The following essay leans heavily on—though cannot be blamed on—the works of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson despite me citing only one directly. Thanks to Kristian Davis Bailey and Lester Spence for critical feedback towards making this screed coherent.
It seems that every day brings a new story about Detroit’s “revitalization”. The Huffington Post, New York Times, Washington Post, NGOs and others point to new construction, new restaurants opening, the rehabbing or demolishing of old buildings, foundation and capitalist investment in the city and gentrification as starting a new chapter in Detroit’s history. Mayor Mike Duggan even has a “Housing and Revitalization Department” and Wayne State University hosts “Detroit Revitalization Fellows”. The narrative goes something like: “Until recently Detroit was an urban wasteland left destitute by deindustrialization, corrupt and incompetent governance, neglect and white flight but all that is changing. A new Detroit is being built and you can be a part of it!” Both this narrative and the processes it describes contain a fundamental anti-Blackness. They are premised on interrelated white capitalist accumulation, the commodification and erasure of Detroit’s Black geography, and Black social death.
The Revitalization of Detroit
A major part of ‘revitalizing Detroit’ is creating spaces for white fantasy. This is commonly done through describing the existing, living Black geography as a “blank canvas” for white gentrifiers, capitalists, politicians and academics to make of what they may. Leading gentrification figure and author Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times in 2009 that “Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished.” Dan Gilbert, Lebron James’s boss and owner of predatory lending firm Quicken Loans, is lauded as a champion of revitalization for moving Quicken’s headquarters to downtown Detroit and bringing so many newcomers to the city to work for him. Gilbert both markets subprime mortgages then chairs the “Blight Task Force” that demolishes empty houses, many of which are foreclosures caused by his firm. He can both blight and fight blight. Gilbert maintains a detailed model of downtown Detroit which only lights up buildings after he purchases them which more or less embodies this entire essay. His actions with the Blight Task Force mostly take place in Detroit’s low-income neighborhoods but he also played a role in the 2013 mass eviction of working class Black seniors and disabled people from the Griswold building downtown. With the removal of Black tenants perhaps Gilbert can now light up the Griswold building on his model. It has been ‘revitalized’.
Gilbert, the Ilitch family, and other billionaires are leading the charge but white petty capitalists and merchants are also joining in. Numerous on Crain’s Detroit’s annual “20 in their 20s” lists view Detroit as a “blank canvas”. Some new arrivals found small capitalist enterprises like the Parker Street Market that replicate what Black Detroit social movements have been doing, except reimagined for accumulation purposes rather than community prosperity. Typical to how white supremacy inverts relations, community prosperity is often imagined as white accumulation through ‘socially conscious’ capitalist enterprise. The Parker Street Market is emblematic of the small scale ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring fantasies in Detroit they could not realize at such relatively low expense in wealthier, whiter geographies. Enterprises like the much ballyhooed Whole Foods Detroit do like Parker Street but on a vastly larger scale. The Black social movements are scarcely noted, often erased entirely, while white capitalists are toasted. To the degree that Black Detroiters are acknowledged it is as Jon Moy wrote about Shinola. Shinola is an extraordinarily expensive retail and assembly shop located in the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood now marketed as ‘Midtown’, and is itself part of turning the Cass Corridor into Midtown. Moy writes, “Shinola and other entrepreneurs market themselves as white knights, swooping in to save the noble savages.” Here one’s politics might be positioned by whether one can tell the difference between shit and Shinola.
When former Governor Jennifer Granholm convened a panel to restructure Detroit schools she asked them to treat schooling children in a district around 90% Black like a “blank canvas”. Detroit’s schools were at the time, as they continue to be, under Emergency Manager (EM) rule, run by a technocrat with extraordinary powers appointed by the governor. EMs replace the decision making power normally allocated to elected officials (leaving the actual power of U.S. elections for another time). Democrat and Republican governors appoint Emergency Managers (EMs) to run the schools and city no matter decisions made by Detroit’s Black electorate (as they’ve done with most majority-Black cities and towns in Michigan). Black people make up around fourteen percent of Michigan’s populace and nearly half have been subjected to Emergency Manager rule, compared to less than one percent of white Michiganders. Detroit’s schools or city government have been under EM rule for over fifteen years now. The decisions of Black Detroiters simply do not matter and are erased. Emergency Management is a more politically palatable action than the phrasing used in 2004 by a white suburban politician describing a need to “suppress the Detroit vote.” Detroit politics are a “blank canvas” for the state’s white political leadership to inscribe their Emergency Management experiment upon. The ‘blank canvas’ term is now less in use than in past years due to push back from Detroiters continually emphasizing that they actually exist but the concept persists largely unperturbed.
Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to outside real estate speculators, a new petty landlord class (a place where there is a significant measure of Black capitalist participation), the fantasists and the property hoarders like John Hantz, Gilbert and others. They buy up houses, buildings and plots in any low-cost neighborhood. They know nothing of the neighborhoods because Black neighborhoods do not matter to them apart from a vision of capital accumulation. The speculators seek a quick turnaround anywhere and future profits around the current periphery of gentrification. The landlords seek higher rents (more easily accomplished with white renters who receive higher wages). The hipster fantasists do their entrepreneuring (gag!) while bringing a higher police presence—they want Detroit grime but not Detroit crime. The hoarders seek to create an artificial scarcity so as to drive up all prices. Detroit’s Black geography is fungible to white capitalist accumulation and it is explicitly the city’s Blackness that makes it so.
By an overwhelming margin Black Detroiters bear the brunt of these and related oppressive actions. The population embodies the Detroit purportedly in need of vitalizing, of adding life to, for anti-Blackness dictates that Black people are socially dead. It is mostly Black people who are being foreclosed upon and evicted, who are having their votes invalidated by EMs, who are having their water shut-off and then their kids removed due to no water service, whose neighborhoods become playgrounds for real estate speculators. But Black suffering as a negative is a rare topic of discussion in such matters and condemnation of these actions outside of Detroit too is rare. For how can the socially dead suffer? Indeed in most conversations it is the Black working class and the, in Frantz Fanon and Huey Newton’s positive understanding, Black lumpenproletariat who are said to be responsible for the consequences of white supremacist capitalist policies rather than racial capitalism being the cause. Inside racial capitalism it can hardly be otherwise. It is official policy so it is as Saidiya Hartman said, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.” There is no more telling example of Hartman’s phrasing than the 2010 collaborative reality television and police murder of Aiyana Stanley Jones on Detroit’s East Side. She was a young girl sleeping in her bed when police and a reality tv crew burst through her door and killed her while exercising a warrant. There has been no accountability and the cop that murdered her is back at work disciplining Black bodies for the state.
The Devitalization of Detroit
Large scale disinvestment and the underdeveloping of Detroit began in the 1960s after highway construction helped facilitate white flight to the suburbs. Highways constructed for the imperial war effort in the 1940s paved the way for white relocation to suburbs ever further north across 8 Mile road and to the city’s west. The population shift was triggered by accumulation from industrial production during the war, the automobile industry and the arrival of vast numbers of Black migrants from the South. In the case of the construction of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75 and I-375), this was accomplished by paving over the remains of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, neighborhoods comprising the cultural, political and economic core of Black Detroit demolished by Mayor Cobo. Alternately put, white flight was in part realized in driving over an intentionally dislocated and disoriented Black civil society and geography. The erasure described above is not new. It was tried through physical demolition as with Black Bottom and with real estate redlining from the moment Detroit’s Black population began rapidly expanding.
Industrialists, CEOs and boards of directors closed and relocated manufacturing plants away from the increasingly Black city. Others used automated production not to enhance the workforce but instead to deskill (so as to pay lower wages and reduce bargaining power) and replace (so as to pay no wages and face no bargaining power) workers. Many did both. With the removal of jobs came the removal of the sector serving those employees and employing others. The managerial and most of the white working class followed those jobs and fled the rapidly arriving Black population that, for a few decades, continued to grow. Whites increased their flight in response to the 1967 Rebellion, commonly called ‘the riots’. In the late 1980s the Black population started to leave too, this not counting the disappeared tens of thousands continually sent off to prisons all over the state. Meanwhile successive neoliberal local and state administrations have sold off and given away control of city assets, most recently Belle Isle.
The ‘revitalization’ narratives note some of the above but do so with minimal critique of the racist, capitalist policies that made it this way. Detroit’s problems didn’t simply happen, they were and are being engineered and are the predictable results of both corporate and government policies (to the degree that it is useful to separate them). Further, they note these problems but ignore positive action by Black residents and every solution not offered by the elite. This is due to another aspect of anti-Blackness, the social death of slavery.
Rather than being a blank canvas the actually existing Detroit is a canvas painted over and again, beginning with French and later British settlers killing and expelling the local Ojibwe population and establishing a slaveholding settler colony. How is today’s Detroit, a near inverse of the original settler colony, with its block parties, vibrant social movements, mosques, churches, restaurants, clubs, numerous annual festivals, its own dances, musics and other cultural production in need of revitalization? Of needing an injection of life? Because it is Black metropolis. As Hartman, Orlando Patterson, Frank Wilderson and others have illustrated, Blackness to White America is social death, is a marker of a fungible commodity rather than humanity. For White America adding ‘matter’ to ‘Black lives’ is almost redundant as it disavows Black life in the first place.
Black life in Detroit is unrecognizable to the planners of the New Detroit. Detroit the existing, living city simply isn’t to the elite, so long as it is a Black city. Revitalization is the influx of young white people and investments by white capitalists. Devitalization—a geography of social death and an unuttered word—is the process by which Detroit became a Black metropolis. Detroit is said to be in need of revitalization and that revitalization imagines a geography devoid of humans, a “blank canvas”, because the social death of Blackness imagines Black residents not as individual people but as fungible markers of white accumulation. These narratives show a total and aggressive contempt for the Black metropolis, its people and social movements. But “revitalization” is not treated as problematic no matter the massive harm it’s causing because, to repeat Hartman’s phrasing, “No crime can occur because the slave statutes recognize no such crime.”