Detroit

Stepping in for the State in Detroit

When the government can't or won't provide services, residents step in.

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DIY Detroit, by Kimberley Kinder, University of Minnesota Press, 248 pages, $24.95

DIY Detroit cover
University of Minnesota Press

In 1950, roughly 1.9 million people lived in Detroit. Fewer than 700,000 are left there today. In the bankrupt, crime-ridden city, the government has largely lost the ability to provide the services it once promised. And so residents have taken to plowing streets, picking up trash, and maintaining public facilities on their own.

"When public schools performed poorly, parents looked to homeschooling alternatives," Kimberley Kinder writes in DIY Detroit. "When public libraries closed, residents set up mobile book shares. When ambulances were unreliable, neighbors organized dial-a-ride phone trees to get people to hospitals." And when streetlights failed, a computer programmer named Ellison tells Kinder, people started to "leave their porch lights on all night."

DIY Detroit is filled with these simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking tales of perseverance and innovation. Unfortunately, to learn about these residents' struggles to keep their community habitable, you have to dig your way through layers of Kinder's tendentious take on why Detroit declined. But the effort is worthwhile. Kinder, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, documents dozens of examples of "self-provisioning"—that is, of Detroiters doing for themselves in a city from which much of the population has fled. "You have to take matters into your own hands," Elena, a young mother, tells Kinder. "'Cause if not, if you wait, then you wait, and wait, and wait. You're going to end up frustrated, and it's probably not going to get done."

How Detroit residents take matters into their own hands depends on their time, resources, and willingness to commit themselves. Those efforts range from disguising vacant homes to demolishing abandoned structures, from creating unofficial parks to standing in for a shrinking police department.

In a city where one in four housing units was empty by 2010 and much of the area is being claimed by an "urban prairie" of returning plants and wildlife, matching potential residents with abandoned but still-livable homes has become an important activity. Empty houses are ripe for picking by "scrappers" who strip anything of value and leave the gutted shell uninhabitable. The best defense is for residents to actively seek new neighbors who will maintain the homes and protect the community from further decline. "Among these recruits," Kinder tells us, "some became official owners or renters, and others lived informally as squatters."

When people are wary of new neighbors who move illegally into abandoned homes, squatters demonstrate their worthiness with public displays of responsibility, such as trimming bushes and openly making repairs.

About half of the 73 residents Kinder interviewed described acting as volunteer realtors. But with so many homes empty, it's impossible to match every dwelling with an inhabitant. That's when remaining residents make efforts to camouflage abandoned structures or render them inaccessible to scrappers and drug dealers. "Residents used disguises, caretaking, booby traps, and sabotage to self-provision a public order the underfunded police department could not provide," Kinder explains. Their efforts might be as simple as keeping the lawns mowed, or they could become more elaborate exercises in illusion, such as putting up seasonal decorations. In worst-case scenarios, residents demolished abandoned structures that had become problems—sometimes legally, sometimes not. "The headaches and expenses of by-the-book demolition," Kinder writes, "encouraged residents to find informal alternatives."

Those informal alternatives enjoy some degree of nudge-and-wink approval from the authorities. Kinder interviews one activist who demolished 113 houses without repercussions. Another Detroit resident described a police operator's response to her phone complaint about a drug house. "Are you sure you've got the right number?" she was asked. "Are you sure you don't want the number for the Fire Department instead?" She took that as a hint that arson might be the way to go.

But it's not just homes that have been abandoned—so have public works. Residents have reclaimed trash-strewn city-owned lots as parks and gardens. Farming is technically illegal in Detroit, but raising vegetables in a city partially returning to nature makes sense both to countercultural new arrivals and to low-income longtime residents alike.

In a place that, as of the FBI's most recent statistics, has the -highest violent crime rate among cities its size in the country, safety is also an obvious concern. Detroit's police department shrank from about 4,000 officers in 2000 to roughly 2,400 in 2013, prompting the police union to issue an (admittedly self-serving) warning to the public that the city was too dangerous to visit. Scattered across the increasingly depopulated urban prairie, city residents have responded with everything from formal police-affiliated civilian patrols to ad hoc street-watching through open windows. One elderly woman, Edna, told Kinder that "it was like a gentleman's agreement that nobody parked on the streets" so that residents could have clear sight lines to keep an eye out for people up to no good.

In many ways Detroit dwellers have rediscovered the value of the old-style nosy neighbors who watch out for each other and perform the ubiquitous surveillance that modern law-enforcement agencies can only hope to replicate with cameras and algorithms. One side of this that Kinder ignores is Detroit Police Chief James Craig's high-profile cheerleading for armed citizens self-provisioning for self-defense and deterrence. "The police cannot be everywhere. This is about personal protection," he told CNN in 2014.

Early on, Kinder cautions us that it's "unfair to expect fragmented self-provisioning to reverse Detroit's trenchant history of disinvestment, racism, and crisis." And indeed, the efforts of the residents she interviews seem puny against the sheer magnitude of the collapse of a major city and the exodus of much of its population and economic base. But these residents' perseverance is the bright spot in this book. It certainly has to be at the core of any effort to salvage a viable community from the wreckage of Detroit.

But what about that -wreckage? What turned once vibrant Motor City into a post-apocalyptic wasteland without an actual apocalypse you can blame?

Again and again, Kinder insists that Detroit is a paradigm of the "neoliberal city," tagging that unfortunate place with a term—neoliberal—that has infested social science. Early on, she writes that her book "explains the effect urban disinvestment and neoliberal policy agendas have on self-provisioning practices." In her conclusion, she tells us that Detroit residents' do-it-yourself work "underscores the need for meaningful, organized, collective responses against neoliberal capitalism and market-based governing." Neoliberalism, she says, involves "market-based policies that emphasize individual, profit-based solutions to collective needs and oppose wealth distribution for social programs."

At least she defined it. The meaning of "neoliberal" is so shifting and obscure that it has prompted a cottage industry of efforts to critique its usage. Rajesh Venugopal, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, wrote last year that the word holds little clear meaning beyond an expression of disdain for all things vaguely market-oriented, arguing that it "serves as a rhetorical tool and moral device for critical social scientists outside of economics to conceive of academic economics and a range of economic phenomena that are otherwise beyond their cognitive horizons and which they cannot otherwise grasp or evaluate."

In this case, Venugopal's critique is on the money. For Kinder, "-neoliberalism" means Detroit was abandoned by investors and prosperous white residents eager to settle in the suburbs and avoid sharing the burden for city services; the local government, meanwhile, surrendered to raw market forces. Is that how it happened?

Some of that's true—white flight certainly was real—but the idea of Detroit as some sort of market-driven dystopia is absurd. "Regulations for food trucks are byzantine, with multiple layers of approvals needed," Michigan Capitol Confidential noted in 2013. "Detroit's archaic ordinances…don't make sense for a city looking to stimulate small-business activity," complained Crain's Detroit Business in 2011. As the sharing economy reached Motor City and brought jobs and convenience with it, Detroit officials repeatedly threatened Uber and Lyft with intrusive and potentially crippling regulations. But if the city discourages entrepreneurial employment, it does its best to pad government payrolls funded by the private sector. Workers were laid off from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2015 only after years of outside complaints about bloated payrolls and inflated costs—in a municipal government that taxpayers can already barely afford.

Lew Mandell, an economist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, recently recounted to PBS' Newshour how in 1972, when he was with the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, the city commissioned him to examine its then-growing uneasiness at being so entirely dependent on the auto industry. He confirmed the city's concerns and cautioned that other businesses were leaving Detroit (and Michigan) because of "unpopular government policies [that] included relatively high business taxes and what employers perceived as 'unbalanced' worker's compensation laws. There was an overall feeling that government was hostile toward business." In the course of his research, he discovered that officials had received the same warnings from economists 11 years earlier—and even before that in the late 1940s. "Study after study delivered the same results," he said, "which were largely ignored."

Auto-driven prosperity kept Detroit afloat for a few decades. But those concerns caught up with the city as the rules continued to tighten, turning the trickle of non-car businesses leaving the city into a flood—and as the local automobile industry itself lost energy in the 1970s and began its own diaspora.

The people Kinder interviewed don't seem to find her arguments persuasive, either. She writes that "almost none of the residents I spoke with described these activities in countercultural terms. Instead they tried to reinforce—not undermine—the capitalist status quo." Kinder's book would have been that much stronger if she had let Detroiters' efforts to survive in a failing city speak for themselves, without trying to shoehorn them into the story she wished they told.

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26 responses to “Stepping in for the State in Detroit

  1. Two, Two, Two 2chili articles in the top list, separated only by a brickbat!

    Can a new book be far behind?

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  2. OK, now I’ve read it, time for a real comment.

    It doesn’t surprise me that someone with an ideological axe to grind would ignore reality, “trying to shoehorn them into the story she wished they told”. But maybe I am a bit too cynical if an actual professor and several of his predecessors have actually told the city several times since the 1940s to stop killing the goose that was laying the golden eggs. It’s one thing to say so now, when it’s too late and too obvious(except for the author), but to have said so waaaay back in the 1940s, well, maybe there’s hope for yee olde ivory towers to come around some day.

    1. I doubt it. The chick is repeatedly bashed over the head with the truth, but still manages to spew shit like this:

      Neoliberalism, she says, involves “market-based policies that emphasize individual, profit-based solutions to collective needs and oppose wealth distribution for social programs.”

      Not neoliberalism, lady. It’s called reality.

      1. Detroit’s runaway neoliberalism and its market-based policies to maximize profit are the reason why those greedy corporations left Detroit

        This is what that commie actually believes.

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  3. Everyone hates neoliberalism, even though they don’t know what it is. Apparently, it’s the new “capitalism” or something.

    I think this is how it works: capitalism is anarchy, socialism is democracy, and neoliberalism is a social democracy that’s too free-markety.

    Anyway, Detroit teaches the opposite lesson: functioning government services are a by-product of relatively free market economy, which must be thriving enough to handle a government skimming off the top. And, once that thriving economy is gone, there’s little the government can do to conjure it out of thin air with tax and spend policies, which we’ve all seen Detroit try. In the end, the government services go the way of the lost economy.

    This suggests that it’s more important to maintain a thriving market economy than a government of populist services. Because, really, once that’s gone, there goes your tax base, and you’re not going to stimulate it back into existence.

    1. Detroit has the same real tax base they had in 1950 – and in the 1890’s. They have simply chosen to sometimes do things right with their tax base and municipal governance (1890’s under Hazen Pingree) and plant the seeds for long-term growth. And then become obsessed (starting after WW2) with providing all sorts of abatements and exemptions and shifting/narrowing of the tax base and catering to special interests (from long-term resident ‘homesteads’ to industrial owners/employers to public sector unions to – well – everyone at one point or another) it all blows up.

      It would make a great municipal case study – right down to the similarities between the ‘potato patches’ of 1893 and the ‘voluntary civic associations’ of today. A great rise and fall history. And I suspect the key municipal tax change part of that rise and fall was a simple consequence of transportation technology – moving from how to finance the municipal streetcar to how to finance bus/car based transport. For Detroit, that was a public choice with just too much baggage by 1950 to think clearly.

      1. Detroit has the same real tax base they had in 1950 – and in the 1890’s.

        Actually, they don’t. Not even close. The value of real-estate in the city has fallen dramatically, and tens of thousands of formerly inhabited, tax-generating houses and commercial buildings have been abandoned and are sitting empty or being demolished as fast as the city can tear them down (which is not nearly fast enough). And it gets worse — the city hasn’t reassessed the properties to match the new, lower values, so taxes are still being charged based on the old values. This means that it’s not unusual for the tax bill to be a high fraction of the value of the house (say, $3000 on a house that is now worth $10-$15,000 on the market). So a lot of homeowners stop paying their taxes and wait for eviction (which takes a long time).

        And there’s a good reason why the city is dragging its feet on house reassessments. It’s state law in Michigan that the taxable value of a house cannot rise any faster than inflation until it’s sold. Once a house gets assessed at its true $10,000 value, then even if real-estate values did recover in Detroit, the taxable value would stay very low and the actual taxes would amount to a few hundred bucks even at Detroit’s outrageous rates.

        1. The land location/amount is near identical. The ‘value of real estate’ is just the value of that land/location (affected mostly by infrastructure or speculation about infrastructure) + value of the buildings/etc on top (latter of which are now negative in Detroit as they also are in all slum neighborhoods). Detroit actually had more of a land-value tax until about 1950. Then they switched to more of a property tax – where the two different pieces (the land patent itself and the stuff on it) are merged and taxed as one piece. That discourages more efficient/productive use of the land – but encourages debt/leverage/mortgages/speculation (both private and municipal). And once they merged it they gave all sorts of cronyist exemptions – homestead exemptions, bypasses for existing industrial employers – and probably used municipal leverage to get crony deals for public unions.

          Michigans law was prob written by real estate speculators (backed by banks) in order to foist off zoning cronyism onto the general taxpayer. That is near inevitable when a state conflates a land/location tax with a property tax.

          Def a big problem to untangle at this point. But if Hazen Pingree (a Georgist) was still around, he would a)probably see how to fix it and b)go ballistic at the assholes who are keeping it screwed up.

    2. Everyone hates neoliberalism

      Don’t you mean ((neoliberalism))? Or is that only ((neocons))?

  4. For Kinder, “-neoliberalism” means Detroit was abandoned by investors and prosperous white residents eager to settle in the suburbs and avoid sharing the burden for city services

    That’s not what ‘neoliberalism’ means, but it’s pretty much what happened. These folks all left for excellent reasons: high-taxes, high-crime, terrible schools, lousy services, etc. Does she think they should have been forced to stay (and their children and grandchildren forced to settle in Detroit as well)? Somebody — please — send this women a copy of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. And all these problems in Detroit suppress property values to far below the cost of construction which makes investing money in Detroit real-estate a fool’s errand. There are beautiful old houses in Detroit. They’d be worth a fortune if they were 50 miles west in Ann Arbor, but in Detroit many are left to decay because you’d *never* get the money invested in rehab back out when you sell. It’s true that lately there actually is quite a bit of new construction going on in the downtown and midtown areas, but that is being artificially driven by huge 15-year tax breaks:
    http://www.crainsdetroit.com/a…..-when-they
    The DIY attitude of the citizens she interviews is heart warming, but given the overall situation, I feel their efforts are doomed. My advice to these folks is to pack up and get out ASAP.

    1. That’s not what ‘neoliberalism’ means, but it’s pretty much what happened. These folks all left for excellent reasons

      That’s exactly what neoliberalism means, and it’s the same kind as old style liberalism: if you start taking my stuff and telling me how to live, I exercise the most basic human freedom there is, namely the freedom to leave.

      The response has been the same from socialists and neo-socialists all over the world: to try to force people to stay and/or to try to impose worldwide restrictions.

  5. Before reading this piece, I word-searched two words: coleman and kwame (lower case quite intentional)

    With zero hits, I’ll not waste my time. Any piece like this, that doesn’t mention the two main punk-thugs that devastated this city, is a joke.

  6. RE: Stepping in for the State in Detroit
    When the government can’t or won’t provide services, residents step in.

    This will be a disaster.
    The garbage will be picked and disposed of on time, children will be better educated, the streets will be rid of the snow, there will be electricity and water for the little people provided by the little people, etc.
    Don’t these neanderthals who are providing for themselves recognize they should wait years for the City of Detroit to do their job at inflated prices, poor service and be dependent upon on their obvious betters in City Hall? What’s wrong with these people? Haven’t they listened to their clueless, over-educated idiots in academia at all levels to know The State, at all levels, will provide for them?
    Their arrogance for taking back their lives from the ruling elitist turds in Detroit and Wayne County is overwhelming.

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