Black Invisibility in the Black City

by Jackson Christopher Bartlett

In the last year and a half, the national press has gone gaga over Slows Bar-BQ in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Given its great food and atmosphere, popularity, and location in one of the city’s most interesting areas, it’s no wonder foodies and urbanists alike have taken an interest. But there’s more to the coverage than good food; TIME, CNN, the New York Times, Yahoo, and most local news outlets have featured the restaurant and owner/developer Phillip Cooley not only as an interesting addition to the neighborhood, but as the overriding symbol of Detroit’s future.

Many people are asking how, in a city of nearly a million that is 85% Black and 5% Hispanic (at last count in 2000), a white model-turned-developer has come to represent not only change on a city block, but has become the face of an entire city in the national eye. While white repatriation and gentrification is and will be a part of the city’s revitalization, it is only a small part. Two mutually reinforcing and inaccurate narratives are hurting attempts at developing real solutions for Detroit: 1) Detroit is an empty city; 2) Detroit will only be saved by white entrepreneurs and the “creative class.” We need a more honest discussion about what is happening in Detroit.
When TIME Magazine began their “Assignment Detroit” project a little more than a year ago, they boasted that they were going to move to Detroit to set the record straight about the city: “As a story, Detroit has been misunderstood, under-reported, stereotyped, avoided and exploited for decades. To get it right, we decided to become stakeholders.” Their sentiment echoed what most Detroiters have felt for decades. The national press periodically sweeps in to tell the sad story of declining auto production in the Motor City, and more recently has been focusing on the poverty, abandonment, and crime here. Most of us have longed for a more accurate portrayal of the city, one that celebrates Detroit’s enduring significance in the national economy and culture, and that considers urban challenges more accurately and productively.
Now that TIME has left and the wave of national press coverage on Detroit has finally expanded, we are left with a few smatterings of truth, and a familiarly large helping of sensational bullshit. What’s new is that instead of continuing to treat it like a cancer, the national media is calling Detroit the world’s greatest comeback kid, with Phillip Cooley and other white entrepreneurs as the face of that comeback. The problem is that while the mainstream media and a few big players carefully craft a narrative where white entrepreneurship is credited for Detroit’s slow and still precarious rise, hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown residents and activists do the heavy lifting of putting this city back together—in the shadows. What’s more, the city’s “comeback” isn’t happening at all for them. Services continue to be slashed, foreclosures roar full steam ahead, the school system is facing its last chance for survival, and crime continues to elude effective solutions.
Detroit has more people than San Francisco, Boston, and our nation’s capital, and maintains higher population densities than nearly all of the up-and-coming cities of the South and West. Northwest and northeast of downtown, massive, dense, working and middle-class neighborhoods stretch for miles. Yet people with big plans for what they see as an empty wasteland are guiding the narrative of Detroit’s recovery (or non-recovery). By rendering a vast majority of the Detroit’s residents invisible, property owners and opportunists have shaped the narrative to suit individual goals versus a sustainable and collective tide that lifts all boats. When we hear about people of color in the city, they are described with the tired lexicon of “crackheads” and bums, or “crazy people who just like to complain” about all the good work the privileged few are doing, as Cooley himself ineloquently characterized them in a recent article in the Detroit News.
A lot of those “crazy people” are precisely the people working hard at putting the city back together. They are people like Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer. They’ve received global attention on the Left for their decades-long activism, but based on news stories, you would think that nobody but white business owners have a vision for Detroit’s future. For decades these women and thousands more have been working to protect welfare recipients and public housing tenants, fight slum clearance programs, negotiate urban renewal strategies on behalf of the poor, battle an exploitative water department, and represent the poor in city-wide discussions about charter revisions and Detroit’s future. Their work at the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and National Welfare Rights Union has garnered global attention and accolades on the Left, yet their stories don’t seem to be sexy enough for the new obsession with Detroit.
Countless more are advancing their own agendas for the city in block clubs, neighborhood and Black business associations, the union hall, small newspapers, and progressive organizations. Social justice movements around the globe look to Detroit as everyday people fight trash incineration and environmental racism, utility shut-offs, deportation raids, labor exploitation, foreclosures, community violence, HIV/AIDS, slum creation and clearance, police brutality, and roundups of the homeless. At the same time they are using their creative talents to create new businesses, services, and opportunities in the city. Most of all, Detroiters are finding new solutions to persistent problems. Small, out-of-view neighborhoods are growing their farming initiatives on places like Georgia Street. Black entrepreneurs like Nandi McDonald of Nandi’s Knowledge Cafè in Highland Park are bringing business and vitality to the gray stretches of Detroit’s most difficult neighborhoods. MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength) is tackling food availability, East Warren Business United is revitalizing an empty commercial  stretch, and AIDS Partnership Michigan is aggressively taking on the rapid spread of HIV in Black communities. Many of the city’s strongest institutions, cultural venues, and non-profits are Black-owned and operated, and many of Detroit’s strongest neighborhoods are the result of immigration (versus white repatriation), and the city-government reflects the Black majority in the city. Detroit is not an empty city; it is at once a Black city and a diverse city with new residents arriving from across the globe.
Yet, while the city’s leaders talk about “right-sizing” and wiping certain neighborhoods clean off the map just to survive, a few entrepreneurs and their partners in the national media portray Detroit as a desolate wasteland, ripe for a few creative white people to do just about anything they wish.
In Palladium Boots’ “Detroit Lives” documentary, Johnny Knoxville parades around the city in classic Detroit muscle, seeking to challenge the media’s negative representations of the city. He picks up some band members and Cooley who give him a tour of the “empty” city. Exploring abandoned buildings, urban prairies, and hipster hideouts the crew argues that you can do anything in Detroit—because it is so empty. And while Knoxville’s initial objectives were noble (correcting an unfair representation of the city in the media), the film reinforced a growing national sentiment that Detroit is a great place for art, music, and cheap living for hipsters, but is otherwise absent of people.
The people challenging the media narrative on Detroit are not crazy, nor are their complaints dissimilar to the complaints of people of color in other cities where urban renewal fails to engage them. Many of them, from the most respected and tested community activists like Grace Lee Boggs to everyday people stalling evictions and protesting water shut-offs, simply have a competing vision for the city—one where an improved quality of life for all is more important than for just a few, justice is more important than property values, and long-term and sustainable strategies for solvency and re-development are possible.

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One response to “Black Invisibility in the Black City

  1. D’oh! Writing about something very similar to this for a conference. Might have to borrow some from this (cited of course..!) Thanks for writing this.

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