When I talk to people in various Rust Belt cities about how they perceive their urban cores, there’s a clear generation gap in evidence. As a Gen-Xer, I am close to the fulcrum of this, so I see it clearly.
”Gen-X and the Millennials have a much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations. I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined. If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always here the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter. Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it. These people are never going to be able to enter the Promised Land.”
While Renn does not specifically cite Detroit, his analysis mirrors how older white people who are native to the Detroit area feel about how things have changed. He does not mention race either, but I would wager the sentiment he’s describing is specific to white people. If you shared this nostalgic halcyon description with a black senior aged, say, seventy, their memories would be far less rosy. There is a tendency among the white majority to think of the years before the 1967 riots as the last golden age before Detroit fell apart, and that is indeed the impression I had before I read Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis. As Sugrue and many other historians have chronicled, Detroit’s large black population suffered harsh and systemic discrimination in housing, work and politics prior to 1967. They were harassed by a predominately white police force, confined to the worst housing in the most overcrowded neighborhoods, and then dislocated without their consent to make way for I-75 and public housing.
While Detroit today is a desperately poor shadow of its former self, I would imagine that for a lot of older black residents who can remember the time before the riots, things are better now than they were then. They can take pride that virtually all the city’s leadership is black today when, in their youth, virtually no one in higher office looked like them; their relationship with Detroit’s police force is less adversarial; and they can buy a home almost anywhere in the city if they have sufficient means without being targeted for violent assault and vandalism by racist neighbors.
While I find Renn unintentionally omits the experience of black Americans in his depiction of the pre-collapse central city, he rightfully assigns responsibility for federal and state government’s hostile urban policy where it is due — the boomers and their parents:
”I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process and moving on… (F)or us to fully embrace a true urban policy… it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while.”
Renn also captures pretty accurately the perspective of Americans under the age of, say, fifty:
”For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story. None of us knew any of those things. Our experience is totally different. We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost. Gen-X, which Jim Russell views as the heartland of Rust Belt Chic, is a generation defined by alienation, so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly. The Millennials of course have a very different attitude towards cities.”
There’s a lot of hope for Detroit and its peers in those two little words, “of course”: my generation — our generation — has been vastly more open-minded and adventurous about giving city life a chance. Our expectations are lower; we understand the increased risk of crime, the lower service levels, and the higher insurance rates; we accept these things, and do our best to work around them. The most educated and higher-earning among us are the most likely to postpone childbearing, giving us a longer time to try out Detroit. Since the housing collapse and the tightening of credit, a lot more of us are postponing homebuying and fewer of us are going to bother with homeownership at all, giving us more flexibility to rent. Our generation is poorer and more environmentally conscious than our parents’, so car ownership does not hold the same glamour, or public transit the same stigma, as it did for them; consequently, Detroit and its inner suburbs, with at least a minimum level of bus service, offer more value for our money than the car-dependent exurbs.
A lot of us — myself included — have sampled Detroit and moved on for various reasons (for myself, working in Ann Arbor, a forty-mile daily commute simply made no sense), but a lot of us are open to returning at a later point if circumstances permit, where our parents and grandparents would have dismissed the idea out of hand. Even if we no longer live there, we visit frequently to take advantage of Detroit’s still rich dining, cultural and recreational experiences.
”As time goes on, we’ll have more and more people seeing the city with fresh eyes, and only knowing it when there’s reason for hope and optimism. That by itself will be a building force for change and new directions over time, until the true changing of the guard arrives.”
Given the kudzu-like profusion of reasons for pessimism about our region’s central city, I am learning to take hope where I can. So I gratefully buy into Renn’s hypothesis that over the long term, a sort of socio-cultural cohort replacement will help tilt perceptions and, in turn, state and federal policy and business investment, in Detroit’s favour. It’s a hoary cliche, but past experience does not predict future performance. Observers of 1970s Boston or New York City would have been startled by those cities’ recovery. Pittsburgh haemorrhaged people for decades but is now the darling of students of urban rebirth. And having read so many suggestions in fall 2005 that New Orleans was best simply abandoned after Katrina, I was unprepared for the splendid good health I saw in that city during my visit there this past New Year’s. Those of us who have good reasons to stay here can take heart in these examples, that sometimes optimism, combined with smart investments and a willingness to adapt to rather than resist change, can pay off over the course of decades.
This is Andy H’s first guest blog for thedetroiter.com
More of his writing can be found on his blog ”Motown to Tree Town”, A blog about Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the forty miles between.