Detroit is at a crossroads. We can take the opportunities we have been given and make something great, or we can continue to squabble away our future because we simply cannot get along with each other. The Detroit Free Press ran an opinion article yesterday written by a member of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows (you can read it here). Like many others in this fellowship, the author is not from Detroit, and the article takes a tone of an outsider who comes along and says “All you need to do is stop fighting and you’ll be ok”, but where the article falls flat is the fail to address the issues that cause mistrust in the first place. The ghosts of the past are not only real, but still alive in many cases. You cannot simply do as you do with children and say “I don’t care who started it, “knock it off”.

Much of the mistrust comes from a mixing of cultures that encouraged people not to trust each other. Cultures were more than disagreements in dialect, fashion, music, or ways of life. It was deeply rooted in the fact that Detroit mixed people from all over the world with varying skill sets, lifestyles, and the general degree of what is considered an “acceptable” way for people to conduct their lives. Now as time will tell, that standard will come and go with the wind on almost any occasion for any purpose. What is deemed acceptable today may be deemed unacceptable tomorrow, but the fact remains that these changes in people’s lives changed the way that they interacted with each other.

Detroit found a home in the auto industry for many ethnic groups that had been discriminated against in their homelands. Be it eastern Europeans who fled tyranny, the Irish who fled oppressive land owners, the Mexicans who fled the hard labor of fields, or African Americans who fled the racist south, they all found a place in Detroit. When you pick up people from all over the world and drop them together in a central location, friction is to be expected on some level. The problem was that the friction never ended, and in some ways, intensified. Sure, the auto jobs brought in southern African Americans who couldn’t find work in the south, but it also brought other southerners, many of them with a racist mindset.

This differs from a place such as Toronto, where people of all cultures came together to prosper and be part of a city. These moves to Detroit were purely economical (which translated of course into a higher standard of living as well as quality of life). It wasn’t about finding people to get along with or the idea that one could make a place better: it was a land of opportunity, if you could survive the constant give and take.

Sitting in some of the initial Detroit Works Project town hall meetings, the distrust between the citizens and their own government was apparent. The city officials were told by citizens that they didn’t believe anything they said. Many of them believed a new comprehensive plan was already prepared and that participation was just a ruse. There was a comprehensive plan, in part, published in the week leading up to the event by such places such as The Detroit News and Free Press. Citizens chastised the staff, saying that they were not going to be subjected to a “white”, “Republican” and “suburban” plan. One man said that he had grown up in the Brewster Projects and he had seen all kinds of things just like this before, urban renewal being one of them, and that his peers shared his concern of displacement and abuse of citizens.

Contrary to popular belief, “white flight” in Detroit started before the 1968 riots. As people fled to the suburbs, they turned on the evening news and saw stories about people in the city, mostly of a different ethnicity, committing acts of violence and malice against each other, furthering their fears when they originally left. They stayed in their comfortable suburban communities and raised a new generation of children who saw the same thing.

The urbanites resented the suburbanites for a host of reasons.  The suburbanites resented the urbanites for a host of reasons.

This has not changed.

Detroit is still unable to trust each other. Between the racial tensions, economic tensions, and the suburban / urban divide, there is no feeling of things which can be done for the “greater good”. Even the author of the Free Press piece I mentioned earlier doesn’t seem to realize that an article written by Bradford Frost  is going to be distrusted by many city residents simply because is name is Bradford Frost. Nothing screams “I’m not from here!” quite like “Hello, my name is Bradford Frost”.

Trust takes much more than just saying “everyone needs to get over it”. People have watched family members die on the streets in shootings. They have seen the government move them into substandard housing and lie to them. They have watched their communities become destroyed by freeway expansions and their property seized so General Motors can build a factory in Poletown. They’ve watched neighborhoods of people abandon the city they once loved. And they’ve watched it for years.

People were angry, upset, and disappointed. In many regards, there was little reason to feel better as time went on. Much of the city can’t even fix their street lamps.

While it will continue to take time, here’s a few suggestions as to how we can learn to trust each other.

For City Residents:

  • Learn to keep your government honest and work with them. This is one of those rare instances that where even if there is a remote chance that the citizens and their government agree, so take advantage of it while you can.
  • Realize that many people who are coming from outside the city’s boundaries aren’t the ones who abandoned the city years ago. Despite all the horror stories and things seen on the news, they are willing to make an effort. Not all of them want to buy your land and take advantage of you
  • Make these projects work. The possibility of moving the light rail project across 8 mile is going to be a battle, but if the process gets bogged down or looks like a host of trouble, that’s only going to fuel skeptics who are against the project.
  • Welcome new people who are moving into your neighborhood. A introduction and a handshake can go a long ways.
  • The people in the suburbs and the Bing administration aren’t the same people who implemented urban renewal projects of 50 years ago (by and large anyways). This is a new group of people with new backgrounds and a new outlook, while you have every right to be reserved about their intentions, just remember that not everyone is an immediate threat.
For Suburban Residents:
  • Take off your superhero cape. Just because you are interested in helping revive the city doesn’t mean that you are the answer to all their problems. You wouldn’t care for it if people moved into your community and started telling you all the things that were wrong with it.
  • Learn to appreciate the city more. Are you one of those folks who only goes into Detroit for a sporting event or a concert? Time to change that. Detroit has fantastic cultural, recreational, and social hangouts. Find a place that looks cool and check it out. Spend a Saturday morning at Eastern Market, check out an art gallery, discover one of the best BBQ restaurants in the country (If you’re looking for an excuse to go to the city, Slow’s is it), or just find out why Detroit is so special.
  • Don’t look at Detroit the way that people look at commercials of celebrities asking you to adopt a child from a third world country. Cities are still concentrations of wealth, and you cannot either pretend that you don’t need the city (the mantra that many suburban communities have taken is that Detroit could float down the river and their lives would not be affected, while nothing could be further from the truth) or that all Detroit needs is a little elbow grease and gardening to fix the problems. It is a complex problem with an endless amount of complex solutions.
  • Realize that there are people who will push back because of an endless amount of reasons. Some will be rational, others will not make one bit of sense. That’s ok. Their concerns are legitimate, realize that this isn’t a problem anyone has solved because there is no easy solution, and quick solutions that only put a bandaid over the real issues cause more distrust in the long term than you can realize. Like it or not, we are judged by the mistakes of the past, but we can start to rectify them one person at a time.
Naturally, this doesn’t apply across the board. The region couldn’t be making the progress we have made without great people from all over helping out, be it people who have lived in the city their whole lives, people who were raised in the burbs, or people like Brad who bring a much needed outside perspective. But if things were as easy as “let’s forgive and forget”, we would have already done it.
Much work is still to be done.
  • anon

    Well reasoned and well said.