Detroit Exposure

By Justin Allen

I wrote the following piece after taking part on a tour of Detroit led by Professor Jezierski in the fall of 2014. Having just made another trip to Detroit with Professor Jezierski’s MC 384 course, I thought it appropriate to review and think about.

This semester, Professors Louise Jezierski and Constance Hunt held a joint honors option for their MC 280 courses. The H-Option focused on Detroit and its decline over the last 60 years, reading Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, along with other articles on the current situation of Detroit and viewing a documentary on the race riots in the 1960s. Sugrue argues that, contrary to popular belief, residential segregation in Detroit can be traced to the early part of the twentieth century. The decline in Detroit began in the 1950s when industries began to move out of the city and the most mobile population followed to the suburbs; beginning the cycle of decreasing tax revenues within a city that had the infrastructure and obligations for a population of 2 million at its 1950 peak.

On November 7th, with the college’s support, the H-Option of about 15 students traveled to Detroit for a tour led by Professor Louise Jezierski with Professor Hunt. After leaving East Lansing the first stop was at the Ford Rouge factory complex. Students were able to walk the site of the 1937 Battle of the Overpass where UAW union organizers were attacked by agents of Ford. The group then travelled from Dearborn into the Southwest Detroit area. There the group went to lunch at Taqueria mi Pueblo in Mexicantown. Students were able to enjoy some of the best Mexican food they’d ever had and hear from recent Madison graduate Rachel Barth, who is working for the Americorps Urban Safety Project in Detroit, and Christopher Webb of the Engineering Society of Detroit.

Leaving Mexicantown, students were able to see firsthand the effect that interstate highways bisecting the city have had on isolating sections of different neighborhoods. Just across the highway from the flourishing Mexicantown enclave in Southwest Detroit, was an area sandwiched by the highway and the Detroit River; this neighborhood was marked by empty homes which had once been part of a thriving community and were now abandoned, hollow shells of businesses and factories that were no longer supported by a local population.

Students also visited many of the successful parts of the city. The bustling downtown area, with the Renaissance Center, the riverfront development and newly converted loft apartments and condominiums, and the thriving midtown areas, with its university, museum and sporting complexes, Eastern Market, restaurants and newly opened Whole Foods, were a highlight and a surprise to those who don’t often visit the city. Newly emerging middle class neighborhoods along with the established Indian Village and its mansions, Sherwood Forest and Palmer Park neighborhoods reinforced the importance of a stable middle class to a successful city. The Heidelberg Project, an urban art installation, was full of engaging and thoughtful pieces, with the recurring theme of time running throughout. One piece challenged the current healthcare system and the nation’s conception of it with a complex imitation doctor’s office, constructed from discarded and broken medical artifacts.

Through the H-Option and Detroit trip, students were provided an understanding of the forces that shaped the Detroit of today and shown the potential of Detroit’s tomorrow.

 

Upon reflection, I found this semester’s iteration of the Detroit trip to be decidedly more political in nature. We drove through some of the same areas, but added the Focus: HOPE initiative and the MSU Detroit Center, among others.   At Focus: HOPE, recent SRP graduate and former senator Nicky Bates informed us of the work the initiative does to help residents of the city, providing 45,000 people with meals every month.

At the MSU Detroit Center, we heard from Mac Farr, of Mayor Duggan’s office, and Alex Hill, a community health activist and purveyor of the Detroitography blog (which everyone should check out by the way), both are JMC alums.   Farr provided the insiders perspective of the city, citing statistics which drive the city’s decision making, including the controversial move to shut off some resident’s water who were delinquent on their water bills. He explained that because nearly half of City residents did not pay their bills, the rates for those who do pay are nearly double what they would be if everyone paid their fair share. Alex Hill later contested both the humanity of such a move, and whether or not it does the city any good in the long run. But Farr provided many examples of City government inefficiency and the efforts of the current mayoral administration to consolidate and enhance services. He added that Governor Rick Snyder has done more for the City, both financially and politically, than any other State politician citing both the Grand Bargain and his efforts to provide funds for an upgrade of the deteriorating City power grid. Hill spoke primarily to emphasize the need to focus on the people of the City in order to ensure its success both long term and throughout its vast entirety, rather than just looking at data, efficiency, and cost.

Farr also sold Detroit as a city of opportunity, arguing that he rose from a volunteer on Mike Duggan’s campaign to a Financial Director within the Mayor’s office and an Indian Village resident in a couple of years. While Detroit certainly has much to gain from college educated young people moving into the City and vice-versa, the cases laid out by Farr, Hill, Sugrue, Bates and the visualization of the city itself realized by the tour Professor Jezierski led make clear that we cannot allow the perpetuation of two Detroit’s, we cannot forget the longtime residents of the City, and we must make sure that government- city, state and county- seek to ensure that the City is not just a place of opportunity for outsiders, but for the 680,000 plus Detroiters who never left.

 

Vice President Justin Allen is third year PTCD and SRP major. He serves as a senator in the PTCD caucus.

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