I haven’t seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy. (I can’t say that I would be all that concerned with Detroit if I were not now a Michigander.) Detroit is not chic. Even when it was the Paris of the mid-West it was still in fly over country and didn’t have the ginormous buildings that made East Coast folks marvel at Chicago. Then there was the automobile industry. If Detroit had been the home of Mercedes or BMW maybe New Yorkers would have cared. Just as likely, New Yorkers (and Philadelphians) would have preferred Chevys and Fords if Detroit made Mercedes and BeeMers.
Still, the woes of Detroit do put into perspective the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life. Cases like Detroit would certainly call for a bit of qualification to follow those inspirational claims since I am not sure that even having thirty full Reformed and Presbyterian congregations could have forestalled a constellation of circumstances that calls for David Simon’s genius. In other words, if you whet people’s appetites for transforming culture, then don’t they become disappointed when Detroits come along (as Geneva did not though its ecclesial fortunes have declined while its political and economic success has
In which case, what the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do.
And to help with this lesson in two-kingdom distinction-making, along comes an astute post by Matt Feeney on why the suburbs overwhelmed Detroit — because Detroit was a city that resembled a suburb:
For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.
Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.
This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?
This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”
City planning in the name of Christ might help though it would likely add unnecessarily to too many meetings. But how about some basic city planning with or without Christ for all those pikers living this side of glory?