BOOK REVIEW: “Reinventing Detroit”
By H. Barrett Strong[i]
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Review
Paid for by Koch Industries
“Reinventing Detroit; The Politics of Possibility”
Michael Peter Smith and L. Owen Kirkpatrick, Editors
Multiple contributors of 13 individual essays
(Transaction Publishers 2015)
Vol. 11 – Comparative Urban and Community Research
A Fever Dream of the ‘Another World is Possible’ Cult
Those of us who matter assume, from the great publicity it received, that our emergency-managed judicial takeover of Detroit has been an unqualified success. Paying Jones Day $70 million for it should be worth something! But most of the ivory tower contributors to this book didn’t get the memo.
Without regard to the complexions of winners and losers resulting from Operation Takeover Detroit, these essays would benefit from the advice of Detroit bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes – a reliable pair of hands if there ever was one. In his new capacity as emergency manager for public education in our structurally adjusted new, revitalized, renewed, reinvented and resurrected Detroit, Judge EMF Rhodes said “All other questions are merely distractions from the goal of excellence in academics to which we aspire.” “No questions” should be our by-word.
The 17 academics who wrote chapters in this book nevertheless insist on raising questions, as if Detroit were some kind of democracy. Detroit Free Press urban features writer John Gallagher wrote the only properly disciplined selection in this book of essays. Most of these egghead profs are not with our “resurrecting Detroit” program. One good thing is they wrote these pieces before the public scandal of the Flint River broke in Fall 2015. Imagine the outraged appeals to the devastated humanity of the poor wretched little brown children!
First, the Good News
Focusing on Mr. Gallagher’s piece first, it’s notable for his political use of undefined concepts to obscure the kinds of issues the commies raise in other chapters. Mr. Gallagher says it’s all about “Democracy vs. Efficiency”, and which one gets sacrificed won’t surprise anybody. By manipulating the superficial and false choices between a good corporate strategy and an inherently bad public alternative, Mr. Gallagher consistently develops a very classy analysis. He defines our Emergency Management takeover of Detroit as “Quasi-Democracy”. Beautiful. Stylish. Serviceable for moving relentlessly forward. The biggest open secret in Detroit, in Mr. Gallagher’s elegant formulation, seems to be that the mayor and city council “miss [former Emergency Manager Kevyn] Orr … for his ability to act quickly and decisively.” Democracy vs. efficiency, indeed.
At the cold heart of Mr. Gallagher’s bold, un-nuanced picture of Detroit resurrected, “arguments over democracy were irrelevant”. Like Judge EMF Rhodes prohibiting all questions, this expresses the very core of all the best authoritarian triumphs down thru the millennia. And not only do you have to break some eggs, in fact as Mr. Gallagher agrees: “sometimes surgery is necessary with or without balm”. Sure that hurts Detroiters being operated on without post-surgical narcotic pain relief or consent, but think of the rewards to us surgeons! Mr. Gallagher gets it just right in his judgment about “which parts of a democratic system “we” can put on hold. We appreciate his propagandistic efforts.
Bad Stuff by Bad Guys
Mr. Gallagher’s primary foil in this essay collection is probably the Vancouver Marxist geographer Jamie Peck, whose contribution makes me want to vomit. Peck questions our well-publicized claims that “bankruptcy represents a long-postponed opportunity for Detroit to atone for past political sins”. He writes “austerity” like it’s a swear word. Our path to Detroit’s resurrection, to Peck, is “an unprecedented opportunity to rationalize, and then to pursue with accelerated, imperative force, distinctively neoliberal restructuring strategies [including] … privatization, asset stripping, deunionization, government downsizing, social scapegoating, and … financial and political discipline.” Peck, unlike Mr. Gallagher, insists on calling things by their right names, no matter how much it could interfere with profits.
One of the things he names is ALEC, as helping frame “the neoliberal position on urban fiscal crisis”. Peck says our “logic of fiscal Darwinism has been gradually melded with mainstream definitions of political “reality” and budgetary “responsibility”,” but he offers us no congratulations for that achievement. Rather, he concludes that this mainstreaming of corporate values has “translated” the banking crisis of 2008 “into a state crisis, an urban crisis, and a social crisis.” All this comes inappropriately close to identifying illegitimate roots of our power.
But it gets worse. Peck sees a shadow on the city’s resurrection: “Detroit’s curse (and in the circumstances that may not be too strong a word) is to have become practically synonymous with bankruptcy, not just as a passing legal status but as an entrenched urban condition.” In order to mislead the public and accomplish corrupt and unethical ends, Peck argues, Detroit workers’ “pension rights and public sector unions, both irresistibly exposed [in the Great Recession after the 2008 Wall Street crisis] had become strategic targets for conservative forces.” So the legal maneuvers under emergency management and in bankruptcy court distracted media and the public from Detroiters’ “social suffering”, and now Detroit’s “remaining assets are being ransacked by the same class of financial experts that engineered the debt-dodging schemes” exposed in the bankruptcy. This is publicly describing the basis of our power. Increasing future investments in libertarian cultural conditioning may be necessary to deal with such candor. No wonder heads of the Skillman and Kresge Foundations sent me copies of Peck’s essay.
Peck concludes unsurprisingly that “Detroit’s fiscal emergency represents a crisis of crisis management itself”. Unfortunately, he’s not the only contributor to this volume who doesn’t recognize the beauty of our urban resurrection.
Another of several overly intellectual, unduly negative essays, and the introduction by Professors Michael Peter Smith and L. Owen Kirkpatrick, seek to pull back the theater curtain on what’s left of local government in Detroit. They see that “the local electoral system is no longer functionally instrumental, becoming instead a highly ritualized symbol serving primarily to legitimize accelerated patterns of financial value extraction.” They are alarmingly explicit about the symbolism:
“…[T]he expressed raison d’être of the [Emergency Manager, or EM] is to oversee the process of municipal restructuring in a manner that conforms to the urban austerity model (see Peck, this volume). This process is crucial because it permanently shapes the long-term form and functions of the city. Yet it is precisely this process from which citizens and their elected representatives are prohibited from taking part. Thus, when weighted by their strategic importance and long-term structural impact, the decisions made by the EM will tend to outweigh those made through traditional democratic mechanisms after the EM’s departure…”
They actually say that this powerful structural impact of emergency management on Detroit threatens to result in a “permanent establishment of a pseudo-dictatorial municipal apparatus.” Our investments in Mayor Mike Duggan from Livonia and the elaborate “blight is cancer” dogma might be jeopardized if such outside-the-box thinking were to gain a purchase on the mainstream. Thank Gilbert for opinion leaders like John Gallagher to keep that from ever happening!
It would not justify the only relevant criterion of return-on-investment for me to itemize every whining, anti-corporate, mongrel theorist who wrote a chapter in this book. As Jason Hackworth says, “…[T]here is a notable asymmetry of policy making (and policy-influencing) capacity within the urban political realm. The think tanks, banks, corporations, and advocacy groups attempting to advance a disembedded market agenda [our agenda – HBS] are far more organized, funded, numerous, and established than the forces seeking to advance a postcapitalist solution or even a return to the Keynesian managerial state. The anticapitalist Left has nothing even approaching this in institutional strength and capacity.” Once again we see the propensity for honestly telling it like it is; it’s a good thing we’ve outlawed that in our schools and media.
Another contributor who’s not silenced or even awed by our magnificence is David Fasenfest, who describes “The Cooperative City” as follows: “…[W]hatever arc of recovery can be found in Detroit is based on efforts by individuals and groups of individuals to make something for themselves. Investments by capital are narrowly focused geographically, and the benefits projected do not appear to serve most of Detroit’s residents. Relying on private capital markets to now return and regenerate the city’s economy will achieve little beyond the pillaging of the public purse, promoting crackpot realism, and generating speculative bubbles rather than sustained growth or development.” What a buzz kill.
Conclusion: “Detroit Reinvented” Reinvented
One thing seems clear in all the reinvention or resurrection: Detroit-as-opportunity, or as-pillaged-community, depends on frames and perspectives of the beholder. Our special monopolistic interests in ostensibly “market-based”, corporate-friendly, relentless domination and white power are well-served by voices like Steve Rhodes and John Gallagher. The other contributors to this volume who exist “beyond the pale”, not so much. It’s a good thing we have so much money.
 http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Detroit-Resurrected/ “…the inside story of the fight to save Detroit against impossible odds … a gripping account of the tremendous clash between lawyers, judges, bankers, union leaders, politicians, philanthropists, and [last, and very much least – HBS] the people of Detroit themselves.”
 See, for example, “Detroit 2016: Linking Struggles for Racial and Economic Justice”.
[i] Best known as the singer of the proto-Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want)”. A pseudonym, with sincere apologies for connecting him to ALEC. Previous epistles may be found at: “The Plan for Detroit” (October 1, 2012), and “The Plan for Detroit II” (December 4, 2013).
BOOK REVIEW: “Reinventing Detroit”
By Frank X Murphy[i]
“Reinventing Detroit; The Politics of Possibility”
Michael Peter Smith and L. Owen Kirkpatrick, Editors
Multiple contributors of 13 individual essays
(Transaction Publishers 2015)
Vol. 11 – Comparative Urban and Community Research
Studying the City in Order to Change It
This is a collection of carefully researched and documented essays. It grew out of a fairly wide-ranging two-year “Detroit School” project at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The authors collectively try to understand and articulate alternative conceptions of Detroit’s anti-democratic, corporate, white supremacist takeover. These essays should be read by anybody who’s concerned about what’s really happening in Detroit.
Beyond the corporate media bombast about renewal, revitalization, resurrection and the like, the vast majority of Detroiters are struggling to survive the onslaughts of capital and white supremacy outside the white-dominated downtown corporate investment district of 7.2 square miles. These essays make a vigorous and highly-educated attempt to bring many of the key issues out of the racist corporate fog.
Let’s get a couple fairly minor quibbles out of the way up front:
1) The essays recite numerous and diverse, ultimately exhausting discussions of the many historic, systemic and structural background causes of Detroit’s opportunistic bankrupting; the familiar narrative of deindustrialization, white and middle class flight/depopulation and suburbanization – citing precise dates and numbers – and globalization of predatory corporate finance. An effort to consolidate the massive data and tell the his-story once thoroughly and with passion, before moving on to diverse prescriptive remedies in the context of current events, could help make the broader messages somewhat more accessible.
2) With the exception of two female co-authors of one piece, almost all these essays seem to be written by men, and apparently almost all whites – which this writer can say from long personal experience tends to effect a certain, shall we say distancing from the core of Detroit’s grassroots crisis. More voices of women and People of Color would be welcome.
Timing is Everything
The vast majority of the contributors to this volume make sincere and coherent attempts to educate readers about the social reality of Detroit’s diverse reinventions. The book’s timing, releasing their work in September 2015 just before the full ugliness of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s extremist “emergency management” fascism (EMF) burst into public view in Flint, occasionally tends to make it appear as tho they are making arguments on political terrain that has since been flooded with ugly reality by Flint’s lead-poisoned water.
If several contributors hoped to convince readers that Snyder’s unprecedented and anti-democratic EMF policies are bad for Detroit, then subsequent events have made the case for them far better than any essay ever could. Many of us in Michigan felt the sea-change that accompanied the public revelations, in Fall 2015, about how Snyder poisoned Flint’s water supply. Seemingly almost overnight, the Governor was transformed by the Flint crisis from a strutting business leader preaching “relentless positive action”, into a political dead man walking. Coincidentally or not, that was followed by a majority of Michigan voters defying predictions and providing a primary election victory to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Corporate media opinion makers nevertheless continue to flog their cognitively dissonant line: emergency management worked a fiscal miracle in Detroit, sorry for the stumble and public health catastrophe in Flint. Contrary sociopolitical realities connect: 1) these essays in “Reinventing Detroit”; 2) subsequent developments discussed below; and 3) big questions about development, democracy and justice going forward. There may be potential for radicalizing large numbers of People who more clearly see what “Reinventing Detroit” and “The Politics of Possibility” could ultimately mean in this new context. The authors of the essays in this book cannot be faulted for having been unable to see how the public perceptions and political ground would shift, after the hideous reality flowing from the poisoned Flint River since April 2014 became apparent to the world in the Fall of 2015.
Destroying the City in Order to Transform It
Editors Michael Peter Smith and L. Owen Kirkpatrick, in their introduction, set the stage for their colleagues and summarize the basic flaws in conventional corporate framing of Detroit as succinctly as anyone has:
“In the context of austerity and public retrenchment … fiscal crisis can narrow the debate among policymakers by effectively funneling limited public resources into the city’s commercial core in an effort to create spaces of mass entertainment, high-end residential enclaves, and entrepreneurial, high-tech “innovation zones,” while most of the city’s residential neighborhoods are left to decay.”
The editors name “retrenchment of national urban policy and the spreading ideology of market fundamentalism” as the effective motor forces of this neocolonial, neo-apartheid “development” pattern (“oligarchic domination of the urban redevelopment scene by a handful of billionaire investors and developers”). They ably set the stage for a welcome discussion that is much broader and more robust than the standard corporate faux-“resurrection” discourse. As they say, “Detroit – its past, present, and future – deserves a thorough rereading.” Subsequent chapters by others make an encouraging start on this long overdue scholarly project.
These authors share a sensitive and welcome empathy for Detroiters’ reality. Mathieu Hikaru Desan and George Steinmetz observe in “The Spontaneous Sociology of Detroit’s Hyper-Crisis”: “…[D]aily exposure to abandonment is a demoralizing form of symbolic violence perpetually reminding Detroiters of their disposability. … At the heart of Detroit’s urban crisis … are the racialized dynamics of spatial inequality by which white suburban prosperity has come at the expense of the black urban core.”
One remarkable feature of this violent, systemic urban and People of Color dispossession is how vigorously some Detroiters are fighting back. A recent example, completed too late to be reflected in this book, is the Community Research Collaborative’s production of “Mapping the Water Crisis; The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit, Volume One”. Using data painstakingly wrested away from Detroit’s power brokers via Freedom of Information Act requests targeting their program of mass water shut offs, these local activists and academics call out the “genocidal” forces driving the emerging white corporate city.
Under the prevailing water and fiscal policies, “the most disadvantaged customers of [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the regional water utility], the primarily African-American residents of Detroit, contribute the most revenue to the regional system, and the most advantaged customers of DWSD, the primarily white residents of suburban municipalities, contribute the least.”
Anticipating the Community Research Collaborative’s work, Desan and Steinmetz get it right: “ “Detroit”… is neither a problem to be cleverly hacked nor a fallen city to be spiritually redeemed. … “Detroit” is an object of political contestation…” They elaborate on “the problems with all manners of Detroit boosterism”, in the wake of emergency management, bankruptcy and corporate restructuring under conditions of white supremacy: “…[T]he language of “renewal” or “renaissance” that defines ordinary discourse about the city is pitched not at the welfare of flesh-and-blood Detroiters, but at the promotion of a certain cultural ideal of the city that reflects the interests and biases of the privileged.”
Faking Local Government in Order to Control It
- Owen Kirkpatrick’s individual contribution, “Ritual and Redistribution in De-democratized Detroit”, re-reads the work of Snyder’s EMFs in ways that anticipate subsequent events: “…[I]n Detroit … the pivotal issue is no longer the role of ritual in politics, but rather the role of ritual as politics.” Because “the demands of investment capital are structurally segregated from the demands of the electorate” in Detroit, the stage has been elaborately set for “wholesale transfer of public assets to private hands.”
The new terrain is clearly marked: From now on in Detroit “critical decisions with respect to municipal restructuring and financial value extraction will not be open to public discussion or political negotiation. When democratic norms are eventually reestablished, it will be to deliberate on matters of peripheral importance to the austerity agenda.”
This model of local-governance-as-neoliberal-theater rituals seems tailor-made to the currently ongoing struggle in Detroit with a Community Benefits Agreement Ordinance proposal. Originally proposed by grassroots community activists and pending in city council committee with absolutely no official action since 2014, it will appear on the November 2016 ballot as a popular initiative. The community’s ballot proposal faces a last-minute thrown-together “Anti-community” alternative proposal by the city council acting on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce corporate development interests, in a rather crude attempt to stifle any significant grassroots community power or effective role in governance and development.
Whether the community’s Proposal A, or the Chamber of Commerce/city council Proposal B (or either of them) triumphs at the election in November, ongoing issues of implementation and resulting political fortunes of advocates on both sides of the issue seem likely to turn in large part on Kirkpatrick’s post-emergency management balance between functional government and legitimizing rituals. His chapter concludes: “Detroit may be representative of a broader trend in which the instrumental functionality of municipal/elected authorities is diminished – and its symbolic and ritualistic elements enhanced – in the face of urban austerity.” Proponents of the corporate anti-community Proposal B have insistently labeled it as “enhanced”. Detroit voters’ acumen and ability to play the role assigned us in democratic theory will be rigorously tested by the need to wade thru their propaganda.
Manipulating Racism in Order to Exploit It
Probably the most penetrating and influential chapter is Jamie Peck’s “Framing Detroit.” Frequently cited by several of the other essays, Peck’s grand vision of the rot at the heart of Detroit’s “Grand Bargain” in bankruptcy court compels attention by People of intellectual integrity (which is why it has been completely ignored in massive Detroit corporate media “coverage” over these issues).
Peck accurately describes Detroit’s corporate “resurrection” as a “scorched-earth … tax-free makeover.” He clearly perceives the context as “go-it-alone, beggar-thy-neighbor competition in a world ruled by fiscal discipline”, toward “an economizing world increasingly divided between free-riding, low-tax suburbs and debt-ridden cities. In the morality play of austerity urbanism, “irresponsibility” is perversely conferred on the latter, not the former.” Several decades of segregated and extractive “blankets and corn” political economy in and around southeastern Michigan have culminated with Snyder’s EMFs. Far from being “resurrected”, Detroit is being crucified on a cross made of racism and odious municipal debt.
Even Peck’s impressive vision of the real roots of urban austerity has been surpassed by events since the publication of this volume. Wayne State University Law Professor Peter Hammer’s July 2016 written testimony before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, regarding the roles of structural and strategic racism in causing the Flint water crisis, builds powerfully on Peck’s vision: “Nothing about what happened in Flint [or Detroit – ed.] was accidental. Flint [like Detroit] needs to be understood as a morality play illustrating the dangers of Emergency Management and fiscal austerity. Flint [and the pillage of Detroit] needs to stand as a profound multi-generational testimony to the dangers of strategic-structural racism…”
Hammer’s path-breaking conclusions work in profound dialog with Peck’s:
“The problem is the often willful blindness of people in positions of privilege and authority (Knowledge-&-Power) to the needs, perspectives and interests of others, particularly when the “other” is from a community that differs from their own in terms of race or class or ethnicity. The problem is that the information and beliefs held by people in authority often reinforce that blindness and permit the unquestioned projection of policies and programs on others, even when it is clear that those policies are inappropriate or have harmful consequences. The problem is that vulnerable populations are often subject to exploitation that strategically manipulates the very vulnerability created by express racism, structural racism and unconscious bias, and yet this exploitation finds ready shelter in the very forces it exploits.”
Flint continues to suffer from its mass-poisoned municipal water supply. Also as a result of EMFs’ trashing of democracy and social justice, Detroit continues to suffer from mass water shut offs. Another strong academic voice, that of Professor Sharmila Murthy in a recent law review article, “A New Constitutive Commitment to Water”, builds even further on approaches like those of Peck and Hammer:
“The widespread and aggressive water shutoffs in Detroit have highlighted the critical need to reassess our laws and policies regarding affordable access to water for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene.”
“…[N[ational legislation needs to be enacted that ensures access to safe and affordable water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation for all Americans. The massive water shutoffs in Detroit have revealed a critical gap in existing legal and policy frameworks.”
In the face of such a deep and comprehensive social and political crisis – notably including a current emergency involving state attacks on public education in the city – Detroit grassroots activists are heavily engaged in ongoing debates over the role and appropriate modes of education for People trying to survive here. The stakes could hardly be higher, not only for Detroiters, but for all People facing neoliberal models of austerity and states of exception from the rule of law like Governor Snyder’s EMF attacks against democracy.
Standing at the Crossroads of Justice and Democracy
Smith and Kirkpatrick’s introduction to this volume frames the overall question well:
“Detroit stands at a crossroads. Decisions made now will have profound and long-lasting political, economic, and infrastructural impacts on the form and functions of the city. The Detroit of the future will be much different from the Detroit of today or the Detroit of yesterday. But will it be a city of inclusion and equitable development, or will it remain stagnant and splintered, reflecting the socio-spatial re-inscription of traditional inequalities?”
Recent events and debates involving: 1) what Snyder’s EMFs did to Flint, by applying the identical neoliberal policy tools for the same austerity-enforcing purposes as in Detroit; 2) understanding the regional racial oppression flowing thru southeastern Michigan political bodies as well as our water pipes; and 3) the amazing lengths that Detroit’s new owners will go to block any hint of effective democracy, all shed great light on the questions asked and theses developed by these scholars. We owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to lay such learned foundations for us to fight on going forward.
 Some of this smothering local corporate media bias-to-the-edge-of-brain-death is reflected in Detroit Free Press urban features writer John Gallagher’s chapter, “Democracy vs. Efficiency in Detroit”. It stands out like a sore thumb from the book’s other entries in its commitment to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.
 For an example of post-Flint grassroots critique of EMFs, see: “Detroit 2016: Linking Struggles for Racial and Economic Justice”
 Video of the remarkable book release party is archived at: http://www.d-rem.org/watch-we-the-people-of-detroit-community-research-collective-book-release-party/
The proposed Community Benefits Agreement Ordinance would require developers investing more than $15 million and receiving more than $300,000 in tax abatements to enter into enforceable agreements to provide benefits to host community neighborhoods in the city. The “Anti-Community” alternative would merely require the developer to meet with handpicked community representatives, without community agency, identifiable benefits, or any required enforceable agreements. A better metaphor for empty governance-as-ritual than “Proposal B” is hard to imagine.
Neighboring, well-off suburban Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson expressed the reality of Governor Snyder’s emergency management policy: “I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’ ”
Regarding the major post-bankruptcy issue of the regional water and sewer system that serves both Detroit and the suburbs, Patterson is equally blunt: “They’re not gonna talk me into being the good guy. ‘Pick up your share?’ Ha, ha.” Hundreds of thousands of Detroiters have had their water shut off since the emergency manager began the process of regionalizing and privatizing the water. Peck appropriately credits Matt Taibbi for calling the ideological justifications for all this “a scam of almost unmatchable balls and cruelty.”
“The very idea that a meaningful top-down “solution” can be imposed by the state [on public education in Detroit] is absurd. This state legislature will use any financial excuse to further attack our children and their teachers. A real solution must, at an absolute minimum: 1) come from Detroiters; 2) emphasize education over finance; 3) embrace democracy; and 4) reject structural racism, which has contaminated both Detroit’s bitter experiences with educational “reform”, and the state’s “emergency managed” debacles in predominantly African-American urban communities.”
“The emergency management policies that have sapped the creative potential of two generations of Detroit school children cannot be attributed to misguided pedagogy, ineffective curriculum design or inept administration. The wrecking of the DPS by emergency managers has been deliberate and intentional. The privatized, white supremacist, test-driven schooling being forced on Detroit’s children was never intended to provide the education they require in order to be self-determining, creative, productive human beings. On the contrary, emergency management policies are abusing our children for profit and social control. Predators supported by Governor Snyder, the state Legislature and the foundations are extracting for their own private agendas the financial resources that would support an effective school system…”
[i] Frank X Murphy is the pen name of a radicalized local Detroit observer of events, engaged with the crises of emergency management, austerity, the struggles for democracy, public education, water and shelter in Detroit, and their surreal social manifestations.