2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Detroit

  1. Edward Carney

    Nice post. I appreciate what you’re doing and I wish you the best of luck as your project continues. However, my own perspective compels me to view the tone of this post and the focus of the interviews you mentioned as symptomatic of the middle class or upper-middle class bias that affects so many conversations about the “millennial generation.”

    You say that we should be focusing on the success stories coming out of places like Detroit, and while I’m not about to argue that the stories you’re telling aren’t worth telling, I don’t think there’s much benefit in focusing on them to the exclusion of the horror stories that make Detroit the butt of so many jokes. The place really is in trouble. The vast majority of its population are victims of circumstance, victims of policy failures and losses in the lottery of birth, and of the class-based biases that often cheapen the conversation about such problems. There’s a serious danger involved in trying to steer the conversation entirely in the direction of how the entrepreneurial spirit can help to turn around the fortunes of a degraded urban landscape.

    I don’t think the jokes that you point to at the beginning of your post are generally as mean-spirited and ill-intentioned as you seem to think. Okay, I’d be hard-pressed to defend Dunham’s comment, but with what little I know of her work I’d be hard-pressed to defend a lot of what she does. But the overall category of humor that you’re pointing at accusatively doesn’t constitute dismissal of the problems that Detroit faces. Quite the contrary, it is an example of a tried-and-true function of edgy jokes, using humor to draw attention to real problems.

    If Detroit wasn’t the butt of jokes, people wouldn’t be as aware of how serious the situation is. Barring jokes, the only way to inform people about the problems that still exist there is by saying, :”Hey look at this latest awful thing that happened in Detroit. Have a look at these crime statistics and have a look at this video of a dilapidated falling the f*** down.” But psychology being what it is, people will be much more inclined to turn away from such serious reminders of the city’s plight then they will be to laugh when someone says, “Sure our local infrastructure has problems, but at least we’re not Detroit.”

    As a resident of Buffalo, NY, one of Detroit’s fellow decaying rust-belt burgs, I use that phrase often. But far from being a way of crapping on another town or building up some sense of the superiority of my own, such jokes are just a more humorous way of saying, “Somebody help us!” I don’t actually feel good about the fact that there are places in America that are deeper economic hell holes than my own. I find that fact incredibly depressing, and yet I laugh to keep from crying.

    Perhaps you’ll respond by saying that I could take a proactive view, or that I could at least look for the better aspects of my own town and count on those building themselves up. There’s something to be said for that, but enough people are doing it already. And it’s an object lesson in the ability of that optimism to blind people to the plight that is still overwhelming the vast majority of the region.

    Believe me, there are plenty of success stories in Buffalo. If you haven’t visited here yet, I urge you to do so, and I’d love to speak to you about my own perspective as a lower class millennial living here. But if you do, I’d just as seriously urge you to look beyond the trendy boutiques and the waterfront development, and take a trip into the crumbling, hopeless east and west sides of the city. Talk to millennials living there, too burdened by poverty and lack of opportunity to be able to afford or really even think about the work of rebuilding the city “in a way that’s positive for families, business owners, and travelers of all income brackets.”

    I don’t really live within those impoverished areas, myself. I live very much on the edge of the good and bad of my region. But I am seriously impoverished myself, and as such I observe all the development an entrepreneurship that has sprung up in certain neighborhoods over the last couple of years and all I can do is wonder where on Earth all of the money is coming. And all I can feel is the sensation of being left behind by that remarkable but isolated productivity.

    Sometimes, drawing attention to those success stories just serves to taunt people who are lower on the socio-economic hierarchy. Behind such focus there is usually a message to the effect of, “All it takes to turn your situation around is commitment and vision.” But that’s BS. Commitment and vision only come into play above a certain baseline of economic security and social opportunity.

    The reason I think this is relevant to the “millennial question” is because not all people born after 1980 share that same baseline. But a lot of conversations about young people in the news media, in fiction, and on blogs assumes that they do. I make no assumptions about your book, but I hope that it won’t fall into the same trap.

  2. mileswhoward Post author

    Hey Edward,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. When I started this project, one of the immediate goals was to keep the interviews and outlook from falling too decidedly into the upper middle class bracket, which most Millennial media seems to explore. Granted, I come from a middle class background, and inevitably, some of my own experiential bias will probably creep into the finished product. (I don’t believe any journalism can be entirely objective.) But class and income disparity are easily the most urgent themes of the forthcoming book, and I think you’ll be pleased by the diversity of stories.

    Now, with regard to Detroit, I’m not trying to steamroller the horror stories to prop up tales of middle class bootstraps entrepreneuriaism. Yes, Detroit is still a very embattled place that arguably needs the social resources of a stronger, less corrupt government, and this will be explored in greater detail in the book. (These blog posts are essentially teasers.) But there *are* Millennials living in Detroit who are trying to make a difference for the wider city through self-started projects, and most people have no idea about this. There’s been ample, excellent coverage of Detroit’s downfall and ruin, but little about people like Bradford or Justin and their work. (Some of which is actually funded by the state.) The purpose of this post was to direct readers to the notion that Detroit is not necessarily lost. I agree that entrepreneurialism alone can’t save an entire city, and it’s dangerous to assume that it will. But I absolutely believe that any substantive recovery effort will require the creativity and grassroots resourcefulness demonstrated by the Millennials referred to in this piece.

    Anyway, thanks again for reading!


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