Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way. Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City. Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit. The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement.
But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go. America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy.
Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England. I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:
They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.
Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince would not make the same mistake again (emphasis added).
If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.
I grew up in Detroit. Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family. I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams. I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet. And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city. I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.
I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path. As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix. I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings. I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion. And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”. That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better. I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.
It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did. The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape. It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.
In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions. The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit. The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling. The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother. And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise.
Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit. Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings. Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing. Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse. On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”. The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy. At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.
There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America. You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.
Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?
The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here. City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling infrastructure. By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city? We could become like Detroit!
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities. I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip. No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit. Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it. Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions. Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing. Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions. Or the Big Three. Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters. Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption. And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people. We are not you, they say, because we made better choices. But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives. This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.
Detroit needs a reprieve. It needs a second chance. Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future. There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them? There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products. There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick. There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back. Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.
More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique. It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large. America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city. Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.
By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems. There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership. Dealing with foreclosures. Crushing income inequality and economic disparities. Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads. Crumbling infrastructure. Unsustainable sprawl development. The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.
But I look at Detroit like this. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.
Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years. He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.
Photo: The "Detroit" we've all come to love -- and expect