5 Things Detroit is Doing to Re-Balance the American Dream

Detroit is filing for bankruptcy.  Once a pillar of American values, Detroit was a showcase of the potential of capital and industry to grant wishes and make dreams come true. Today, tens of thousands of retired Detroit workers stand to lose their pensions because the city has been granted protection from its creditors.  This is the latest chapter of the tragic story of Detroit’s demise.

The dream of Detroit has been broken for decades, its sad decline perhaps a foreshadowing of how an unbalanced approach to growing capital would lead to financial crises around the globe.  And yet, out of the rubble of Detroit’s utter devastation are little glimmers of post-industrial awesome that have captured imaginations with the promise they hold for re-balancing the American dream.

1/ It’s a Millennial Magnet

Millennial hipsters are going to save Detroit. They’ll come from far and wide with their handle bar mustaches and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses for the $500 homes. They’re going to DIY the crap out the place, grow their own food in vacant lots, and before too long, they’ll be giving each other tattoos, drinking artisanal coffee and laughing all the way to the bank. Detroit is going to make Brooklyn look like Beverly Hills.  In the past ten years, Detroit has experienced a 59% increase in college-educated residents under the age of 35.  They’re the biggest generation since the Boomers, so if they’re in Detroit, it’s gotta be a good thing.

2/ Food Not Factories

The link between culture and food can be traced throughout human history. Agriculture gave us food surpluses which allowed us to be sedentary long enough to build civilizations, and cross-culturally, food is a locus of social interaction and a way for people to connect and engage.  As Detroit battles forth, it is therefore no surprise that food culture is leading the charge.

Once referred to as a “food desert”, Detroit is being revitalized by guerrilla gardeners and brave baristas who believe that the food system will lay the groundwork for a new urban economy.   With support and resources through initiatives like FoodLab Detroit and Kitchen Connect, local grocers, restaurateurs, butcher and bakers believe that a community engaged with food will bring Detroit back from the brink.

3/ Plugging the Brain Drain

The exodus out of Detroit left more than empty buildings in its wake; a decrease of nearly 60% of population since 1950 has meant the loss of leaders and changemakers to fix the mess left by the Big Three.  But for savvy start-ups, Detroit’s wasteland economics prove to be an attractive place to make good stuff happen.  Simply put, it’s cheap to grow a business in Detroit and entrepreneurs with foresight are seizing the opportunity.  Start-up financiers like Detroit Venture Partners and business incubators like Techtown, Bizdom U, and Practice Space are providing support for professionals who want to play a meaningful part in Detroit’s revitalization.  Other initiatives, such as Wayne State’s Detroit Revitalization Fellowship have some pretty serious foundation backing to attract changemakers and future business leaders back to Motown.

4/ The Triple Bottom Lining

As the Motor(less) City moves into its post-industrial era, responsible and sustainable thinking is guiding much of its momentum.  Specifically, Triple Bottom Line capitalism – the idea that people and the planet matter just as much as profits – has become an important feature of the re-imagined Detroit.  The idea is simple: for financial profit to be sustainable, it has to be socially and ecologically responsible as well.  Initiatives like Green Garage Detroit and Detroit Greenworks Solutions are working to support local businesses like Avalon Bakery and Shinola Manufacturing; companies that believe that industry can be a beautiful a meaningful part of building healthy communities.  With an emphasis on the social and ecological outcomes their capitalist enterprises, those on the vanguard of Detroit’s forward momentum hope to avoid mistakes of the past by weaving these principles into their business processes.

5/ Making Creativity Count

Debates about Richard Florida’s research methods aside; the idea that creativity is an important ingredient of post-industrial urban economic development is just plain common sense.  Simply put, innovation will be more successful if you’ve got creative people involved.  In Detroit, they’re not just throwing money at the arts; the funding of creative endeavors is part of a broader strategic initiative to leverage creativity as part of the city’s revitalization.  Sitting at the intersection of the arts, urban development and social innovation, initiatives like the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program, the Hudson Webber Foundation’s 15 x 15 Initiative and Filter Detroit are committed to the notion that artistic efforts will attract and retain a young talented population.

Balancing the Scales

With its crafty Millennial population of entrepreneurial food-focused do-gooders, it’s tempting to think that Detroit may well be on its way.  But the successful re-invention of 8-mile into a sustainable site of urban goodness will require some serious work and socio-economic soul searching along the way.

–       Hipster utopia aside, how does a bankrupt Detroit protect its pensioners?

–       What are the barriers to accessing entrepreneurial opportunities and support in Detroit, and in what ways are class and race based inequalities implicated in this process?

–       As hipsters take over inner city neighborhoods with artisanal bread and organic veggies, how will local residents – those living in poverty because they’ve lost their pensions – be able to participate in this new economy?

These kinds of questions are important because the failure of the dream in Detroit was more than just an economic one; profound and systemic social, cultural, racial and political inequalities were fundamental to the making of the Detroit Disaster.  Balancing the scales in Detroit means making sure that this difficult history isn’t replicated into its re-imagined future.

 This article has been adapted from one that appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.