America in Microcosm: Detroit, MI
|by Carter Brock|
File under: Fake Culture07 Jan 2014 13:27 EST
Between its high-profile bankruptcy and shocking scenes of decay, the City of Detroit has become a favorite object of media attention. It's unnecessary to repeat here the well-worn stories of crumbling infrastructure, poverty/crime, and establishment graft. We've heard it all before; but even with this extensive coverage, we're still waiting for either a proper diagnosis or prescription for the city's woes. Silence persists on these topics because Detroit is America in microcosm, and fully articulating Detroit's flaws would upset much of masquerade of American life.
What a twist of irony that cars, the product that drove Detroit's ascendency, would also service its decline. Suburban sprawl was facilitated by the automobile, and allowed for the gutting of both Detroit's population and its economic base. Large roads and highways scarred neighborhoods, marooning inhabitants rather than connecting them. Rapid outward expansion polarized the region along race and class divisions, creating the ghettos. This same drama unfolded in numerous urban centers. Is there not a correlation between America's rising wealth inequality and our geographical abandonment by the wealthy?
Moreover, this sprawl represents the worst of careless design. Vehicle-dependence was the result of oil and auto influence in politics, not scientific planning. We're now left with a perverted system that enriches corporate interests while draining the public. Putting aside the environment and sustainability (which are critical, but let's ignore for sake of argument...) the sheer economics of it falls apart when oil goes from five or ten dollars a barrel to $100 and up. Everything becomes unaffordable.
We're over-extended. It's a mentality that dates back to Manifest Destiny and colonialism before it. Constant growth, which the economy demands to meet the exponential interest payments of our debt-based monetary system, is the reason why a rise in GDP traditionally indicates a “healthy” economy. But we know cancer is the only thing that grows indefinitely, and the rot of 80,000 blighted Detroit properties, like the useless vacant strip malls and housing tracts dotting our nation's landscape, is sure sign of disease.
America has always idolized rugged individualism, and car culture is a manifestation of this mindset. Cars transform the road from a place of open social interaction to one of discrete, closed off, isolated bubbles. They allow us to tune out and bypass undesirable societal realities without confronting them. Another sad tale in the collapse of our communities.
So when we wonder why Main Street is shuttered, why our Black neighborhoods are worse off today than in the Civil Rights era, perhaps we can find answer with the first generation raised in the private hedonism of auto and suburban life, those Easy Riders who gazed far out, turned up the music, and invented hour-long work commutes from distant McMansions in gas-guzzler SUVs.
The individual segregation of automobiles corresponds to the regional segregation of race. White flight in the post-WWII boom years, culminating with the infamous 1967 Detroit race riots, has left the city as a rather unique case, having an 80% Black population. No other large American city approaches these demographics, especially outside of the South. When you understand Detroit as a fundamentally Black city, in the context of a nation economically, educationally, and judicially slanted according to race, then its decline might be seen at least partially in a different light.
There is a din of optimism that the city is turning around. New businesses are popping up. Dan Gilbert and the Quicken Loans Crew are applauded every time they buy another empty downtown skyscraper at wholesale price, but it's yet to be explained how any of these “recoveries” incorporate Detroit's 600,000 native Black residents. For now, all of the new restaurants and boutiques are distinctly Caucasian. Maybe the hope is that the Black population will remain ensconced in their ghetto islands, or simply die off or disappear. Until these people are addressed — really until they are included with, daresay, 80% input — true recovery is unlikely.
Little seems to be changing on the political front either. Newly-elected Mike Duggan, the city's first White mayor in over forty years, has already begun filling appointments with members of the local political machine. From Jimmy Hoffa to Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit has seen its share of corruption. Kwame's “Friends and Family” administration was rife with blatant cronyism and bribery, and yet, was it really so different than Washington D.C.'s plutocratic thuggery? This kind of thing is everywhere. Isn't it funny, of all the possible corruption cases out there, that the FBI targeted Kwame, surely a minor player in the grand scheme of scandals? Some kind of biases must have affected this decision-making.
Now, you wouldn't be wrong to point out that plain old malfeasance was involved as well. Poor leadership has resulted in obsolete infrastructure, broken city services, and un-payable debts. But again we ask, do you believe Detroit has been run that much differently than any other municipality? Many are faced with scaling back services. Many are holding the same bloated pension grenades.
Don't sneer at Detroit's failing schools without recognizing them as a national trend. Americans spend the most in the developed world on social goods like education, health care, and corrections, while getting some of the worst results. The Federal government would rather blow up foreigners than raise up its own citizens. Are the Bozos in charge at the municipal and Federal levels really any different?
With all of its struggles, the City of Detroit is seen as being left behind. In reality it is ahead of the curve, as it is now the first to undergo the processes of contraction and refinancing that will be necessary across the country in coming years. If the people of Detroit can succeed at this, maybe correct some past mistakes, it could be they who are looked to as the template for reshaping American life in the 21st century.
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