Stories of plucky urban homesteaders and community gardens may have distracted us from reality.
Conor Friedersdorf points out on The Atlantic this morning that Detroit has been in trouble for half a century, with an entire city's once-booming economy teetering on a single industry (and the whims of American consumers) that some prescient people long ago realized could never sustain the place forever. As Conor quotes from one 1958 article on the city:
Detroit is one of the few large cities of the U.S. that are provincial enough to speak with one voice. Like Hollywood, it has become a kind of secular shrine to twentieth century technology. Like Hollywood, it has built enormous enterprises on the whims of the American public. Like Hollywood, too, it is a one industry town -- a complex of companies scattered across wastes of an overgrown village in the advanced stages of urban sprawl. Like Hollywood, it may have passed its peak.
If you missed those 50-year-old warning signs, they've more recently been piling up at a non-stop clip. Last July, the city shut down its 311 call center, one of the most direct ways that cities provide customer service to residents. Then in March Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared Detroit in a fiscal mess so dire that a state-appointed emergency manager had to take over for the locally elected government. This spring, as our Mark Byrnes wrote, the city began to toy with the idea of selling off its art to stave off bankruptcy, a sign of last-ditch solutions bordering on the absurd. Then earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Detroit police were taking, on average, 58 minutes to respond to 911 calls about the most serious crimes. The city had effectively ceased to operate like one.
And yet all along, there have been tempting signs of something else: The city's first Whole Foods! Plucky urban homesteaders were planting urban gardens on all that vacant land! Dan Gilbert sounded some days as if he could personally will the city back from the brink. And for everyone who bolted town, there seemed to be a small but determined trickle of newcomers lured in by the idea of taking on some massive challenge.
Some of these small projects and stories were inspiring, but they could never add up to something larger than the city's systemic problems that were decades in the making. That doesn't mean hopeful stories about Detroit haven't been (or still aren't) worth telling. But to the extent that we've let any of them lull us into thinking that the city could recover through the force alone of some really determined people – in the absence of employment, in the absence of functioning government, in the absence of democracy – we've been avoiding reality.