Sugrue and Vergara on the plight of America's Cities


On Friday, March 21st, as part of Wayne State University's Humanities Center Faculty Fellows Conference, several speakers spoke on the subject of "The City and Civic Virtue." Nick Sousanis and Francis Grunow report on what two very different speakers - photographer and sociologist Camilo Jose Vergara, and social historian/author Thomas J. Sugrue - had to say about the history and future of Detroit.

- Nick Sousanis
Thomas J. Sugrue is best known for his multi-award winning book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton University Press, 1998), a study of race and inequality in postwar Detroit. An active participant in his own community - a fully integrated neighborhood in Philadelphia - the native Detroiter and dedicated urbanist gave a spirited talk to an enthusiastic, overflowing crowd at Wayne State.Citing statistics about Detroit's high rate of poverty and marked segregation, Sugrue posed the question, "How can large parts of a city be left behind, while scant miles away prosperity and wealth are being generated?" Sugrue then proceeded to discuss and debunk the conventional reasons cited for Detroit's decline: a welfare policy that began in the 1960s that aided and abetted desolation, by creating a culture of poverty; the 1967 riots and Coleman Young's combative tenure as the city's mayor, beginning in 1974. These factors, it's often argued, supposedly led to the mass migration of whites and wealth into the suburbs. But Sugrue argues that these are grossly inadequate explanations for the "white flight" and the loss of capital in the city and points to circumstances that arose, not in the 1960s and 70s, but in the 40s and 50s: capital flight, discrimination in the work place, and segregation in the residential sector. Between 1947 and 1963 Detroit lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Even as blacks were moving in to the city, manufacturing jobs and money were flowing into the suburbs, into other areas in the the Midwest, the South and eventually to Mexico. With the loss of jobs came a loss of capital to sustain city neighborhoods, while home ownership (and capital) followed a largely white workforce into suburban areas. This shift was aided by overtly biased policies within the real estate industry, which worked to further segregate blacks and whites, and push whites to buy new homes in the suburbs. As greater Detroit's economy rebounded in the early 1960s, white workers had even greater economic power, and continued to move out of the city. The homes they left behind were aging and harder to keep up, leaving new black homeowners in the city with less home equity to finance everything from home repairs to higher education. According to Sugrue, these inequalities were eventually written into people's understanding of the area: Unnatural boundaries arose that kept blacks and whites apart, while shaping access to resources and political power. Sugrue identified three such boundaries.The Boundary of Solidarity: The rise of homeowners associations which fostered a sense of communal identity in neighborhoods and gave residents the de facto power to say "who's in and who's out," and perpetuate racially segregated communities.The Boundary of Privilege: Zones of class and racial homogeneity were further fostered by the great power wielded by local governments within the greater metropolitan area. Local governments, elected by residents of smaller communities, could and did act to preserve boundaries along racial lines - and make it much harder for blacks to move out of the city.

The Boundary of Signaling: Banks, real estate agencies and other investment institutions engaged in "red lining" certain areas, making home loans and commercial investment off limits in poor and minority neighborhoods.This last "border," Sugrue says, reinforced the other two, by making it economically dangerous for a white communities to break the color line. Sugrue went on to suggest that the city's revitalization depends on reconfiguring how we think about community. By continuing to leave the allocation of resources such as education and public works in the hands of local governments, communities that would otherwise have common interests are artificially pitted against each other in a competition for resources. Meanwhile, the emphasis on local control, greatly limits the population's power to make changes that would benefit the metropolitan area as a whole. Sugrue argues the only way to deal with the problems facing our cities, is for urban and suburban residents to begin thinking of themselves as members of a broader metropolitan community, with shared interests and shared problems.


- Francis Grunow

During Camilo Jose Vergara's lecture at Wayne, the photographer/sociologist showed off some of his latest time-lapse photography and talked about how he sees Detroit being recast as a "lesser city."

Vergara has devoted his career to documenting the transformation of the American inner city, particularly the physical devolution of the built environment in some of the nation's most "notorious" centers of blight, including Detroit. He is perhaps most famous, or infamous, in these parts for his proposal to turn twelve square blocks surrounding Grand Circus Park into an urban ruins theme park several years ago.

While Vergara's theme park proposal met with local opposition and consternation, his fascination with and documentation of Detroit's decline for the last two decades is highly regarded and has been compiled in several volumes, including American Ruins, which shows buildings such as the Riviera Theater on Grand River Avenue and several Brush Park mansions succumbing to nature, the wrecker's ball, or both.

At Wayne, Vergara asserted that Detroit's continuing process of demolishing older high-rising buildings while developing lower scale, less dense environments, that generally pale in comparison to what is being lost, is in effect, creating a "lesser city."

Vergara's hauntingly beautiful, sometimes achingly painful images of Detroit, surely stand for themselves. But in his secondary role as roving sociologist/commentator, ala his theme park suggestion, the photographer can come of as a smug or cavalier outsider, weighing in on the sorry state of America's cities without offering any true insights into how they might be saved.