Zombie City

DetroitCentralStationDriving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City by George Galster. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 328 pp.

Urbanists across America—likely across the world—are familiar with the woes of the Motor City. Descriptors like “plight,” “blight,” or even “ruin” abound. Detroit itself has less than half the 1.8 million population of its postwar peak. Its anchor industry—the automotive—was only saved from disaster by a government bailout. Symbolic of its misery, the city’s economic core greets visitors with a gigantic bronze fist, a monument to Motown’s heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.

In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City, author George Galster combines historical anecdotes with sociological hypotheses in an attempt to explain its woes. He does not hammer on the statistical indicators of Detroit’s depression. Instead, he pounds relentlessly on what he sees as the city’s dual historical conflicts: labor versus capital and white versus black.

Galster, a native Detroiter who teaches urban affairs and planning at Wayne State University in the city, rails unforgivingly against the commercial, cultural, and governmental institutions that cemented these dual struggles into the identity of Detroit. In this regard, Galster’s take diverges refreshingly from the myriad analyses that focus narrowly on the city’s labor and racial tensions. He considers its holistic decline while developing his major hypothesis on the psychological notion of respect (which offers handy Aretha Franklin references). Driving Detroit is a depressing account with no happy ending: the city is still in shambles. Yet Galster’s unconditional love for Detroit is palpable and his description of the city’s psychology carries a twinge of resilience, if not (perhaps foolish) hope.

The book begins by taking its reader on a guided tour—narrated from a hypothetical car, of course—of Detroit. At every turn, the city presents landmark buildings and monuments whose rich history Galster extols in the book. Whether the Joe Louis monument, a historic Ford production plant, the city’s Olmsted-designed Belle Isle Park, or the magnificent (and now ruined) Michigan Central Rail Station, each story contains elements of Detroit pride and shame. “Greater Detroit has never successfully resolved the conflicting messages of these vexing, inscrutable images at its core…These stunning disparities in the built environment reflect deep inequalities among the groups that live in this complex metropolis.” This theme is not new to area natives; the emphasis Galster gives it, however, startles those readers who have never experienced the city.

Galster traces the economic and social development of the city from its 18th Century roots as a strategic northwestern trading city. Rather than dwelling on mistakes made by city politicians and bureaucrats during the adolescence of the city, the author heaps more examples on us from the 20th Century: four major race riots; violent strikes; failed economic development strategies; and suburban-urban competition based on a stubborn zero-sum mentality.

Short-sighted and racist city planning policies turned Detroit into a black city surrounded by white suburbs. Home rule policies throughout Michigan fed a cycle of economic suffocation that continues to this day. The result is a doughnut of development surrounding the struggling city. The infamous Eight Mile Road that forms the city’s northern border is a classic example, where zoning and tax policies have shaped very different images on opposing sides of the boulevard. These are all useful and potent explanations of Detroit’s decline. Unfortunately, they would seem even more trenchant in the context of why these conditions make the decline of this city unique among major American cities.

Later in the book, Galster turns his focus to the notion that the city—through both its formal and informal institutions—systematically disrespects Detroiters. The city’s frustrations, he believes, lead to “collective irrationality” and thus to its own demise. The book even suggests Detroit be referred to as a “mortropolis”—a place that feeds into its own social suicide. The strength of these arguments is that they are well reasoned and come off as highly believable to the reader, especially one who has never lived in or visited Detroit. Their weakness, however, is exactly the lack of empiricism that makes this book more readable and engaging than other treatments on the city.

The main drivers of this lack of respect are twofold:  an “economic engine of anxiety” that has stripped away Detroiters’ foundation of identity, and the “housing disassembly line” that produced a surplus of housing throughout most of the 20th Century. The city’s addiction to the auto industry is undoubtedly a major ingredient in its decline. Imported cars have long since caught and passed American production quality. Factories have sprung up throughout the South, where labor is not unionized, and Mexico, wheremaquiladoras churn out “American” products duty-free. Union membership in the city is down to less than ten percent of its mid-century peak. Amazingly, though, a recent poll suggests that Detroit parents still value a career in the factories over a college degree. The two-tiered wage system instituted since the industry’s crash in the last decade spells the end of the good old days of which these people must be dreaming. This is Galster’s most powerful argument.

Failed housing policies are just one of many poor revitalization decisions by the municipal government. Others are evident in the casinos and sports arenas that just out of the abandoned landscape of the city. Civic-minded, adventurous young adults have been moving to Detroit lately. This, of course, follows a spattering of artists in the classic gentrification pattern. However, there simply is not the economic base to support the output of artwork or urban farms to make these endeavors sustainable. Galster’s discussion here is probably what most non-Detroiters are looking for when they pick up Driving Detroit. They get at the root of some of the city’s long-term problems and highlight their real-world ramifications. Yet the book falls short of inspiring the reader to action, which is frustrating.

Though brightly written and a pleasure to read (if you will indulge a few poetic excerpts from the likes of Eminem and Galster himself), the book can create the sensation of drowning in a sea of negativity. Why would anyone live in Detroit? How can one possibly stay there? Why not leave for a city with a brighter future? Despite these questions, the book piques my interest and attraction to the city. Galster, an energetic and engaging speaker with encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit, finds the same tone on the written page.

What Driving Detroit does not do—or set out to do—is offer solutions. This is prudent; such a prescriptive tack would likely date the book and render irrelevant its useful insights. However, the lack of discussion of a way forward leaves a bitter aftertaste for the reader.

The truth is that no one has yet found the fix to Detroit’s problems. But perhaps that is due to the fact that beyond its one-industry identity, no clear factor has emerged to explain the failure of the city to reinvent itself in the way many other American cities did in the last few decades. Are poor schools to blame? Is a drastically low level of immigration providing less economic and social impetus? These are simply speculations, and Galster unfortunately does not effectively add his two cents to the conversation.

The writer is not optimistic about his city. Indeed, Detroit culture is several generations behind the shift needed to adapt a 21st Century economy. For Galster, though, this is not reason to abandon hope altogether. There may yet be light at the end of this city’s barren streets.

Note: this review appeared in The Wagner Review on November 12, 2012.

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