by Eric Riley
Detroit is complicated. I think after all the reading, research, and experiences I’ve had thus far, that seems to be the one conclusion that makes sense. But for some reason people tend to shy away from this complexity. Maybe it's scary, or maybe it's too difficult to understand, but people love to reduce every issue down to the simplest levels, often in a harmful way. This is without a doubt the case in the rhetoric around the city's’ “comeback”. Everywhere you look there is someone talking about Detroit, the “comeback” city. Being back at school anytime I bring up Detroit to people here in Ann Arbor I’m immediately pulled into the “come back” conversation, which gets dicey when I start to complicate things to a level people are rarely comfortable with. But this idea of the “comeback” wasn’t just a popular term it like all words we use have meaning. When people cavalierly say that the city is coming back, whom is the city coming back for? And what is the city coming back to? These questions tend to lie in the more ethereal realm when people are talking about the city, but they matter, the barometer for Detroit’s current success needs to be spelled out and discussed in order for us to truly say the city is doing well.
Tawana Petty, a local activist, poet, contributor to the archives, and all around great person said it best when she was interviewed during Tavis Smiley’s Detroit Town Hall:
“First of all, I hate the city “comeback” language because, where’s it going back to? And if it's going back to a particular time, that were starting to see with the racial segregation, schools that are not being invested in, communities that are being starved out of resources and just only focusing on white people returning to Detroit, I don’t wanna go back there.”
Tawana wasn’t pointing to some local trend in “comeback” language either. Over the summer it seemed liked every major (i.e. corporate) news or media outlet was running some story about Detroit. One of the worst covered “When a Man Loves a Woman” singer Michael Bolton, and his documentary that was “saving” Detroit. Others were sort of routine looks at the new (i.e. white) and thriving business scenes and the new foodie destinations for all the millennials who should definitely consider moving to the city. But as summer ended, I had incorrectly assumed the onslaught of “comeback” stories was over, I was wrong. In the last week The Free Press (Detroit’s largest news publication) ran an article touting the “comeback” of Detroit home prices. The Free Press article titled, “Detroit home values on the rise” seemed like an innocent piece, but was just another example of surface level praise of a recent issue without adequate research into the complex nature of why things are finally turning around for Detroit homeowners. It fails to mention that these values have increased partly because of the systematic water shutoffs, the mass foreclosures, and the displacement of black and poor people out of neighborhoods primed for “revitalization”.
All of these articles, interviews, and segments were centered around the “comeback” narrative. So what exactly did these people mean when they were saying “comeback”. Let’s answer that first question I posed a little earlier; who’s coming back? Well this one is easy; white people/non black people with money. Now don’t get me wrong, Detroit is a city where 80% of the population is Black, and while I appreciate and love the diversity within black culture, we could stand to diversify a bit. However, when a white person coming to the city is unilaterally and unquestioningly held as the best thing for Detroit then we have a problem. It’s a problem because it heralds the young millennial white professionals and hipsters as heroes on the urban frontier, and the only people that have ever mattered for Detroit’s success. This romanticization of Detroit’s past almost always focuses on the near two million population figure and the abundance of jobs and businesses in the city. What’s left out is the part of the past filled with the murder of black and brown bodies, razing of historic communities, and the intense racial segregation.
Whenever people start to question or complicate this narrative people inevitably are labeled as anti progress. Let me be clear, I am by no means anti progress. What I am is anti gentrification, I am anti displacement, I am anti basic human rights violations, I am anti white supremacy, I am anti dictatorial politics, and I am anti progressing towards a majority white city where the black minority has been pushed to the edge and the legacy of starving communities of resources persists.
Detroit is complicated, and just saying that it's “coming back” overlooks a history of trauma and abuse that has impacted the city up to this day. Our language matters, the narratives we tell about this city matters, and oversimplification and erasing the experiences in the process matters. So the next time someone talks about the comeback be prepared to have a real conversation about what's really going on, one that involves all the experiences and narratives of those living in the city, and one that isn’t afraid to delve into the complexity that is Detroit.