I AM OF THE GENERATION of suburban white kids who made forays into Detroit after the mass migration of white families out to the suburbs in the 1960 and 1970s. I grew up first in a second-ring suburb of Detroit, and, at age six, was moved to what would eventually become a distant suburb of the city but, at the time, was basically farm country. My younger brother and I grew up on ten acres of land, near no other small children, bordered by cornfields on one side and a county park on the other. My father continued to practice medicine in the second-ring suburb we started in, commuting back and forth each day, and, at times, working shifts at hospitals in the city proper. The only times I can remember going into the city as a child were to attend sporting events, hockey and wrestling, mostly. It wasn’t until I was a teenager, able to drive myself, that I started going to all-ages concerts at the State Theater and St. Andrew’s. And then, during my college years, branching out into indie rock shows at the Majestic and Zoot’s (a name I am honestly shocked that I remember), and all-night, clandestine raves. Detroit had largely been abandoned by white suburbanites of my parents’ generation, although they still trekked into the city for cultural events—the symphony, the opera, sports. By the time my friends and I were venturing into the city, it felt not so much rebellious as exploratory: what had our parents been keeping from us? And why was racism the tool being used to ensure that we didn’t go into the city? Or, if we did, that our adventures were targeted and well protected by an ambient and obvious police presence?
I remember sitting on the floor of St. Andrew’s on a school night, waiting, interminably, for a band to take the stage, all the while trying to figure out how I would get through the next school day on so little sleep.
I remember sitting on the floor of a bar that had been used that night for a rave, there because police had raided the rave. All white cops and a mixed-race group of party goers. Looking back now, it’s clear that so much of the police crackdown on the rave scene was racially motivated—an attempt to keep white kids out of the city, to protect them and to uphold their parents’ sentiments about the city.
I remember driving home along Woodward Avenue, the great artery of an earlier era, then largely abandoned, stopping at each red light, followed closely by two men in a truck. When I stopped at yet another red light—at 2:30 AM, when the streets were totally empty except for my car and this other truck—they pulled alongside and motioned down my window. “Why,” the driver asked, “was I stopping for all these red lights? It’s Detroit!” As they pulled away, I watched them run a series of red lights, disappearing into the urban horizon before me. I still stopped at the lights—and continued to in future trips into the city—but the promise of lawlessness stuck with me. Does it matter that the two men in that truck were black?
My forays into the city—and those of my peers—stood in opposition to the often overt racism of our parents’ generation. One of my uncles, an appliance repairman, would often narrate stories of having to take calls in the city and painted a grim picture of people’s living situations—garbage-strewn houses, ill-kempt children, near-feral dogs tied up in yards. Another uncle narrated the riots in the city in 1967, when he was serving as part of the National Guard, casting the city as a site of constant racial unrest. Other friends’ parents would narrate tales of armed robberies, drug dealers, carjackings, and gang activity. They would also tell the tales of families moving from the city—or first- and second-ring suburbs—to deeper, safer homes in the suburbs. Combined, the stories painted the city as a barren, lawless, postapocalyptic landscape, populated by people who had been left behind. But whom they had been left behind by and what constituted the apocalypse they faced was always unclear.
It was only during my college years, largely through my classes, that I began to piece that history together. Central here was a class that I took on “Detroit,” a course offered by three faculty—all white men, all middle aged or older, none of whom grew up in the city or even in the area, as far as I can recall. We read books on Henry Ford and the invention of the automobile and early twentieth-century Detroit (Lacey 1986); books on Father Coughlin and his racist politics (Warren 1996); Coleman Young’s autobiography, Hard Stuff (Young and Wheeler 1994), notable for being the first black mayor of the city—and a man who endorsed a form of afrocentric politics in a major U.S. city that rejected the white suburbs and their interference; Elmore Leonard novels, like Unknown Man #89 (1977), which portrayed the suburb where I grew up—Rochester—decades before we moved there. The history of Detroit came in pieces, organized around “great” men, each of whom rallied a moment into being: early industrialization through Ford, antebellum racism through Father Coughlin, post–white flight rejection through Young. And then there were people like Leonard who could play in the worlds that these men had created. Leonard’s world is one of lawlessness, the frontier in the city, a meditation on how the small stakes of crime motivate venal action. Leonard reinforced a view of the city as on the verge of dissolution, rife with seedy criminals of all stripes. But it was a visit to the Diego Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Art as a class, whereupon one of my professors proclaimed it the “spiritual center of America,” that really impressed me; thinking about Rivera’s mural as religious captured the totalizing aspect of the art, its attempt to bring the world together, iconographically and relationally, into a map of connections, histories, and forces.
Detroit was built as the Paris of the Midwest, a cultural and spiritual center of the United States, at a time when automobiles were just beginning to make an impact on how cities could be organized. In its earliest urban iteration, Detroit borrowed from Paris the design of a wheel with a series of spokes radiating out from its center. These spokes—Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River—laid on top of a modernist grid, cutting the city up horizontally and vertically. Maybe on horseback or in a carriage this kind of infrastructure would make sense, but with modern automobiles, it made for a city that was less efficient for being ruled by 6-corner stops. Maybe, in retrospect, that’s why my fellow city drivers were so keen to blow through red lights; otherwise, the feeling of waiting pointlessly through minutes of empty green lights feels like too much. The grid radiates out from the Detroit River and city center, with each mile marker named for its distance from the river from 8 Mile onward. Such a naming convention has the benefit of being able to measure one’s distance from the city, but, in the racial order of Detroit and its suburbs, it also served as a marker of how far one’s white flight carried them. My earliest years were spent at 16 Mile Road, and then we moved near 28 Mile Road. It also, during the period of Detroit’s growing gentrification in the 2000s, could be taken as a marker for one’s participation in the reverse racialization of the city.
Do what you will with this, then: my first professional job was as an assistant professor at Wayne State University, the city university of Detroit and the only urban university in the Michigan system. It was an unexpected and rather sudden move, taking me from Chicago, where I was living while finishing my dissertation, back to my native Michigan. I tried, unsuccessfully, for two weeks to find an apartment in the city proper, and, when I couldn’t, I ended up renting a place in Ferndale, two blocks north of 8 Mile. Ferndale felt like the promise of Detroit to me: quietly integrated, middle class, unpretentious. Being where I was gave me the opportunity to commute home adventurously. From my office off Cass Avenue (sometimes referred to as Cass Corridor), I could take the Lodge Freeway, Woodward, or one of the secondary streets that wound northward. I cut through neighborhoods—Boston-Edison, University Village, Sherwood Forest—to see what they had become during decade or more since I had last driven them.
There were still dilapidated houses, empty mansions, and vacant businesses. I looked at the possibility of buying a home in the city, and joked with my partner about buying an enormous home for pennies on the dollar. Homes that had been a sign of status and prestige in the early twentieth century were reduced to having their unused rooms walled off in order to reduce the cost to heat them, effectively making thirty-room mansions into modest single-family homes. My drive home was often lonely, with mine being the only car on the road—even during rush hour. Yes, parts of the city had become depopulated, in part driven by the lack of local resources, like grocery stores, but other parts of the city were alive with communities that had been obscured by the racism of my parents’ generation. As I got to know my coworkers, some of whom lived in the city proper and had called it home for generations, I slowly started to see the city differently. I started to see how the gentrification efforts were displacing more organic, sometimes longstanding, partnerships between already existing community members (Hartigan 1999). I started to see beyond the edifices of the city that I had relied on—sites like John King’s enormous used bookstore, Mexican Village, the Eastern Market—and started to see the jazz and blues clubs, the community art projects, the local restaurants. Detroit started to feel like three cities: the city of fear fostered by an older generation, the city of exploration I forayed into, and the city that was actually there. That last city was different than I imagined it to be, but I had been blinded to it by generations before me, the media that cast Detroit as a city of fear, and my own habits. Detroit had become a palimpsest, three cities (maybe more), laid atop one another, each with its own history, its own present, and its own possible futures. Each of those futures, however, was struck through with the politics of race, a politics that ensured that, however the future developed, it would be as an effect of racial histories and presents that Detroiters and their suburban brethren had become entrenched in over the preceding century or longer, and that had intensified since the 1960s.
The shadow of the city was always its suburbs, a shadow built on the segregation of white and black populations. For suburban, white communities, Detroit was a postapocalyptic scene—a city crawling from the wreckage of industrial abandonment, a fleeing white population (which took a lot of wealth with it), the riots themselves, and the ongoing dismissal of white expertise on the part of Detroit’s black leadership. What was the original catastrophe, and how did it turn into the urban apocalypse that resulted? Based on my parents’ generation’s telling, it was the race riots in 1967. What they elided were the decades of redlining, the destruction of communities through the development of highways that cut through black neighborhoods; the consolidation of labor power in the hands of whites; the racism—implicit and explicit—of employers like Henry Ford; the segregation of schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods (Sugrue 1998). None of this was unique to Detroit—it happened throughout U.S. cities in the period after the Second World War and before the Civil Rights movement (and after Civil Rights, too). But Detroit was at the forefront in a particularly technological way: the automobiles that made Detroit possible facilitated the construction of necessary expansions of the highway system to support the transportation of goods, the demands for automobiles, and the growing communities of commuters who were traveling ever-longer distances into the city. The automobile and its concrete environment—and the desires of Americans to drive—enabled lawmakers and city planners to make particular kinds of decisions about how to build that environment, which advantaged some at the expense of others. Underlying these drives were the impulses of Fordist capitalism, which pushed consumption into new directions that built on old expectations, particularly of individuality and self-determination. The originary catastrophe was the two-edged sword of automobility, which at once made speedy transportation possible, revolutionizing the economy, but which simultaneously made once-compressed communities into sprawling, suburban nightmares (Lutz and Lutz Fernandez 2010).
The suburbs are their own particular form of hell. It’s hard to imagine that when settlers first came to North America they could imagine what urban planning, racial tensions, and automobility would do to the continent. Throughout my college years, I took advantage of the infrastructural developments of the Eisenhower era, taking road trips from Michigan westward, southward, and eastward. Between my early twenties and my late thirties, I counted eleven trips between Michigan and California, all by car. Over the years, I took innumerable flights across the United States, gazing downward at the concrete arteries that cut across the continent and comprise the nervous systems of city-suburban-rural sprawl. Is it any wonder, then, that I became fixed on Paolo Soleri’s utopian urban solution Arcosanti (Soleri 1970)? Arcosanti—and Soleri’s proposed arcologies—takes the American impulse to build ever outward, to find a plot of land for each family, to extend into every inch of what was once the frontier, but is now just property to be passed from person to person through financial exchange, and inverts the sprawl of the suburbs into a massive building that goes upward instead out outward. As the continent gets carved into property, town squares became downtowns, which turned into suburban shopping malls, and eventually strip malls—repetitions of the same fast-food restaurants, corporate pharmacies, clothing and other sundry stores, all in the name of convenience. Now, decades after the invention of the shopping mall and the expansion of the strip mall, vacant downtown properties offer a space for gentrification and the revitalization of city centers, and Amazon’s proposed drones promise to do to shopping malls and strip malls what malls did to city centers. The sprawl of my youth—Kmart, Barnes & Noble, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, JoAnn Fabrics—is slowly being displaced in favor of empty, anonymous retail space, concrete slabs and empty carcasses of convenience. Throughout my teenage and young adult years, the suburban blight of convenience made up a world that I constantly imagined rebelling against—and yet, the numbing effects of convenience made any open rebellion impossible to consider. Instead, the forms of rebellion that were made possible were intensely personal, and led me—and others of my generation—to adventure into the city that our forebears had largely rejected. And, for some, it led to their investments in gentrification: making Detroit white again, or at least whiter than it had been for two generations.
The evacuation and abandonment that white people did to the city, captured perfectly in what happened to Detroit over the last century, will now be done to them, by themselves. The logic of convenience will undo the suburbs in the same way that it undid the city, with the same erosion of community and social connections, but this time, with the distances between homes, the divestment from public infrastructure like education and health care, there will be no easy solutions, and the potential for real catastrophes magnifies as a result. Robert Kirkman’s zombie postapocalypse The Walking Dead captures this well: in the face of swaths of the population turning into flesh-eating zombies, there is seemingly no resistance, no concerted effort to stop the zombie infection—a solution easy to imagine in any tightly knit community. Instead, society just crumbles in the face of people turning into the undead. That’s all fine, and par for the course in zombie narratives. But what begins to happen much later is a series of attempts to create and sustain an interconnected set of settlements of survivors (Kirkman and Adlard 2015). Each of the settlements has been carved into being by dedicated work on the part of a group of idealists, although some favor authoritarian rule over more benign democratic anarchy. As the settlements begin to connect into a loose trade federation, they come into conflict with despotic villains interested in enslaving the more peaceful communities for their own benefit. Kirkman’s zombie postapocalypse captures the downstream effects of American suburban blindness and selfishness: people can’t think proactively, they can’t make a real plan for the future, and they surely can’t make a plan that contributes to their collaborative development of a post–zombie infection society, whatever it might look like. The survivors—most of whom are white, seemingly former suburbanites—are doing it to themselves with in-fighting, but, more importantly, a sheer lack of vision. They can’t seem to imagine what the future could be, with or without zombies; they did it to themselves, after all, since whatever brought on the disaster was something, presumably, made or facilitated by those in power. White people.