Detroiters: Back in the Driving Seat

This is the first of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Amy Barron chose to write about Detroit …

Detroit is the focus of a stereotype. After years of decline, together with the repetitious drip feed of negative media attention; riots, white flight, dereliction and deserted neighbourhoods have become emblematic of the city. Today as the city faces rejection from government and global press, Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands, nurturing innovation, initiative and creativity.

Detroit; the city that put the world on wheels; the throbbing heart of American culture, soul and industry; the sprawling metropolis; the epitome of the American Dream. During its 1950s heyday, the ‘motorcity’ thrived, providing an accommodating, dynamic and cohesive urban hub; a centrifugal force for the global automobile trade whilst functioning as a magnet attracting social and economic capital that saw the population rocket. So, what went wrong? I hear you cry.

Well listen up America, there’s a lesson to be learnt. After the initial auto-industrial success, it was the failure of the American government to recognise that the Asian auto-manufacturing expansion was upon them and America was effectually bitten on the ass by its competitor. This ultimately caused the start of the cardio-collapse of the heart of American auto-industries, unable to stay ahead of their efficient Asian opponents. This slow death of the motor giants eventually caused the inner-city commuter highway vestals to become clogged with poverty as the rich fled and suburban arteries were drained of talent as the skilled relocated elsewhere. The eventual outcome was a population plummet, leading to a lower tax base. Crime rates spiked and public service networks crumbled. The rust belt of the American mid-west was rapidly corroding and Detroit was the ‘buckle’. The media willingly jumped on the bandwagon and the drip feed of negativity began to infest the city. Events reached their pinnacle when Detroit hit the headlines as it became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy. Investment was deterred and the endless cycle of decline had seemingly begun.

So, how do you remake a city and perhaps see it prosper once more? Seemingly an impossible task? Well, providing there is more to life than generalised statistics and headline-grabbing  quotes, I-and Detroit-argue ‘hope is not lost’. Believe it or not media, through the dereliction and destitution; human nature prevails, inter-connections are materialising, and community clusters are beginning to form. Whilst the data presented may well hold elements of truth, surely daily community interaction, cohesion and a dense urban texture are equally important qualities which define urban life. The Detroiters are innovating their way out of this problem, so why should the very real, happening, positive efforts be brushed under the carpet?

All too often the city is portrayed in a negative light. Rarely reported is the surviving stock; the green sprouts of hope emerging at grass roots level. The winds of change are blowing through the streets of Detroit with more force than ever as ‘a neighbour helping neighbour’ ethos is spreading generating a strong ‘shared responsibility for a shared place’ attitude. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes; revitalised and ready for flight, young maverick entrepreneurs are surfacing, thrusting forth new innovative ideas which will regenerate, renew and rejuvenate.

Although Detroit may, in some respects be teetering on the precipice, it still has the safety harness of ‘community strength’ to hold onto, pulling it back from the brink. Realising the difficulties they are facing, many residents are calling on inner resources and imagination, taking issues into their own hands. All sectors of society-young, old, groups, and individuals-are pioneering positivity impacting across the social, economic and environmental spectrum. Could Detroit be a leading beacon in showing the rest of the urban world the path to overcoming these universally experienced problems? With progress in green transportation, sustainability, business incubation and community cohesion; the future looks promising. Detroit is moving forward, starting where it matters; at the heart and with the people.

Sixty four year old John Ratov is only one of the thousands of people across Detroit who have become self-appointed community activists. A former inmate, Ratov now spends his time serving others by giving rides, delivering lunches and visiting the pitiably lonely. Not only is Ratov actively improving the lives of his fellow citizens but his ‘community spirit’ is rubbing off onto others such as 52 year old Renee Miler who met Ratov at a local soup kitchen and now also helps saying; ‘’it’s just the right thing to do’’. Together they continue building an ever expanding human life support machine for the city.

Not only is this ingenuity occurring on an individual level, but also at a collective level. Organised by several local charities, with ‘booming dance music, flaming BBQ grills, and a stocked food tent for thousands of homeless’ Detroit hosted it’s ‘Red carpet backyard surprise BBQ!’ The idea was simply to give struggling Detroiters a holiday meal like the rest of America would be eating that day. The party was a huge success with the food line snaking through the park as far as the eye could see. Instead of the streets feeling bare and cold, they were full of life, laughter and love with thousands of homeless folk uniting in celebration as the festive mood set in and spread through the crowd with a shared sense of place and belonging. This is the precise way a community should unite, by helping one another. It engenders the reconnection of the fragmented city scape and improves Detroit for the greater good.

Have you too been fooled into believing Detroit has being deserted by the young? Well, think again. ‘I am Young Detroit’ is a social venture initiative promoting and publishing positive change occurring in Detroit. Social entrepreneur, Andy Didorosi is one of many who are determined to make a difference.  After reading ‘Detroit’s light rail is dead’ Andy bought a bunch of buses and founded ‘The Detroit Bus Company’. This was a huge success. Not only are the buses environmentally sustainable hybrids but Andy added his quirky artistic edge making them ‘public party buses ‘reinforcing the young imaginative flair so many Detroiters possess. With service hours rapidly expanding, cool areas in the downtown are valuably reconnecting. I am captivated and amused by Andy and found myself continually impressed by his ambitious nature when reading more. The world could really use a few more Andys ready to give it a shot!

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