Detroit: the fascination for urban decay

Since its bankruptcy, Detroit is receiving increasing attention from the media and from urban researchers. Here you will find a brief analysis of the literature.


For Europeans of my generation, Detroit was a faraway industrial city with lots of problems and violence that we could only see in movies. In Beverly Hills Cop (Superdetective en Hollywod in Spanish, 1984) Axel Foley was travelling from a decadent Detroit to Beverly Hills to resolve the murder of his (ex-convict) friend. In Robocop (1987) the city council of Detroit privatises the police service in a context of a city hit by unemployment and violence. Robocop fights drug lords in derelict factories whereas there is a project to refurbish the city centre into the ‘Delta City’ project, a new town centre providing millions of jobs and urban regeneration (yes, many have seen the movie as prophetic). Later, thanks to Michael Moore we knew a bit more about Michigan and its industrial basis, social and racial segregation and rising inequalities. No much more from Detroit was known until the financial crisis, when all the media started to analyse the case of Detroit as a failed city, and also urban studies started to take a look on the city. Abandoned houses, lack of public transportation, decline of manufacturing activities, decreasing of population by a half and bankruptcy have brought international attention to the city. In the most read newspaper in Spain, El País, there has been an article on Detroit every three or four months.

Detroit as a shrinking city

In urban studies there has been also an interest with the topic, framed on a more general view on Shrinking cities. The crisis and bankruptcy of the city have brought the issue to the front. The Last Days of Detroit, by Mark Binelli (find a review in The Guardian here) is a good example of this literature, but some other books related with the topic of shrinking cities have been reviewed in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (see here). The fact is that whereas some cities are only partially shrinking, as they loose population in some parts of the city ballanced by other districts performing well, Detroit is in process of reshaping from a city with a centre and suburbs based on family houses towards a compact city. The removal of abandoned houses with support of federal government is one of the main elements of this reshaping. Besides, private investors are developing new real estate promotions based on the compact city model and mixing uses, as a Peruvian developer intends to do in the old Packard Plant in the East side of the city. These views of decay are also asking about the cultural life of the city and the daily life in an environment of crime and insecurity. The Berlin Magazine on urban affairs Stadtaspekte published an article by René Kreichauf titled ‘Who is afraid of Detroit City?’ in which he portrays the double feeling of Detroit citizens combining proud and fear for criminality. It explains also the existence of ghettos and striking spatial inequalities. From another perspective, Detroit has raised attention as a new urban centre for agricultural activity, thanks to the availability of land and unemployment which has made stronger the movement for urban agriculture. Initiatives such as ‘keep growing Detroit‘ are bringing resources to citizens initiatives for cultivating and creating community, but also private businesses on urban agriculture are on the rise.

The tale of a city? Decay, rebirth, and what is not analysed

This brings us to the question of narratives. The perspective shown in Stadaspekte contrasts with the main newspapers articles in which prospects of recovery and new economic activity in the city centre are the main elements of the narrative. During the crisis, Detroit has been at the centre of the analysis as a failed city, but now it seems is beeing presented increasingly as a phoenix, a city concealing interest of investors, craftsmen, artists and urban farmers. This views are shown in articles in The Atlantic Citylab (here) and, again, in El País (here). Both articles show the effect of the ‘maker’ movement and the urban renaissance in the city centre, suggesting only collaterally that inequalities are still there. As all other US cities, the large dependence on private capital brings main questions such as spatial inequalities unsolved. In this regard, in 2013 an article in El País was comparing Detroit with the highly indebted city of Madrid, showing that Detroid is a warning of our possible future. Nevertheless, with the exception of Greece, forced until the arrival of Siriza to undergo severe retreats of the state in all fields, European cities are much more resistant to these patterns of severe decay. In Spain cities suffering huge industrial decline were able to maintain their population and find other forms of economic growth through the intervention of pubic authorities with projects such as the Olympic Games in Barcelona or the development of Guggenheim in Bilbao. This does not mean that the situation in Spanish cities is improving: spatial inequalities are growing steadily in the last years in main Spanish cities and in some of them the levels of debt are on the rise. In this context citizens are organising new political movements to reach city councils and promote alternative policies using the power that public actors still have. Let’s see what happens on May 24, when we will have local elections.

PS: Tomorrow this blog is going to be 8 years old, with lots of changes (including language, format and style). Writing more or less, but I will continue with Changingcities!

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