Battle Royale In the Arena of Detroit’s Commons

In the Siege of Detroit, upon provocation Major General Isaac Brock’s British forces captured and held the midwest fort and city, heralding the War of 1812‘s start in July of that year.

Detroit holds the unique distinction of being the only American city to fall and be occupied by a foreign military – for over a year until September 1813.

So disgraced was Michigan territorial governor and Brigadier General William Hull that he was initially sentenced to death, the only US general to receive such a punishment.

Two centuries ago as the territorial capitol of the state, the city was now seen as a strategic liability. British troops occupied both banks of the Detroit river for decades after the war. In 1847, a decision to move the legislature elsewhere saw Michigan’s capital reassigned to the uninhabited swamps of Lansing Township.

fortdetroitDETROITopography

Over the next four decades, Detroit transitioned from an agricultural hub to an industrial empire. With this revolution the city’s population exploded from 45,000 to over 115,000 immigrants.

Approaching modern decades of history, Detroit began to shape national industry trends while becoming an auto-centric legend in the years leading up to WWII. Factories retooled from cars to bombers, and after 1945 they retooled back. Another decade or so of prosperity and labor advances followed until a trifecta of hardship hit the motor city.

Race riots, the Vietnam war, and the very car-oriented infrastructure built for Detroit’s biggest export hollowed out the city. Buildings burned, were vacated voluntarily, and were wrecking-balled to construct freeway after freeway. These costly mega-roads became ‘escape routes’ to the suburbs for Detroit’s nervous white residents. This trend hasn’t stopped since the 1960’s.

This history is important because the history of all cities is important. But Detroit is unique on numerous levels. When the British conquered her in 1812, Detroit was a city of just 800 people – its potential as an industrial powerhouse of 2 million was a vision still a hundred years off. Yet today, while both derided for blight and lauded for resurrection, a new siege of conquest is staging to occupy Detroit.

In all cities, real estate profits by moving people around. It achieves this by leveraging political and economic forces. Often we call this divestment and reinvestment, or what David Knox terms cycles of disenchantment and re-enchantment. For politicians, there’s little money or prestige in simply maintaining a neighborhood.

detroit rewildingFrom ‘A Hurricane without Water’ – see video below

Better to let it fall into disrepair, wait til people move out, bulldoze it all, sell it at bargain basement prices to developers who will flip it into shiny enclaves for middle and upper classes – and get filthy rich in the process. This is routine formula repeated as long as any of us have lived.

It’s estimated there are over 75,000 vacant structures throughout Detroit. Today, in the ongoing wake of housing collapse, a mass onslaught of tax foreclosures could see an additional 60,000 homes go vacant in 2015 alone.

Motown’s new white mayor Mike Duggan has been described asa privatization expert“, who as president and CEO of the formerly nonprofit Detroit Medical Center oversaw DMC’s acquisition by Vanguard Health Systems. Vanguard is owned by both The Blackstone Group and Goldman Sachs. To his credit, Duggan is steadfast in opposing Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to close 18 Detroit public schools in favor of pushing charter schools, a scheme many understand to be more privatization of public education.

In the Spring of 2014, appointed ’emergency manager’ and budget czar Kevyn Orr decreed the city would shut off the drinking water to 150,000 Detroit residents for bills as little as $150 dollars. Orr’s authority superseded city council, as he is accountable only to Gov. Snyder. Meanwhile, corporate customers like Joe Louis Arena owed upwards of $800,000.00 with no threat of being shut off. This outrage prompted the United Nations to declare Detroit’s continuing water shutoffs constitute violations of human rights.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 1.32.03 AM$10 Coors, but the parking is free!

Just last month, city council voted unanimously for a massive upscale sports development that will sprawl across five midtown neighborhoods. The centerpiece for this glass and concrete leviathon will be a brand new $450 million arena for the Red Wings, primarily funded by taxpayers, of course.

While virtually nobody besides developers The Ilitch Group agreed on the overall design, public testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the arena from workers desperate to survive Detroit’s 50% unemployment rate. Ironically, Iliatch set a non-binding goal of only hiring 51% of its construction workforce locally. Mayor Duggan praised the deal with banality, “This type of investment is what we need – that preserves the old, invites the new, and continues to move Detroit forward.”

Another Motorcity elephant in the room is Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert. Detroit media has lavished praise on this billionaire as he’s gobbled up downtown skyscrapers in a valiant attempt to save some of the city’s most cherished hi-rise architecture. Certainly investing in a thriving urban core is a noble goal. But with too much congratulation of this wealthy mortgage magnate, there’s grown a vacuum of criticism for Gilbert. Possibly adding to this trend is Gilbert’s own temper under scrutiny.

Columbia Journalism Review noted this lack recently: “Local coverage of Gilbert reveals some solidly informative reporting, some glaring gaps, and the occasional cringe-worthy moment. A recent Free Press feature compared Gilbert’s Detroit impact to another local baron: pro sports owner Mike Ilitch; the informative article came with a striking map pinpointing the extent of control these men have over downtown property. It’s surprising there han’t been an independent journalistic accounting of Quicken’s lending history in Detroit – particularly given Gilbert’s growing influence on neighborhood development.

The danger here is two-fold. Covering the wealthy and their acts of urban profiteering-as-philanthropy not only makes the press lazy, it overshadows the stories of working people and grassroots efforts to restitch neighborhoods back together for the sake of community itself, not for money. Once the wealthy reside securely in the headlines, the press only fixates further. These ‘saviors’ become celebrities where the stake of the city intertwines with personal gains of the Gilberts and Illitches like some twisted reality TV program.

Certainly we can agree that Detroit is at risk in numerous ways. Where militaries once battled for the rights of conquest, billionaires now leverage against a public whose collective power is derived not from amassing wealth, but in basic survival.

Real estate is about dividing up the commons while turning a profit doing it; Detroit is little different than other cities in that regard. Where communities can overcome this siege is in protecting resources before they’re consumed by the private sector.

Detroit has much to teach the world about intelligently declining and sustaining in the 21st century. By learning from her struggles, by creating more by using less, we can hope in another two centuries we find ourselves to be a human race no longer fighting for existence.

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There are cities that get by on their good looks. Detroit has to work for a living.
~ Elmore Leonard

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