Learning About Detroit: #3

A major upside and unique aspect to my internship experience has been getting to do it through the Semester in Detroit program. Not only am I immersed in an awesome city with a rich history, but I’m interacting with its communities while I learn.

The 20th Century History of Detroit course all Semester in Detroit participants were required to take took me way back to the city’s start and helped me paint a better picture of where it currently is and where it could go. One of the lessons I enjoyed the most in this class, that I should mention was taught by the knowledgeable, Stephen Ward, was the one that focused on the city’s “Rise and Fall”. We discussed this narrative at the beginning of class and tried to digest what exactly a narrative was and how telling about a story in a certain manner reflects its narrative.

This week’s readings highlighted a specific period in Detroit history that some label “The Rise and Fall.” Because of this, some readings, relate to the rise and fall narrative we had been discussing in class. The readings this particular week focused a little more on the changes that are actually occurring in the city during its “fall” as well as the suggestions for what should be done within communities to revitalize the city after the so-called “fall” and thus identify more with the communities narrative.
The video Detroit: City On the Move that we watched was created in 1965 when Detroit was still considered a model city. Industry was booming, race relations seemed to be handled well, it was attractive, and was on the rise with education and research with Wayne State University located at the city’s geographical core. So, at the time, the video advertised Detroit as the place to be for a diverse people and could be considered the peak of the “rise.” What the video did not highlight, however, were how some of the citizens felt about the perfect image that was portrayed to the rest of the world. Underlying tensions among residents of different identities would soon boil over and expose the truths that lie behind the pretty metropolis.
Two Societies (1965-1968) is another video, but this time the message sent to viewers would be different compared to the one mentioned above. The video starts speaking on the uprising in California in 1965 and the one in Chicago in 1966. Both incidents seemed to be Blacks revolting against the systematic oppression of Whites and the government in particular. The video made sure to state, though, that neither incident amounted to the amount of damage and coverage that was made in Detroit its 1967 race riot. Based on the period of which I’m writing—60s until now—this marked the beginning of the “fall” in the city. Not long after, the population began to decrease, Whites started moving out of the city rapidly, and once that happened, industry started to leave as well. So, what was once a busting metropolis for people of all kinds to come, find work, “build community,” and maybe a buy a home became a predominately Black city with little to no jobs left, an upcoming surge of drugs and violence, and fading desire to build strong community.

Of course, there is more to the story, but for the sake of time and the short analysis that was asked for, I must condense what I have come to make of the situations.
In 1974, the city elected probably one of its greatest mayor’s yet—Coleman A. Young. Young was not a native of the city, but clearly had a burning desire to see it be as, if not more, prosperous as it had been before the “fall.” The flaw that I saw and that was pointed out by the James Lee Boggs (a long-time resident, activist, author, and philanthropist of Detroit) was that he wanted to go about the revitalization process the wrong way. He wanted to use similar tactics that were used in producing the motor city without recognizing that what helped make Detroit also aided in its demise. He believed that the new industry could be casinos; it would bring in money as well as produce jobs for citizens. To an extent he was correct, but he did not consider the fact that an entire city does not grow and prosper based on the renewal of one area. In other words, money does not spread.

It’s similar to what we see today in downtown Detroit. There are nice, big buildings throughout and new businesses popping up every time you turn around, so from the looks of it, things are going pretty well for Midtown. Gentrification in this part of the city has been seen for a long while now, but there are still other parts of the city that need work done. If the success of Midtown has not spread to other parts of the city yet, then it probably is not ever going to.

The importance of community is what should have been emphasized more during Young’s years. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Young knew that communities and neighborhoods are important, but what he thought would have been a solution to help them was not one.
James Lee Boggs stressed the importance of starting with the grassroots of neighborhoods in Detroit to grow community. This lesson helped stress to me the importance of places like my internship with Racquet Up. Although the political arena has big things to focus on, we must not forget the smaller things that too can make a great difference in a community, a city, and around the world.


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