England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

What do we do when the economic and social infrastructure of a city collapses?


We have all watched those archaeological documentaries that find abandoned cities from the Mayan, Inca and other ancient societies that, apparently, imploded and left whole cities to be eaten up by the natural world. We discover these ancient, societal collapses when modern day archaeologists and historians unearth them and pontificate on the reasons for the exodus of their populations.

We can’t begin to believe that the same might happen to London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, in the modern day – those scenarios are surely restricted to the imaginations of sci-fi writers and film producers? Well, that was my view until I saw the state of Detroit in the first of Ben Fogle’s new series of ‘Lost Worlds’ on Channel 5 on 27 October.

Younger readers may not recall Ben Fogle. He was the hero of (probably) the first reality TV show in Britain – Castaway 2000 – which placed a number of strangers on the island of Taransay, in Scotland, for a year with the aim of setting up a new community from scratch. Inevitably, it collapsed but Ben came out of it smelling of roses (and sheep dung) and with a career in broadcast journalism. His recent films have been focused on modern day singles, couples and families leaving city life behind and living in the wild, but his new series is looking at ‘lost worlds’.

Detroit is not a ‘lost world’ – if you take a right off 8 Mile Road you can’t miss it. But if you do take a right turn off the 8 Mile Road you need an ex-police officer guiding you on where you can and cannot go. Luckily, Ben did have a retired police officer, Kerry, in his 4×4 – along with a camera man (and probably a security detail as well, hence the 4×4).

Detroit is, however, a collapsed community. In the 1950s, built on its motor industry, it was the richest city in the richest country in the world. The decline started in the late 1960s. In 1967 riots broke out and combat troops were sent in, by President Lyndon Johnson, to restore order. Kerry’s insight into this change in the psyche of the city is profound. He joined the Detroit police force because he wanted to restore order. As a Black man in his retirement, however, he can see the causes of the unrest that destabilised the city. The wealth of the city was built on the motor industry but the lower class, mainly comprised of the Black population, were the workers and the industry owners (all white) were reaping the benefits.

By 1974, Detroit was the murder capital of the USA, with 751 homicides. In 1984, on ‘Devil’s Night’, there were 1000 instances of arson in the city. Kerry tells us that ‘Devil’s Night’ became an annual event – when gangs of youths would indiscriminately firebomb properties. We saw the remnants of so many abandoned properties all over Detroit – some burnt out and others just left to deteriorate.

‘White flight’ during the 1980s resulted in the collapse of the housing market. It also coincided with an influx of crack cocaine that, Kerry tells us, decimated the rest of the, predominately Black, community. Homes and factories were abandoned and schools followed – there are now 100 abandoned schools in Detroit. Bob, an ‘urban explorer’, takes Ben on a tour of the abandoned houses, factories and schools across Detroit – it looks like the film set of a post-apocalypse movie.

The bulk of this 90 minute documentary paints a picture of a city in terminal decline and collapse, but there are green shoots springing from the detritus and local community initiatives are at the heart of the rebuilding process.

Mama Shu is one of the community heroines of Detroit. Her three sons were all victims of the implosion of the city – two were shot and killed in the street where she has set up her charitable project to rebuild her neighbourhood. She is, clearly, an inspiration to the community (and to Ben Fogle – who is visibly touched and baffled by her ‘can do’ attitude, in spite of her personal tragedies) because she sees hope and believes in a better future for that community than she has experienced in her immediate past. Ben says to her “I don’t know how you have this energy” and she says “We have to move on”.

Khali, a former gang member who has been shot twice, now owns a boxing gym that is focused more on literacy than teaching kids how to fight. He tells Ben that the boxing is just to get the kids in – his real intention is to get them to read and write because that was what turned his life around. The gym is filling a void left by a failing education system – apparently some 50% of adults in the most deprived areas of Detroit are illiterate.

Some of the abandoned buildings – housing, schools and commercial premises – have been demolished and have made way for the development of urban farms, producing fresh produce that is addressing the food needs of local communities. The community farmer, that Ben interviewed, suggested that there are some 40 urban farms now operating in the city, reclaiming land that was previously occupied by derelict urban buildings.

The missing information in this documentary is what local government is doing to repair the collapse of the city. Ben focused his attention on local community activists and probably neglected to acknowledge what local authorities must be doing to support those activists that are leading the regeneration of their communities at a local level. Mama Shu, Khali and the urban farms must, surely, have financial and other support from their local authorities to maintain the excellent work they are doing but, for Channel 5, that is probably the boring bit that they don’t need to cover in a documentary.

An article in Metropolis  highlights the racial divide that still affects the regeneration of the city (almost 80% of Detroit residents are African-American and it has one of the highest poverty rates in the USA). Malik Yakini, the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a citywide organisation of urban farmers and distributers whose aim is to create sustainable, independent sources of fresh food for Detroiters said: “The African-American population is still largely disinvested in and still, largely, doesn’t have the capacity to lead development in our own neighbourhoods and in the city where we are the majority population.”

Anika Goss, the chief executive officer of Detroit Future City, a think tank dedicated to using data to design and encourage a more equitable future for Detroiters says that: “The exclamation point to what we’re seeing, how we are trending in terms of demographics, is that the only neighbourhoods that are growing population are upper-income white neighbourhoods where we’ve seen this large scale investment.”

The story of Detroit, over the past 30-40 years, is probably a story that will be replayed in many other cities across the globe, as we see the impact of climate change and economic and social breakdown on societies all over the world. It should be looked at in a more detailed, and less sensationalised, view than is afforded by a Channel 5 documentary. What have local authorities been doing in Detroit and how can we learn from their actions? That is the question that we need to consider and act upon.


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