and structural unemployment. Yet simultaneously it is also a place attracting idealists who thrive in an environment of desperation, visionary entrepreneurs who thrive in an environment of needy chaos looking for opportunity and experimentation that differentiates them from the rest, and hipsters who thrive in an environment of acute, nearly horrifying irony.
Take this quote from the same op-ed: “In a city where outside philanthropy and federal funds paper over the extent of the city’s financial crisis, widespread recognition of impending catastrophe may never fully dawn.” I see this as the central issue facing Detroit today, and few people are seriously talking about it. I have been indoctrinated into a fascinating highly focused and energized Riverfront-Downtown-Midtown-New Center culture that contains plenty of new and old entrepreneurial “do’ers” that surround, protect, and utilize Detroit’s historic core and its requisite institutions. These people are constantly preaching that this is Detroit’s “phoenix moment.” However I would argue that core, or spine rather, operates and lives largely in a physical and institutional bubble that has in many ways necessarily removed itself from the catastrophe that surrounds it and the impending implosion that has been the city government for many years.
The result of that instinctive reaction to create that bubble, has emerged something curiously unique: Detroit is to a certain extent being run by a non-profit shadow government operating in a completley seperate but parallell track. There is a reason Sue Mosey at Midtown Detroit Inc. is called “mayor of midtown.” The powerful local and national non-profit world that has kept Detroit going during the worst of times, doesn’t notice, nor do they need to care about the impending catastrophe that is City Government because they have specifically been set up not to care – because they have been setup to survive and help their designated areas prosper despite the tribulations of government. Government is simply a formality, or perhaps an annoyance to their operation of their part of the city.
This is the central observation I have noticed since the first week I arrived – the parts of and programs of Detroit that are surviving and thriving are the ones that have given up on the ineffectiveness of the government and gone their own way. These organizations and areas of Detroit have been specifically setup to be effective, independent of the government. If you are founded on that premise, you and your constituents can effectively stop noticing and caring about government. This has left the most empowered people citizens not of the city government, but citizens of their neighborhood non-profit. But it doesn’t just stop at the downtown-midtown bubble, there is a general dependency on outside philanthropy because of the ineptitude of government that pervades all parts of the city, masking or rendering the problems of government less and less consequential. Does this make Detroit a 3rd world banana republic? In 3rd world countries, people gravitate toward the entities that are able to provide services and improve quality of life, no matter who they are or what they do. Thankfully all of our institutions and organizations in Detroit are benevolent.
This leads to the larger point: The purpose of government is to serve an entire city, the entire public good, to look at and address the bigger picture. Government is a place where we all come together, not draw more lines, a place where no one gets left behind, the great equalizer, a public entity that lays the foundation for private prosperity, we ignore that purpose at our peril. The bubble I have been living in is not seriously talking about what it means that the city is burning through cash at an alarming rate in danger of imminent bankruptcy, that the city government is completely impotent, that the apocalyptic scenes we see in films outside of the bubble have not changed and are still there. We need to be debating what it means to create a separate but parrallel replacement for government, operated independently within its very own borders? We need take seriously the question of whether this an American solution or an adaptation from the 3rd world? We need to stop and imagine what would happen if the same hopeful energy that is put into specific zones through non-profits and funneled through outside philanthropy throughout the city was put into fixing government instead of operating outside of it. How can we think creatively about getting that vision done – a government that works for everyone – once and for all – ASAP?
I came into Detroit’s bubble, but after two drives through parts of Detroit I’m not supposed to be last week, the reality that is setting in about the government crisis we face, and three months of observing this dichotomy at work, I am becoming more self-aware and realizing this is truly a “139-square mile patch of urban contradiction.” Is that a structure of strength that we can truly build something legitimate from? If emotional whiplash is the only constant – what does the future and promise of Detroit look like? It may be too early to tell, but it is worth addressing, and lies at the heart of any skepticism I may have about Detroit.
Later in December I intend to write a follow-up to this called “The Extreme Irony: The Hip Shallowness of Detroit” to get ready for that I encourage listening to the following On-Point podcast and reading this article.