Everyone has a story. Lives are understood through the narratives built by the facts of existence. My life is my story, built of childhood and bad dreams and loved ones and inspiration. But lives are not lived by the living alone. There are lives in the events that unfold over time, lives in the objects we surround ourselves with and lives in places: homes, neighborhoods and, of concern to me today, lives in cities. Narratives get messy when pulled out this far. No one person can tell the story of a city alone, and collective narratives get complicated by the unreliability of personal truths, the structures of power that be and, ultimately, whose voice rises above the rest. And when it comes to a city with a history as varied as Detroit’s — once America’s sweetheart, now bankrupt and destitute — the story can get hard to distinguish.
But it starts with the facts of history. In 1903, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company in Detroit and put it on the map as America’s automotive capital. The auto industry continued to expand, hitting its peak in the 50’s and its decline in the late 60’s. As cars grew in popularity, so did roads and highways, leading to the city-led destruction of major public transit infrastructure. And with the ease of getting around in cars, folks wanted to move out of the urban, congested city. Suburbia was born. Middle class, majority white Detroiters moved out of the city and the auto industry followed, setting up new factories on the outskirts of town. Those not affluent enough to move to the ‘burbs (mostly black folks) were left without jobs, without public transportation to get to the new factories, and without the means to buy cars of their own.
This was the beginning of the end. At its peak in 1950, Detroit had a population of just under 2 million people. But with no jobs available, the people grew poor. The city lost its tax base and crumbled, and those who could left the city for good. Over the next 60 years, the population dropped to just over 700,000 in a mass exodus also known as “white flight.” There were so many abandoned structures that to reduce the cost of municipal services, the city demolished entire blocks, took out street lights and told any remaining residents to move to more populated areas. Now, Detroit is characterized by long patches of dark streets and empty, overgrown lots shadowed by the ubiquitous abandoned buildings. Even downtown, among the neo-gothic spires and art deco hotels of old, empty lots put holes in the skyline, ghosts of what was before.
This demolition didn’t do enough. In 2011, 47% of the city’s taxable land parcels were delinquent on their tax bill, a total of $246 million the city didn’t receive. In 2013, with $18 billion in debt, the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. The era had officially ended.
This is the story we know, the gathered facts telling the tale of a city gone desolate and destitute, abandoned and falling apart. Indeed, the city does feel eerily empty and forsaken structures tower ominously above the quiet streets. But between the expanse of these facts are other narratives of this place, just as between the long expanses of leveled neighborhoods, there are houses still standing, occupied by people who never left and lives that kept living. Yes, Detroit is a ghost town, but every city is wrought with ghosts. And in Detroit, 700,000 people still walk among the apparitions, continuing to build their narratives. And Detroit’s, too.
This between-the-lines story, I found, is one of community, of a city that never gave up in the face of adversity. In Southwest Detroit, the community has only grown more vibrant since the city’s mass decline. Nick-named Mexicantown, the area holds most of Detroit’s Latino population, which comprises 7% of the total population, up from just 3% 20 years ago. Here, people not only stayed, they continued to come and grow. With a devoted business association leading efforts to beautify and improve the area, coupled with a community- and arts-oriented population, the borough has thrived, even amidst unsavory media coverage. When Whole Foods opened in Detroit two years ago with huge aspirations of combating poverty-induced health issues and being an oasis in a “food desert,” officials of the Southwest Detroit Business Association took offense. With 16 grocery stores in the area, packed with fresh produce and meat options, it was anything but a desert.
Granted, this access to good food is not the case in every neighborhood of Detroit, but the media attention given to Whole Foods’ arrival in this “desolate and foodless” city illuminates another predominate Detroit narrative: the one of the pop-culture savior, gliding in on organically grown, big-city-hipster wings to lift the city up by its creative roots. With artists pushed out of expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, a new creative class has arrived to buy up dirt cheap Detroit real estate and change the face of the down-trodden city for the better. Corktown, a neighborhood on the edge of Mexicantown, is now a haven of third wave coffee shops, gourmet restaurants and art galleries befitting the new class of residents and the city government that wants to revitalize the city above all else. And while some are saluting this as revitalization, others are condemning it as gentrification. Older residents have been displaced and many believe this kind of revitalization only serves these new transplants and alienates long-time residents. Which begs the question: If you are going to a restore a city, to what historical time period are you going to restore it to? And who is to decide which is best?
This story is not unique to Detroit. My home, Oakland, has faced the same double-narrative, the same middle-class revival championed by city officials and creative, white, San Francisco and New York transplants. And as is true for Detroit, it is hard to say which narrative is right. Detroit was once an affluent, populous place, a city of industry; now, it is half empty, half gone. Is it right to want to restore it to its hay day, or the modern version of that? Or is it right to preserve the culture that has survived despite it all?
I can’t answer these questions. I don’t think anyone can. My story is one of an outsider. And like most outsiders, I romanticize the very things that residents hate about their city: the eerie, empty streets, the sordid history, the beauty of decay. The most popular image of Detroit’s current stature has become the huge, abandoned Grand Central Station (pictured above) with its crumbling decadence and shattered windows, an image we outsiders revel in. When I drove by with a long-time resident, I paused to admire it. He scoffed at the building, called it an eyesore, and took me around to the other side.
“See,” he said. “Finally they’re doing something with this hideous place.”
I looked up to see rows of new windows shining in the gapping gaps, windows no one will look out of – the building is not being restored, only beautified. A facade to cover a stunning monstrosity.