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Detroit in transition - guest blog from Elizabeth Anderson-Kempe

Since the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble, resulting financial crisis, and the onset of the Great Recession more than four years ago, Detroit has become one of the most potent symbols of American decline. Photographers have documented abandoned industrial buildings (factories, train stations, movie theaters), vacant inner-city lots, boarded-up homes, un-populated streets. These images, collectively known as “ruin porn”, have helped to solidify the image of Detroit as a post-industrial wasteland.


In the past ten years, according to census figures, the population of Detroit has shrunk by more than 200,000 people, from 951,000 in 2000 to 713, 000 in 2010. Once the 5th largest US city in 1950, with a population of 1,850,000, the city is now 18th, earning it the designation of one of the most prominent “first-world shrinking cities.” Losing that many people is particularly striking in a city as sprawling as Detroit. It covers such a large land mass that San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan together could fit within its borders.


The de-population and decline of Detroit are the consequence of events that have occurred over several decades. As John Patrick Leary points out in “Detroitism”, his inspired critique of “ruin porn” for Guernica magazine: “From the 1967 riots, when Detroit  became the flashpoint of the country’s political and racial crisis, to the deindustrialization and crime of the nineteen seventies and the nineteen eighties, the city has been a bellwether of each major urban crisis since World War II”.


Detroit, of course, is synonymous with auto manufacturing, and its fortunes have risen and fallen with the rise and fall of the US car industry. Once an employment destination for southern African Americans, Detroit has steadily lost manufacturing jobs; and younger generations, the children of the original migrants, have been forced to leave and find work elsewhere.  As early as the 1950s, white city residents started moving to the suburbs, a process popularly known as “white flight”, to escape overcrowding in the city, racial tensions, crime and other real and perceived social ills. These suburbs form a ring around the inner city core, and are connected to but separated from that core by an extensive freeway system.   


With this mass exodus of people and businesses, and loss of property and business tax revenue, the city’s infrastructure took a hit. In some areas, the city has given up on maintaining basic infrastructure such as sewer systems, water and power lines. Parts of the city, particularly at its fringes, have returned almost to rural conditions, creating an overlap between urban and rural landscapes (From Tom Gougeon’s talk at MCA Denver, March 2, 2012). In fact, there are at least 30,000 vacant lots in Detroit, as the city’s policy has been to demolish houses that have been left abandoned for too long.  Adding to the gloomy outlook, recent headlines warn of a municipal bankruptcy if the government runs out of cash to pay employees and bondholders. (

In effect, local government can no longer be an economic contributor to Detroit’s revival. “Today, Detroit, . . .  is ‘ground zero’ of the collapse of the finance and real estate economy in America”, as Leary states in his Guernica article. (


So, how are some of the people at “ground zero” engaged with a Detroit in transition? Coinciding with stories about Detroit’s decline, there have been a number of stories about its resurgence. Articles in The New York Times, The Guardian, W, Dwell and Time magazines,  and countless local and national blogs, tell of artists, architects, and designers moving to Detroit from Europe, from Brooklyn, from San Francisco to start over and create a new kind of community in a de-urbanized city core that offers “blank slate” possibilities. Some observers have compared the phenomenon to what happened in Berlin in the early 1990s after the fall of the Wall when many Western artists and younger people moved to East Berlin, attracted by cheaper rents, an “undiscovered” city landscape, and the possibility of forming a new community in a transitional place.


I grew interested in these “resurgent Detroit” stories a couple of years ago, when my husband and I,  then living in Los Angeles, started researching where we might move. Los Angeles, with its crumbling infrastructure, air pollution, gridlocked highways, bad school system, high cost of living, and inconvenient public transportation system had become untenable for us. Though we didn’t end up relocating to Detroit, we were tempted by the promise of cheap real estate (we heard stories of people buying homes for $2,000 and less), the low cost of living, and, most of all, the stories of artists and creative entrepreneurs who were making new lives for themselves. It sounded like a minor Utopia, (re)settled by urban pioneers, busy doing meaningful work. Of course the reality is more complicated than that – in a city that is more than 80% African American,  where over 30% of the residents live below the poverty line, and unemployment is estimated to be at 20%, foreclosed homes that can be bought for less than $2,000 harbor a history of disappointments, economic poverty, and lack of choice. And, as many chroniclers of the migration point out, the new settlers are mostly white, young, and educated. It’s not a moral judgment; it’s a plotline that follows the typical US gentrification narrative.


Yet, what is going on in Detroit steers away from the familiar plotline in several ways. These urban pioneers, some of whom have returned home to Michigan after years away, have embedded themselves in un-revitalized neighborhoods that others have given up on.  Collectively they have the ambitious intention to rebuild and refresh their neighborhoods, and, in doing so, to raise the quality of life in Detroit. Their efforts are organic, personal, spirited, committed, and undertaken with an eye toward sustainability on a human scale. It remains to be seen, but these from-the-ground-up urban renewal activities might prove to be more effective, more lasting than initiatives sponsored by government officials and city planners precisely because they happen outside the confines of officially-sanctioned urban structures.


There are several dimensions to Detroit’s small-scale urban renewal initiatives.

First, these efforts have a common focus on reclaiming and repurposing the physical environment, and thus, address the problems of urban decay and a crumbling infrastructure. Some of the groups I’ll highlight in another blog post have, for example, been buying and rebuilding derelict houses and buildings and creating new participatory uses for them. Alongside the repurposing of buildings, the urban agriculture movement has taken hold in Detroit in a big way. Urban gardeners throughout the city have transformed over 1,000 empty lots into household and community gardens, and even farms. In a city formerly known as a “food desert,” more people now have access to fresh produce “Grown in Detroit”.


The projects, whether cultivating community gardens or reclaiming homes, emphasize  the human side of Detroit. The mission that underlies most of the projects is to be inspired and to inspire others to be self-reliant, to work together to try things out in the name of taking more control over one’s surroundings, and by extension, over the future of the city. I see these creative efforts to refresh as interventions, experimental practices that lie at the intersection of public art, commerce, community development, and social change.


In my next blog posts, I will provide several examples of experiments in urban renewal. I will focus on the problems the groups and individuals are addressing and the solutions they are employing.


Elizabeth Anderson-Kempe, PhD, a cultural historian and ethnographer, is the co-founder of a research and strategy consultancy, Artemis Research By Design (, and of EthnoHub (, a qualitative research platform. She has lived in several world cities, including London, Paris, Chicago and Los Angeles. 


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