Irresponsible urbanism and letting Detroit be Detroit for a second

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of urbanists who write about Detroit and how to fix it, or why it should be left to die. It would be nice if we urbanists were useful enough to be able to say to people that urbanists are not doctors, and not even doctors are really like Marcus Welby or House. Cities live and die, yes, in part through policy and planning intervention, but they also transcend those, and over the years I’ve come to think that intentional influence is one of the lesser forces at work on cities–which isn’t to say that intent and working for change is not worth doing. But cities are not like clay on a potter’s wheel, and their material and social form can be guided in some ways. Things in the city can be planned, but citie sare far more than their their plans and the official design for ‘what should happen.’ Cities transcend their markets, their place in larger markets, their society, and their governance as they are constituted of so many things, and that transcendence occurs primarily due to the synergies of all those things. Even if we wanted to pump cities full of morphine to ease their passing, it doesn’t work that way. There are too many other agents at work.

Like the celebrity urbanists that descended upon New Orleans, there just comes a point when helicoptering in with facile comments about what a city should do or be just does not contribute to a positive policy dialogue, but instead creates confusion and a sense of futility. There’s helping, and then there’s carpetbagging, and there’s also just using other people’s misery to promote your work.

I grumped on this blog about Ed Glaeser’s treatment of former Mayor Coleman Young in Triumph of the City. Yes, Coleman Young probably could have and should have done things differently; yeah, education is probably a better local investment in a shrinking place than people movers, and virtually all of those things said in retrospect are only really helpful if those lessons can be applied to reformed practice–not just a bunch of head-shaking. I’m sure Glaeser does mean for his ideas to work as a policy lesson for other areas, but still, it would be nice for all of us outside of Detroit to stop plowing over it for a bit.

I remember saying after the Gabriel Giffords shooting that one of the things I learned about at Virginia Tech after the shootings was, firsthand, how hurtful punditry about gun control or gun rights were in the aftermath of my devastated community. I have since taken the position that people shouldn’t use tragedies like these for political agenda-setting or policy window-opening. They should first help people start healing, then pursue reform–and I’m only really talking about giving people a week or so before you start shouting from atop the graves of their kids. Then, when the Sandy Hook shootings occurred, gun control advocates tried to shame people like me. Well, if NOW isn’t the time to discuss gun control, they said, WHEN IS IT? Wrapped in their outrage and secure in the knowledge they were right, they marched forward, having told idiots like me what’s what about how policy should work.

And then got precisely nowhere with gun control legislation, for all their purportedly morally superior leveraging of other people’s tragedies for political traction.

Yeah, that couldn’t have waited a week or two.

There is a performativity about all this grave-standing and forsenic study, and all these questions about whether cities should live or die, and that’s the part that, in planning, we should think hard about. Well-meaning people can cause harm, even if they don’t mean to. This write up of Richard Florida’s prescriptions around the Detroit from the Alec MacGuinness at the New Republic hits at the heart of the problem. It concerns whose voice gets to stay in the dialogue and whose voices don’t:

After the Atlantic cover story appeared, Florida was a guest on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. Tessa from Detroit called in: “My neighborhood is really disappearing,” she says. “I would love to hear some comments from your guest about what’s going to happen to my neighborhood. What are his predictions? … Do we get out? Do we stay?”

Florida assured Tessa that Detroit’s plight “is not something I’m particularly happy about.” He told her his wife is from Detroit. And then he told her that his friends who live in Detroit are making it as “freelancers” who “commute on an irregular basis” to work on projects somewhere else. He had recently given a speech to Detroit airport officials, who told him that the airport would remain viable. “That airport provides connective fiber,” he told her. “Finding local employment is going to be a lot harder. So you either have to say, can I commute to work, by plane perhaps, or do I have to look for a place that has a better set of opportunities for me?”

There was no way to know if the answer was satisfactory: Tessa from Detroit was off the air.
Who knows where Tessa is today, whether she left the city deemed most “beleaguered” of all, or whether she’s still there now to witness the moment when, in its bankruptcy, it is deemed, by the very same person, as full of “seeds of rebirth.”

I just cringe reading this, largely because it’s so easy to ramble on radio shows when you get wrong-footed on a question, but we do have to confront the painful narcissism and uselessness of the response, combined with the lack of usefulness of social science at all to Tessa’s plight. The rest of the MacGuinness piece over at TNR is good, too. Go read.

Maybe the rest of us could back up a bit, hold our breath, and wait for the people of Detroit to tell us what would they would have us do to help. We’ll ignore that Rand Paul person, as we should anyway, and just try to give people a little room for a change. In the mean time, I highly recommend George Galster’s wonderful book: Driving Detroit. He’s a native, and he loves his home, and sometimes maybe we should just respect those feelings, too.

One thought on “Irresponsible urbanism and letting Detroit be Detroit for a second

  1. Analysis of tragedies, I believe, is a way for people to disconnect their emotions from the reality of conflict. It confuses, paralyzes, and then somehow leaves feeling good about our intellectual selves because we’ve conjured such great insights. *insert sarcastic “woohoo”* Yet, as you said, it doesn’t compel people to take real action – because what’s missing from today’s punditry is a sense of compassion for humanity.

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