A tale of two cities: Detroit, between collapse and renaissance

A tale of two cities: Detroit, between collapse and renaissance
Downtown Detroit is seen along Woodward Ave in Detroit, Michigan April 2, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Downtown Detroit. Photo by Rebecca Cook/REUTERS.

We are used to Detroit being portrayed within a general narrative of “ruin, abandonment and decay”. The booming auto industry and the growing employment’s opportunity that attracted waves of immigrants and made the city expand and become one of the largest metropolitan areas of the country are nothing but a memory.

Today Detroit, one of the poorest cities of America, is seeing the chasm between rich and poor continuously growing, with inequalities becoming more and more sharpened.

With the exception of few neighborhoods in downtown Detroit, which are the theatre of a gentrification process and are therefore experiencing an incredible revival – with new businesses, infrastructures and residents reshaping the area – the rest of the city lies in decay. People are moving away, preferring to live in more wealthy suburbs, public schools are being closed as they fail to compete with the evolving educational market, shops and services are shutting down as not enough clients are left to profit from them, land is left vacant and neighborhoods become less sicure.

FILE - JULY 18: The City of Detroit has filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. DETROIT - NOVEMBER 19: a person walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Company, which ceased production in the late 1950`s, November 19, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. The Big Three U.S. automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, are appearing this week in Washington to ask for federal funds to curb to decline of the American auto industry. Detroit, home to the big three, would be hardest hit if the government lets the auto makers fall into bankruptcy. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A person walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Company, which ceased production in the late 1950`s. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

As highlighted in a recent article by the Guardian, there are two Detroits that look like two completely different words: the only thing that the new gentrified Detroit and the old Detroit share is their geographic location, while they deeply differ in everything else, from education, to income, to future perspectives. The economic and social divide existing between the two Detroits is mirrored by an ethnic divide, which sees a predominantly white community located in the renewed midtown and in the wealthy outer suburbs and a largely black community living just outside the midtown core, in an area where housing is crumbling, land is left vacant and residents earn a 25% lower wage than inhabitants of better off neighborhoods. This divide, rather than being intangible, has become part of people’s everyday life, as we learn from the documentary Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route, which makes us observe, through the attentive eyes of a local mailman, the deep changes that the city underwent.

What can be observed in Detroit is that, while gentrification itself is not a negative phenomenon, as it usually brings more opportunities and better services to the neighborhood and also provides more founding that can be used for subsidized housing (balancing out the increasing rental costs), the real issue is the concentration of poverty and inequalities.

Gentrification is not to be seen as the cause of the displacement of the most poor urban inhabitants, as it does not take place in the poorest neighborhoods in the first place. those ares, which could truly benefit from the new investments that gentrification brings along, remain untouched by this phenomenon, as we can see from the data: “of neighborhoods that were more than 30% poor in 1970, just 9% are now less poor than the national average” (data from The Economist).

The Georgia Street Community Collective, Detroit.

But when focusing so much on the issues the city is facing we encounter the risk of seeing only the dark side of the coin. If instead we make the effort of taking a deeper look at what is happening in the city we will discover many signs that will make us foresee a brighter future.

A first step in this direction is to take notice of the current condition of the city, looking at its problematics from a different perspective and trying to find a way  to transform them into strengths and to profit from them. We could for example focus on the positive sides of the loss of residents and consider it in a “smart decline” framework, adapting to the new trends and taking advantage from the decrease in population and from the consequent increase in vacant land. Such land, rather than laying in decay and becoming a safe refuge for illegal activities, can be used for the benefit of local resident, as we see it has already been happening in many cases: vacant spots can become community centers, parks, gyms (as it happened in this inspiring case), gardens and much more. A particularly relevant example of regeneration is the case of vacant land devoted to urban agriculture and farming, a phenomenon that is becoming widely common in several cities and that can improve people’s lives in many ways, both socially, as community gardens represent an occasion to build relationships with other inhabitants of a neighborhood, and economically, as growing one’s own food can be a great remedy against urban poverty and can alleviate the expenses a family has to face. It is important to acknowledge that the administration is not insensitive to the requests of citizens, and has been working on the development of a public policy that can make urban farming and agriculture easier.


Carniceria Guadalajara, a thriving family-owned butcher shop in the Springwells neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. Photo from Global Detroit.

Another feature which makes Detroit an interesting case to observe is its demographic composition, as the city’s population is ethnically diverse as a result of several waves of immigration. Rather than seeing immigrant communities as burdens, a big effort is being done in creating a change of paradigm, which will allow everyone to consider immigrants as important contributors for the development of the area. This is exactly what the non-profit corporation Global Detroit is trying to do by “welcoming, retaining, and empowering immigrant communities as valued contributors to regional growth”. Adopting this perspective we are also able to see the mainly immigrant neighborhoods as a possible touristic and commercial attraction, as it already happens in Mexicantown and Greektown, and as it could happen in many other areas of the city (see for example the case of Banglatown).

While Detroit is a particularly interesting case to observe because of its peculiar features, there is much that we can learn from the experience of this city and that can be seen in a commons-oriented perspective. From the regeneration of vacant spaces to the effort towards immigrants’ integration, we can identify a community-oriented vision that could truly benefit from a co-governance approach.


Detroit, città del Michigan conosciuta in passato come capitale dell’industria automobilistica statunitense, ha attraversato negli ultimi decenni una fase di decadenza ed abbandono, che l’ha portata ad essere oggi una delle piè povere città americane. Il divario tra ricchi e poveri si è fatto sempre più intenso ed è impossibile non percepire le forti diseguaglianze presenti tra i diversi quartieri, così distanti gli uni dagli altri da far pensare alla coesistenza tra due città distinte. Mentre oggi alcune zone del centro stanno vivendo un periodo di rinascita, con forti investimenti da parte di privati, attività che aprono ad ogni angolo e giovani che tornano a ripopolare i quartieri, il resto della città rimane escluso dal processo di gentrificazione e giace abbandonato. Ma qualcosa sta cambiando: gli abitanti imparano a trarre vantaggio dai terreni e dalle strutture rimasti inutilizzati e avviano processi di rigenero urbano, e iniziano a guardare alle numerose comunità di immigrati come a una risorsa che può contribuire alla rinascita della città.