March 1, 2003
Public Enemy No. 1
Why America loves to fear Detroit.
You need Detroit.
Detroit is your punching bag, your kicking post, your whipping boy—with all the attendant hideous implications the phrase engenders in postÐCivil War America. As long as you have Detroit, no other city in America will be so inexplicably cursed, no other city will strike such fear into the hearts of otherwise strong men, no other city will have to jump up in the middle of the night screaming, “My God! What have we done?”
“Detroit. Lots of violence there, right?” a San Francisco bank teller remarked recently upon seeing my driver’s license.
“I was there in the seventies,” another West Coaster recently told me. “It looked like a war zone.”
“Our location was a crack house,” writes a Spin magazine photographer about her spread on a Detroit rock band. Of course, according to a local who worked with her, the set was just a run-of-the-mill vacant building in a block of homes slated for redevelopment. But who can blame these folks for being scared of Detroit, or recoiling at its landscape, or even using its terrifying reputation to gain a little hipster credibility? And who can blame you for thinking one or all of these same things? After all, the national media’s been feeding your imagination, rehashing age-old events—riots, white flight, arson, recession
—for years. Decades even.
Now before I go any further, I’ve got to come clean. Last August I left Detroit, where I lived for more than ten years, and moved to San Francisco, a city that might be Detroit’s polar opposite in the American imagination. I can offer up myriad reasons for my departure, and graduate school is only one of them. As justification for pointing fingers from this vantage point, I have only the sincere belief that there is a difference between leaving a city physically and leaving it psychologically, some lingering guilt, and the knowledge that reaction to my relocation to the largely immigrant working-class Excelsior neighborhood underscores my argument. “Is that on the south side of the city?” one San Franciscan asked me. “Nobody’s ever been there.” It seems that in some ways I’ve moved to Detroit all over again.
To identify how Detroit’s image may have come to be or, rather, how it has managed to hold fast in America’s psyche for so long, it is instructive to look at the most influential newspaper—the New York Times. Turn to the nation’s paper of record, pull up any article with Detroit in the headline and, if it’s not about the auto industry or Eminem, you’ll find that the city is consistently qualified as “the nation’s poorest big city,” as fluidly as New York is called the Big Apple or Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love. But if the investigative honchos at the Times were to look at the numbers a little more closely, they might be surprised to find that the differences between Detroit and their home base aren’t so drastic. Chew on these figures for a moment: about 250,000 individuals live below the poverty line in Detroit; in New York that number is more than 1.5 million. So being named the nation’s poorest big city is not so much a function of poverty as one of wealth. If you have enough upper-class residents to offset the poor ones, then you’re in the clear. And curiously it doesn’t take many wealthy people to tilt the scales: 26 percent of Detroit’s population is officially poor; in New York that number dips all the way down to…21.
And here’s where this explication gets tricky, because any thinking person knows to read the subtext in this differentiation. When we say “the nation’s poorest big city” we’re not talking about economics any more than we are when we talk about “building an urban middle class.” What we are talking about is the topic that planners and architects and countless others concerned with the fate of America’s cities all too often avoid—race. This is, after all, where the percentages begin to diverge. Percentage of Detroiters who are African American: 82. Percentage of New Yorkers: 26.
“People in Windsor are afraid of Detroit. They don’t believe people live there,” my Canadian boyfriend, who lives just over the border from Detroit, told me when we first met. I mulled this observation over for days, baffled at how Windsorites could look across the river at Detroit, see the buildings and the buses and the streetlights and the cars, and think it was empty. Eventually I grasped its insidious implications: people in Windsor, like people throughout North America, don’t believe white people live in Detroit.
In this sense Detroit becomes a macrocosmic version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a story now more than 50 years old—and as relevant as ever. A quick survey of pop culture shows just how habitually this notion is played out. “A new study says cities must attract the new ‘creative class’…or they’ll go the way of Detroit” read a headline in Salon last year. The likely accuracy of the study’s conclusions aside, I set to wondering, “Where exactly did we go?” At that moment I grasped that my city had been reduced to a trope for all that ails urban America.
Not that the folks at Salon are the only ones to treat Detroit as if it has been wiped off the map. Remember Robocop? And then, of course, there are the adoring fans of Camilo JosŽ Vergara, the New York photographer who once proposed turning a portion of Detroit into an urban ruins park (Metropolis, Visible City, April 1995, p. 33.) Worse yet are the suburbanites who drive downtown to celebrate whenever the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup, parking on the front lawns of run-down mansions because they don’t believe anybody lives in them.
But that is just the tip of the tragedy. Blame must inevitably be placed for this situation in which Detroiters find themselves, and—true to one of the most insipid ironies of racism—who should end up shouldering that responsibility but Detroiters themselves (who suddenly become visible when responsibility must be doled out)? This mind-set plays out in subtle ways every day, a sort of supersize version of the leading American explanation for the ghetto: “Those people” can’t take care of their children, their homes, their neighborhoods, their city.
Sometimes, of course, the accusations are anything but implicit. On a now infamous 1990 segment of Prime Time Live, white reporter Judd Rose asked then mayor Coleman Young how it was that Detroit’s neighborhoods had collapsed on his watch. Never one to mince words, Mayor Young let Rose in on one of Detroit’s best-kept secrets. “The neighborhoods collapsed because half the goddamn population left!” he replied. End of interview. But in no way an end to the insinuations.
“Nearly every article I read [about Detroit] has to work in the 1967 riots,” observes historian Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native and author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, a seminal study of racism and American cities. Never mind that cities across America erupted in violence that year and the next. Never mind that the riots may have very little to do with Detroit today.
“To look at Detroit’s fate as primarily a consequence of an urban riot or black politics of the late sixties and early seventies is to entirely misread the history of postwar America,” Sugrue continues. “We miss out on the far deeper roots of economic disinvestment and the far deeper roots of racial division. And more than that, by focusing on the riots and Coleman Young and black power, the mainstream journalists—the white media—put the blame implicitly on blacks. It’s blacks’ fault that Detroit is the way it is.”
And if it’s blacks’ fault, then the whites who turned their backs on Detroit—the whites who turn their backs on Detroits all over America—can go on turning, guilt-free. And they’ll always have the current state of Detroit—or rather the psychological construction of it—to justify their departure.
“Everyone needs this kind of two-headed thing—on the one hand to be frightened of and on the other hand to be better than,” explains Bill Harris, a Detroit playwright and professor who has long maintained that the situation of his hometown mirrors that of the black man in America. “It’s a way that you can confront what you can’t confront—which is what racism is.” If we can’t locate the bogeyman, Harris reminds, we must create him. So is Detroit America’s bogeyman? “Yeah,” he says without missing a beat. “Because it’s black, because it’s poor, because it’s everything that we don’t want to be.”
And then comes the question that has been gnawing at me ever since I began thinking about this essay, or more accurately, ever since I arrived in the city more than ten years ago. “Shouldn’t we be over Detroit by now?” I ask Sugrue. Shouldn’t the city have ceased to be America’s bogeyman decades ago? His answer confirms my most cynical suspicions. “Detroit,” he contends, “stands as a rebuke to our optimistic views of racial progress in America.” And I believe him. I believe him because I lived it, am living it. I believe him because you’re living it too.
Kristin Palm is a freelance journalist who recently moved from Detroit to the San Francisco Bay Area to study creative writing at Mills College.