Detroit is the new Conservative wet dream. You’ll find plenty of finger-pointing for Detroit’s woes, but they all boil down to blaming the victim. In other words: Detroiters are responsible for all their own troubles. Fox “News” blames greedy union contracts for Detroit’s march into bankruptcy, while Bill O’Reilly insists all of Detroit’s problems can be laid at the feet of drug dealers and users. Other bloviators cite decades of evil, liberal rule, because Detroit mayors have been progressive since 1962. Others blame the complete erosion of the manufacturing base. Or, if you’d prefer, “To See Detroit’s Decline, Look at 40 Years Of Federal Policy.” Then there’s bad investments by pension trustees. Maya Wiley at The Grio agrees with me: I blame Detroit’s problems on decades of systemic racism. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the conspiracy theorists who breathlessly insist that nothing has ever been the same—for both the city and the music label—since Motown hightailed it to Los Angeles. Regardless of your favorite strawman, there’s no denying that Detroit presents a challenge and opportunity for gentrification on a scale never before seen in ‘Merka.
To be clear: gentrification eventually comes to every blighted neighborhood. As areas degrade, the prices fall. As real estate becomes cheap, a few intrepid souls venture in and start fixing up some houses. However, gentrification has never been seen on a scale like what is happening in Detroit.
Deborah Foster, in her article “Detroit Sinks Deeper Into Hell As It Faces Right Wing Utopian Fantasies,” writes:
The commonalities between what is happening to Sears and what is happening to Detroit are that both are now being subjected to right wing ideology, Ayn Rand philosophy, and von Hayek’s austerity economics. The results for each are similar. People will unnecessarily suffer. Damage will eventually need to be undone. And people will have to learn the hard way what a failure these poisonous schools of thought really are.
According to reports, the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and his cohorts, wealthy businessmen and corporations, have big plans for Detroit. They can’t wait to implement their conservative fantasies of privatizing and cutting city services, busting unions, selling off public assets, and laying off public employees. The citizens of Detroit have already seen 20% of their city’s workforce cut by their Democratic, multi-millionaire mayor, David Bing. In a place that suffers from a severe lack of jobs (there is one job for every four residents), more layoffs is just what the community needs. Among the upcoming plans approved by Orr are service shut-offs to neighborhoods determined to be too poor or under-populated for private investment to be profitable. The city’s unsung assets, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Belle Isle Park, and even the animals at the Detroit Zoo, have all been appraised and are ready for sale to private interests. Public services ranging from transportation to garbage collection and water treatment will soon be privatized and in the hands of for-profit corporations.
But where have we seen this before? Oh yeah. It’s a page right out of the Mittens Romney Vulture Capitalism Playbook. RMuse makes the undeniable point:
Republicans have long sought to sell off government assets they claim are prohibitively expensive to private, for-profit enterprises they claim are better equipped to administer them because they will base operations on sound corporate business models. What Detroit is experiencing is the Bain Capital vulture capitalist tactic of taking over a company, leveraging it with debt, declaring bankruptcy, and selling off assets and firing union employees all while turning a profit. Michigan governor Rick Snyder followed Bain’s tactics in appointing his cohort to lead the city, disband the government, and create conditions allowing the emergency manager to declare the city bankrupt to sell off assets allegedly to satisfy creditors.
To be sure, the direction Detroit was headed, and had been heading since 1950, was unsustainable. Something had to give. However, bankruptcy not only blames the victims, it punishes them. Those who will suffer the most under Chapter 9 are those who stuck with the city the longest: the people who still live within its borders, 83% of whom are Black; those who worked for the city and have since retired, who will see their pensions slashed; folks who still work for the city, in danger of having wages rolled back, or losing their jobs entirely; and Detroit’s just-barely-hanging-on Middle Class.
Detroit is a fairly big city. While this map is several years out of date, it’s still interesting for the size comparisons. San Francisco, Manhattan and Boston would all fit quite comfortably within Detroit’s borders, with room left over. However, in the years since that map was tricked up by the Detroit Free Press, Detroit has lost another 230,000 people, while Boston has added 140,000, San Francisco some 60,000, and Manhattan now has a whopping 1.6 million people crowded into its tiny 22.96 square miles.
It took Detroit until 1926 to annex all the way out to 8 Mile, the city’s northern border. However, many of those areas on the northern edge of Detroit were not developed until after World War Two, when veterans demobbed and found the demographics of the city they left changed by The Great Migration. However, Detroit’s population has slowly declined since the mid-50s and has lost 2/3rds of its population since 1960. Detroit has just 701,000 folks inhabiting 138.77 square miles, with an estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings.
Step right up, folks! Detroit is up for grabs in a cents-on-the-dollar fire sale not seen on a scale this widespread since Hiroshima. With entire swaths of Detroit uninhabited, some WHITE knights are swooping in and buying up empty lots, parking lots and buildings both big and small. Gentrification is coming to another Chocolate City, just like what happened in New Orleans, but on a much grander scale. Witold Rybczynski, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues in Bloomberg, that bastion of capitalism:
Historically, cities have grown by annexing neighboring communities. They could shrink by doing the opposite: selling off land in large tracts to private developers who would be responsible for providing their own municipal services (as they do in the suburbs) without the burden of city taxes and bureaucracy. Cities wouldn’t gain taxpayers, but they would divest themselves of unproductive land, and at the same time, people and economic activities would be attracted back into the urban vicinity.
Bet you dollars to donuts these private developments will be gated and its 8 foot walls patrolled by the George Zimmerman Memorial Security Guard Service. However, at the moment that’s just a pipe dream for Conservatives. There are some people who are actually putting their money where their mouths are and playing the long game with massive Detroit investment. Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch are the most notable, snatching up properties faster than Rush Limbaugh scarfing at an All You Can Eat buffet.
It’s hard to keep up with Gilbert’s Detroit buying bender. DetroitUnspun says:
Under the leadership of Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, the company now owns or controls 30+ properties (buildings and/or store fronts) in Downtown Detroit totaling nearly 7.5 million square feet. Nearly four million square feet is office/retail and another 3.7 million square feet is comprised of parking (10,096 parking spaces).
Meanwhile Mike Ilitch, Little Caesars Emperor and owner of both the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, is also betting big — as befits the husband of the Motor City Casino’s owner. Ilitch quietly bought up a 45 block area west of Woodward, in the Cass Corridor. [Google map here] Just last month he sprung his plans to build an “entertainment district” there, which will include a new arena for the Red Wings, along with hotels, retail and office space, and some housing. It’s a massive mixed-used development, if not a mixed income development. Those who currently living within the parameters will be displaced.
Yet, in what can only be described as bad optics, while the courts decide on whether unelected officials can apply unconstitutional laws to send Detroit into bankruptcy, Detroit Development Authority reconfirms its commitment to pump more than $200 million into the project, despite the fact that Mike Ilitch is one rich sumnabitch. The DDA gets its funding from a different revenue stream than Detroit, but it’s still tax dollars no matter how you slice it.
It’s not just massive projects. There’s some infilling going on in selected areas, such as this quaint development along the river between the Renaissance Center and the Detroit Riverwalk.
Sixty years of White Flight, combined with at least 100 years of institutionalized racism, created a population in Detroit that is 83% Black and relatively poor when compared to the rest of the nation. Statistics estimate the median household income as $26,098 (2009), down from $29,526 (2000), with an estimated per capita income (2009) of $14,213, below the poverty line for a family of two.
Will Detroit’s current residents be able to afford living in the city after the developers get done with it? Will they, like the victims of gentrification in other cities, be priced out of the city they call home? In 1940 the White population of Detroit stood at just over 90%, but after generations of White folk abandoned the city until their numbers equal less than 8%. That’s an almost complete reversal in demographics. It’s far too soon to tell if this gentrification will, like so many others in so many cities before it, squeeze out the poor and reverse the demographics once again. However, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Headly Westerfield is a freelance writer and thinker and former-Detroiter. He writes about the Motor City, race relations, and the media for his own Not Now Silly blog. For several years he wrote under the nom de blog Aunty Em for NewsHounds, the motto of which is “We watch Fox so you don’t have to.”