Detroit, Revitalization and the Obliteration of History

by Eli Day


There's a revivalist lullaby being sung about Detroit--one that croons of a city lifting itself up and vanquishing the ghosts of its tortured history simply by looking past them. Yet even as it crescendos, longtime residents seem to have failed, or perhaps refused, to brim with the untrammeled hope the lullaby urges. We needn't labor in the dark as to why: there is no whistling past a history whose boot remains planted on your neck.

After all, when the only home you've ever known is synonymous with urban apocalypse, you take a particular message about its prospects. And when revival becomes the talk of the town, evoking a lifeless body knocking at death's door, you take a certain message about the condition of your own. At a minimum, it forces a relationship to the concrete world that whimsical tales of resurrection can never breach.

Those who've assigned themselves the task of measuring Detroit's odds have nearly all fallen prey to such youthful folly. Namely, that the city is a real world Gotham--adrift in an ocean of maximum turbulence and lonesome for her belated heroes. It's devilishly cute, but nods toward a type of mysticism. In this telling, the anguish of Detroit in general, and its ghettos in particular, is the regrettable outcome of an untold, cruel sorting of the universe. Often, through some remarkable alchemy, this evolves into delusions of a worldlier genre: that Detroit is the architect of its own implosion, existing in that distant realm of things mutilated by a people's cultural decay.

The end game is painfully obvious: if the ghetto is self-devouring, its continued misery is less likely to disturb those soothed by the revivalist lullaby. It's a convenient spin for those whose interest in history proceeds from a powerful desire to be done with it all. But it's dead on arrival for anyone whose love of country impels them towards skepticism and interrogation.

Let's dwell there for a moment, because the consequences of such proud thoughtlessness are vast. There's nothing mysterious at play here--the ghetto is a deliberate creation of public policy. Anyone who suggests otherwise speaks with unearned authority.

In Metropolitan Detroit, much like nearly every urban mecca of the 20th Century, the most successful government programs were engineered to aid the ambitions of some while thwarting those of others. Consider the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), whose mandate was to spread the American religion of homeownership. It did so enthusiastically--namely by issuing government-backed mortgages in such a way that built the white middle-class by deliberately sealing African-Americans in the ghetto. This and other New Deal programs were erected "with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through" as the NAACP protested at the time. In this, the federal government made common cause with the white supremacist neighborhood associations that pursued their creed through a sweeping campaign of "communal violence" to further discourage black homebuyers--a euphemism for entire communities casting their lot with terrorism.

The illusion of cultural decay is pulverized by the awesome ghosts of this history. The truth is agonizingly simpler: the ghetto is what happens when a nation consents to the desecration of its own values.

History points us down the path of an elementary moral principle: that we are responsible for the consequences of our own actions. This is as true for the nation-state as it is for the lone actor.

In a word, strengthening Detroit's communities demands public engineered remedies for publicly engineered devastation. Policy is both virus and antidote here. To claim otherwise is to accept the tortured logic that the American polity has no obligation to alleviate disasters of its own creation. It's a logic that's paved the way for celebrations of truly hideous policy--a foreclosure auction couched in revivalist rhetoric while further mutilating neighborhoods already mangled by housing and employment discrimination, democratic plunder and homegrown terrorism comes to mind. That this passes without irony speaks to the heinous custom of celebrating history until history is too much to bear.

And it's cribbed from an old tradition--one that annihilates the past in order to grant a scandalous national comfort: absolution for past atrocities. The cult of revival is guilty of many offenses, chief among them is an utter refusal to spurn this tradition. It throttles any claim that they are negotiating Detroit's future in good faith, precisely because it ensures that they remain bound to the very system they wish to extinguish.

But willful amnesia can never erase the families who fled Southern apartheid only to find that political asylum in the North was a phantom menace--only differing as James Baldwin once quipped "in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact." And no matter its popular appeal, cultural decay can never be prophesy in the land that authored Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. And its disciples will never possess moral authority in the land that tormented Ossian Sweet.

Native Detroiters are correctly skeptical of those who consider themselves bold enough to look beyond this history, but summon enough cowardice to mimic its greatest catastrophes. They know their lot is neither accidental nor the work of mysticism. It is the intended endpoint of an astonishing species of moral cowardice--one that sacrifices other people's flesh at the altar of power. Talks of revival are irrevocably, and correctly, stalked by this history. It serves as a check against those who'd forge a future by obliterating the past and thus cementing the preventable suffering of its victims.

Posted on November 13, 2015 .