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'Detroit 1967' excerpt: It can happen here

Desiree Cooper

This is part of an essay which appeared in the anthology "Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies." It was written by the award-winning author Desiree Cooper, whose collection of stories, "Know the Mother," was published by Wayne State University Press last year. 

The essay references a quote from Father Gabriel Richard, which ultimately became Detroit's motto: "We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes."


If Father Gabriel Richard were to stroll along Cass Avenue in Detroit's Midtown today, he would be amazed at the accuracy of his prophecy more than two hundred years later. Indeed, the revitalization of the area is proof that when Detroiters hope for better things, they can rise from the ashes—even if the ascendency takes decades.

Why has Detroit's "comeback" been so long in the making? It certainly was not the only city that went up in flames in 1967 and 1968. Nationwide, there were nearly four dozen major riots in America's urban centers during those years, including in Cleveland and Newark. In addition, there were more than one hundred smaller cases of civil unrest. But Detroit's 1967 uprising was the bloodiest and most costly. Historically, few cities have paid a higher price for rioting than Detroit has. Beyond white flight, there was a near-complete white economic abandonment. While the city gained black political strength, it lost nearly all economic investment and jobs and, with that, its tax base. Property values never recovered. Schools became segregated, underfunded warehouses for poor children. Tensions mounted between the black city and what Mayor Young once famously called the hostile suburbs. The result has been decades of social, political, and economic retribution against Detroit and an exacerbation of racial tensions. The rise of "ruin porn" in the media has had the tenor of both fascination and comeuppance: here is what happens when "civilization" goes "native."

The mostly black citizens who remained in Detroit (by choice or a lack of it) have learned to live with a complicated twoness: They are some of the poorest, least educated, and desperate people in the United States. And they are also some of the country's most educated barrier breakers in the areas of law, medicine, engineering, business, architecture, and politics. They inhabit communities that are intractably poor. But they have also built solid middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods that have been the backbone of the city for decades. Together with their remaining white neighbors, they are nearly singular in their view of a city wronged and abandoned by the power structure. For decades, they have dug in, waiting for Detroit to rise from the ashes.
 

 
Perhaps their wait is over. Despite the Great Recession of 2008 (which Detroit experienced as a depression) and the near collapse of the auto industry, the negative narrative about Detroit is now in full remission. The city has become an international media darling, with stories abounding about its entrepreneurial spirit, its burgeoning creative class, its history of urban farming, its expanse of empty land, and its bargain-basement real estate. The media's love affair with pictures of the city's spectacular ruins and stories about gruesome crimes and corrupt politicians has now been replaced by fawning stories about quirky business start-ups, posh restaurants, and upscale retail. As Ben Austen of the New York Times said recently, "The city now teems with a post-post-apocalyptic optimism."
 
It may be more accurate to say that the nation is embracing a post-post-apocalyptic optimism about Detroit. For many Detroiters, this new narrative is as suspect as it is welcome. Detroit was never the Wild West of crime and abandonment. But neither is it the Mecca of unbridled opportunity as it is depicted today.

Somewhere in between, real Detroiters are living the real Detroit experience. They are surprised by the bicycle paths that now line their streets and perplexed at a major investment in a rail line that will support only a small fraction of the city's residents, the vast majority of whom depend on inadequate public transportation every day. They welcome new shops and retail in a city that, until recently, had been redlined out of basic conveniences. But they wonder at brands like the outdoor adventure clothing retailer Moosejaw and the handmade watch designer Shinola locating in a city that has only a couple of major retail chains. The question is not whether Detroit is rising from the ashes. The question is … for whom is it rising?
 
The Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley raised the issue publicly in December 2014 when he asked the pointed question, "Where are the black people?" when talking about Detroit's promising comeback. The answer is the same as it was in the 1960s. The black people are where they have always been, trying to stake their claim in a city where their basic needs go largely ignored.
 
If Detroit learned anything from the riots—and the decades of fear, divestment, and racial segregation in the aftermath—it is that when a city goes up in flames, everyone suffers. It is unlikely that Detroit will see another riot anytime soon—the dynamics have changed, the politics have changed, the police have changed, and the economy has changed. Hope is blossoming everywhere. But just because you cannot see flames does not mean that something is not smoldering.
 
"In a city that has had tons of racial tension, extreme violence and racial oppression, and some would say extreme segregation, leadership has to step forward with a plan," Ken Harris told Kimberly Hayes Taylor of NBC News in late 2015 when asked about gentrification in Detroit. Harris, the president and CEO of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce Inc., continued, "People need to talk and hold each other accountable and develop Detroit in the right way as opposed to the evils of the past."
 
Fifty years after the riots, Detroit is living up to its motto. It is seeing better things. It is rising from the ashes. And if city leaders, residents, and businesses are willing to build a city that works for everyone, they are sure to avoid the fire next time.

Excerpted from "Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies," edited by Joel Stone, published in 2017 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan. 
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