“Beware of the blank-slaters.”
This was my landlord’s response to learning that I study Sociology and Urban Planning. His tone was both joking and ominous, and I’m still not convinced that I understood him correctly. But the general sentiment was one I was already familiar with, one that suggested I beware of a new wave of approaches to solving some of Detroit’s major issues.
Our city’s Herculean difficulties are well documented. Among the lamentations: one of the lowest performing school districts in the nation, a persistent ranking in the top ten most racially segregated metropolitan areas since the mid-1900’s, 47% functional illiteracy among adults, and a large labor force without any jobs to employ them (the unemployment rate in Detroit was 11.6% as of May 2011, compared to 9.1% nationwide). Any one of these issues is enough to devote lifetimes to.
And then there is the 2010 census charting the exodus of over 237,000 people out of Detroit in the past ten years—25% of the population. This is all happening within 139 square miles, an urban boundary large enough to engulf all of Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco in its domain. Detroit’s space in the national consciousness embodies our understanding of big industry. Images of the city evoke the work of Henry Ford and his unrestrained River Rouge Plant funneling smoke skyward. But with that era of the city’s expansion came the settlement of immigrant enclaves and the Great Migration of African Americans from the south, transforming Detroit not into the dense verticalism of the east coast but instead a horizontal city of homes. The Motor City has had a declining population since the mid-century mark, but the acceleration of that loss more recently (coupled with foreclosures, vacancies, and the abandonment of substantial proportion of homes) has resulted in the most striking mise-en-scène for a central city.
In Detroit, the term “blank slate” is often used in relation to all of these problems. It is both a nod to the physical landscape (barren, abandoned, waiting to be turned into farmland in the opinion of some) and the social landscape; the sense is that things here have gotten so bad that the city has turned into a tabula rasa. Detroit —in this blank slate mentality—is a canvas for new ideas where everything can be tried because what we have done so far hasn’t worked. Depending on who’s employing the term, this could connote anything from a fresh take on old issues to a stubborn rejection of Detroit’s history and the work that good people are still doing every day to keep the city going. But one thing is for sure: when someone says “blank-slater”, they are talking about a generation of people moving into the city, noticeably (though not entirely) white, young, and extremely vocal.
For twenty-somethings interested in working in politics, working for non-profits, or just working for themselves, moving to Detroit isn’t a leap towards masochism—it’s a strategic move to a place where they see opportunity. The bottoming out of Detroit –the fact that it is number one in many of the statistical areas that no city wants to be number one in— is part of why so many have come to believe in its possibility. There is no better place to go and actually have your voice heard. Members of this younger cohort involved in non-profit work are in positions of those at least five years their elder in other cities. Every new friend I meet seems to run their own small business. And most importantly, the majority of these individuals have an extremely sensitive appreciation for Detroit’s history that fuels their commitment.
Take for example Andy Linn. Andy matches the description of a “blank-slater.” Along with his sister Emily, he is the co-owner of City Bird, a boutique in the Cass Corridor of Detroit that focuses on hand-made Detroit-themed housewares and artwork. He’s young, white, wears trendy frames, drinks Stroh’s (the originally Detroit brewed beer is the hip cheap beer of choice), and wears skinny ties that are always slightly askew. But Andy also lives and breathes Detroit. He grew up in the city and now splits his time between City Bird and Zachary and Associates, a Detroit-based planning consultant firm. At any time of day, Andy can be found brainstorming uncommon ways to make Detroiters proud of their home.
Originally selling their products online and with other retailers, Andy and Emily bought a storefront in 2009, joining a handful of other small-businesses and restaurants on the block. Among them is the aptly named Bureau of Urban Living, a boutique just next door to the Linns’ with similar merchandise. But the stores refuse to treat one another as competition on the basis of the similarity of goods. Instead, they relentlessly promote one another to strengthen their pocket at the corner of Canfield and Cass; changing it from a stop on the way out of town into a place for Detroiters to spend the afternoon. This is the kind of collaborative spirit to be found all over the city. Detroit is a big place, but the small business community takes on the feel of a village, with restaurant owners doing the carpentry for the coffee shop next door, and the pizza vendor helping two brothers get started with their dream of opening up a bagel shop.
When you walk into either Bureau of Urban Living or City Bird, you are greeted by cool slate and white-washed walls, exposed brick to the sides, and flanks of maple under your feet. The form has a simple function: a means for the display of the intricacies each store has to offer. But this aesthetic might be precisely what the anti-“blank slaters” are reacting to. Change is difficult to swallow, no matter how badly it may be needed. And spaces of consumerism are the most visible changes in any urban landscape, because they fill vacancies in the streets we walk down and influence where people spend their time.
Most of the economic development that has been covered in the news does fit the mold of young adults relocating to Detroit with not only a renewed sense of energy but also the type of expendable income that can purchase specialty goods. And these spaces, even if intending to have a welcoming air, may be alienating for many. The blank slate may be just as much an aesthetic sensibility as it is a politics of urban life.
This influx of entrepreneurial and artistic young folks who practice this aesthetic has come with the inevitable Brooklyn comparisons. In their series “Need to Know,” PBS recently posed the question of whether or not Detroit was the new Brooklyn. This came on the tail of a New York Times piece documenting the regeneration of Detroit as a new hipster mecca for a younger generation of energetic people and organizations. And while this most recent wave of media attention is refreshing considering the post-apocalyptic alternative, to suggest that Detroit is the new Brooklyn misses the point entirely.
Detroit will never be what Brooklyn is. But at the risk of sounding like the girl who didn’t get asked to prom telling us that she “didn’t really want to go anyhow,” I don’t think that the people that make Detroit exciting are looking to recreate Brooklyn; they’re looking to revitalize the city they love. They aren’t attracted to an anonymous blank slate, but to joining a community committed to doing good in a big city. With all of the clichéd markers of urban decay you find in Detroit, you’d be just as hard-pressed to meet a new friend of any age that wasn’t somehow involved in the regeneration of the city (and about four other projects as well). Along with his planning work and small business, Linn is a regular contributor to news on Detroit, ran for the position of Detroit Charter Commission Candidate in 2009, and even serves as the occasional DJ for Detroit’s summer season Futbol League.
Linn is indeed prodigious, but here he is no exception. Detroit offers land that’s affordable for small business owners. It can offer a policy community that may finally be ready for new ideas. And it can offer Detroiters that are relentlessly optimistic in outlook as they fight against lifetimes of stereotypes about their city. They’re not “blank-slaters,” as if it’s some sort of punk cult looking to tear up the fabric of urban life in Detroit and the long history that has produced it. They’re in fact the opposite: just folks building on the ephemeral quality that makes Detroit what it is, doing what they love, and working to create the spaces that allow the city to eventually speak for itself. Detroit is the new Detroit.
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Meagan Elliott is a co-founder of 7STOPS Magazine. Originally from Houston, TX, she is pursuing her doctorate in Sociology and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. Though in a committed relationship with the city of Detroit, she keeps Austin and Brooklyn as lovers on the side. Currently, Meagan is pursuing development plans for a direct rail line between all three. The train will only serve pickles, blueberries, and whiskey and will be conducted by her nephew Beniu.
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