A Comeback Myth in Motor City?

A new book by Jodie Adams Kirshner suggests reports of Detroit’s renaissance may be greatly exaggerated.By Joseph P. Williams Senior EditorDec. 13, 2019, at 8:30 a.m.

IT’S A FEEL-GOOD comeback story: the city of Detroit, the two-fisted Rust Belt titan brought to its knees by bankruptcy and crime in recent decades, has been reborn as a hipster’s paradise, drawing newcomers like a beacon with microbreweries, urban farms and cheap housing.[ 

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In her new book, “Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises,” Jodie Adams Kirshner suggests that reports of Detroit’s rebirth may be greatly exaggerated – at least for poor people who already live there. And the factors that caused the city’s demise, from a dysfunctional bureaucracy to seemingly intractable poverty, haven’t gone away; in fact, she says, what happened in Detroit could happen in other big cities, too.


“One of the arguments I was trying to make in my book was how much bigger, longer, older and worse the issues (in Detroit) were than just starting with the bankruptcy” in 2013, Kirshner says. Population drain, the economic collapse, auto industry contraction and crippled schools, she says, have Detroit and many of its residents still fighting for survival even after the bankruptcy, undermining notions of a Motown renaissance. 

In her book, Kirshner follows seven Detroiters, starting at the city’s 2013 bankruptcy. In the Detroit they inhabit, jobs and quality affordable housing are scarce, government help is hard to find, and one mistake – running a stop sign, falling for a real estate scam or getting snagged by clerical errors on court paperwork – can leave them homeless, destitute or in jail. 

“When you see the kinds of neighborhoods that I was in to interview the people that I spent time with, you see the lack of investment” in poor, mostly black neighborhoods like Brightwood compared with the booming city center, she says. Detroit, Kirshner says, is so vast – and has so much abandoned, vacant space outside of downtown – it’s easy to disconnect the thriving urban center from the mostly black residential areas that don’t get as much love from City Hall.

Kirshner discussed the divide between Motown’s prosperous image and its stressed-out reality, why newcomers are important to its existence and the dark clouds lingering on the horizon in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report. Her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Detroit is one of the fastest-diversifying cities in the U.S. Its black majority, though, worries white newcomers are taking over their city. Is Motown the new Brooklyn? 

Certainly there’s an influx of young white millennials to the city. But they’re still very much in the minority. It’s hard to see people coming in as a bad thing – certainly the city needs more population and needs more of a tax base. Where you start to see problems is if neighborhoods are treated differently – dollars flowing differently to different neighborhoods. Whether or not it is happening, many of the people that I interviewed had a sense that it was happening. Regardless of the accuracy, I think that that perception is itself bad. 

It sounds like they’re afraid of being priced out or left behind. 

The fear that I I heard in a lot of the interviews was, “These people will come and all of the services will go to them and everything will be about them. And I’ve been here all my life.” And, “What about me? I was holding things together when nobody was coming here – doesn’t that count for anything?”

Does City Hall get it? Do they understand those perceptions?

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I think they do. The current administration is very sophisticated and very knowledgeable and is saying all of the right things. The question is, in a situation of scarce dollars, what is the actual allocation of them?

That brings me to Brightwood, a poor black neighborhood where fewer whites have moved. Compared to downtown, it gets few investment dollars, and less attention, but you suggest it’s improving. 

It has just an amazing participation – people trying to do things at a grassroots level. The neighborhood has come together and gotten a burned-out school torn down. They lobbied a grocery store that opened to take into account hiring locally as a priority. So they have a lot of very real and tangible successes. It’s drawn a particular kind of newcomer that wants to create an urban farming-based community. Just going off of the conversations that I had with Cindy (a longtime Brightwood resident Kirshner followed), she sees it as safer and a more attractive neighborhood than it was.

At the same time, it is a neighborhood that is very, very far from the center of the city, and very, very far from jobs. It’s a neighborhood with less opportunity for things to happen compared to some other neighborhoods that are closer to downtown. What the long term looks like – what the neighborhood can be, the power of neighbors to actually come at such big, deep-seated issues like poverty and jobs – is harder to predict. 

Isn’t it important to have neighbors rolling up their sleeves to fix things if City Hall won’t?

It’s wonderful to see neighbors galvanized like that but really there’s only so much that you can do without the power of the government behind you. If you are a neighborhood group and you want to end garbage dumping on vacant lots, it’s an enforcement issue. if you’re trying to put agriculture on empty lots, there’s only so much volunteer manpower. This is sounding more pessimistic than I’d really like to be. 

You mentioned the disconnect between poor neighborhoods and jobs. Some of the subjects in “Broke” struggle to find steady work – including in construction  and a quality home in a city where a lot of building is going on and housing is cheap. Why is that?

The stories that I was hearing seem to be suggesting that in construction jobs, which is an obvious source of local work, people were seeing suburban contractors come in with suburban crews, and that the projects that you might think and hope would create local opportunities haven’t been. The city is aware of that. There certainly are attempts to have local hiring on projects that come in, and some interesting forward-looking stuff going on to try to ensure that that happens. 

In most big cities gentrification of poor neighborhoods brings nicer stores, better restaurants, lower crime and higher property values, pushing out longtimers. Yet the taxes paid by the newcomers can help the city pay for stuff it needs, in theory. Do you think the gentrification of Detroit can save it? 

Newcomers coming into a neighborhood, if it’s done correctly, can create a lot of vibrancy. Population density helps with safety and crime, and can help generate (creation of) small businesses. Without a doubt, Detroit needs people and its tax base depends on people and people’s opportunities …[ 

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It sounds like there’s a ‘But…’ lingering there in your answer. 

It’s this complicated gentrification question. It’s a big question and something that I have struggled with a lot and continue to struggle with understanding, where I get so cagey and try not to say anything too concrete. I had many conversations with people whose rent was going up or were worried about their rent going up and weren’t sure where they were going to go if it did. 

At the same time, you’re talking about a city that has about half the population that it used to have, that has many abandoned houses. Compared to other gentrifying cities, it’s just a different type of dynamic.

So what’s your conclusion? Is Detroit’s rebirth legit? Will it be inclusive? Can it be?

I am optimistic about Detroit in relation to many other cities like it. Detroit is Detroit – it has a history, it has a buzz. People read about it when it goes bankrupt and they care. There are other places confronting similar problems that don’t have Detroit’s history, which helps it get national attention and charitable money. So Detroit has a lot going for it. But it’s not going to be what it was. We as a country are not going to see a return to everyone entering the middle class through stable manufacturing jobs at car plants with good benefits and wages.

Joseph P. Williams, Senior Editor