The Assassination of Detroit

Elites in Detroit say they want to turn around the city. Their plan is to privatize land and funnel more resources to the rich.

Detroit, 1852. R. Bürger / Library of Congress

Vacant land and buildings are among Detroit’s most valuable assets for its future.” The statements sounds like a real-estate commercial parody, but it comes from the most widely cited development plan for Detroit, the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework (DFCSF).

How could anybody consider vacant lots and abandoned buildings assets? For years, vacancy, dressed as blight, has been the bogeyman of Detroit. But in the mid-2000s there began to emerge another, pastoral idea of the city. According to this vision, capitalism — and people — had left. Detroit was a non-enforcement zone. All you had to do was move in to the vacant land, start your own urban farm, and use that to build community.

Some began referring to Detroit as a new frontier, with one particularly enthusiastic Craigslist Portland poster encouraging his other Portlandians to come with him on a “Michigan trail.” The Detroit left, for their part, did take this opportunity to expand urban farms and improve food access through locally grown produce.

Unfortunately, as long as capitalism lives somewhere, it’s waiting to move everywhere. In Detroit, and cities like Detroit, the question becomes: how do we make land, and even water, speculative and valuable once again to large investors?

The DFCSF sees massive vacancy and seeks to make the land industrially productive in ways it never has been before. To achieve this, land must operate as a sinister mirror image to the Republic of New Afrika‘s old call to “Free the land”: the predominantly working-class black people who hold these resources, whether in private or in common, must give them over to private investors, the state an active partner in their expropriation.

The DFCSF started as a collaboration between government, business, and nonprofit organizations, including the office of then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a public-private partnership that coordinates development in Detroit. Their collaboration included several performative components of community input; sprinkled throughout the eventual publication are little cartoon figures spouting blurbs obtained from such meetings.

All of this work eventually led to the publication of the DFSCF. Having been published, the DFCSF, which has not seen any of its provisions made into law, does enjoy the support of much of Detroit’s present government. Kevyn Orr, the state-imposed emergency financial manager who is still guiding the city through its bankruptcy, said he sees the DFCSF as a way for the city to recover. Mayor Mike Duggan, who has taken over from Orr the day-to-day governance of the city, supports the plan. Mayor Duggan’s economics czar Tom Lewand, Sr told the Detroit Free Press he considers the plan “his Bible.”

Looking at its title, the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework sounds like a how-to-guide for The Hunger Games. The entire plan reads like one too, mixed with a chirpier version of Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl commercial, or maybe a condo development pamphlet. Its rhetoric has parroted and internalized much of the liberal language around city development.

Wayne State University’s Peter Hammer, a vocal critic of the plan, notes that it claims to make “difficult choices.” Yet at the end of those difficult choices, the plan envisions a “green, sustainable city,” a Detroit where the most viable neighborhoods “have filled their density capacities,” and a “ city for all, with an enhanced range of choices for every resident, especially those who have stayed through the hardest times.”

In short, after the fifty-year process of the plan, it announces a utopia, combining ecology, density, and equality of opportunity, all achieved through a minimal engagement process and through the freely made choices of the city’s residents.

When you cut through the fancy maps and real-estate developer cheerleading, the DFCSF is a proposal for new zoning designations, land-use standards, and infrastructure. It starts by organizing Detroit into different “framework zones.” According to the plan, when determining a zone, “the most influential characteristic is vacancy, because of its infectious effect on physical and market conditions of an area.” The DFCSF presents a map of Detroit, color-coded to indicate the varying degree of vacancy.

However, there are industrial areas with relatively high areas of vacancy that do not get the designation its occupancy merits, because of the prospect of moving in more businesses. Additionally, the made-up neighborhood of Greater Downtown gets its own special designation, despite having higher vacancy than the low or moderate vacancy areas, because “its market characteristics remain the strongest in the city, and may incorporate different long-term goals and opportunities.” Marketability, then, is the most important factor in determining a zone.

What does Greater Downtown have that makes it more marketable? Gentrification and attractions, such as casinos, for a more affluent suburban population.

After examining the framework zones, the city decides how to classify an area’s land-use typology — industrial, neighborhood, or landscape. Industrial areas will continue to receive the full benefits of infrastructure. Neighborhoods will either see a maintenance (or a continued lack) of city services based on their predicted eventual populations and a disposition of land based on the same criteria.

The landscape typology, however, is a new one. It’s best understood by looking at the next step in the process: deciding what development type the city will zone for that area.

There are seventeen different kinds of development types outlined in the DFCSF. The landscape typology uses three of these: cemeteries and parks, innovation productive (i.e., ambiguous green industry devoid of people), and innovation ecological.

When Detroit resident and community activist Denise Livingston Dryden talks about the innovation ecological typology, she frequently says that her neighborhood in Midwest Detroit is scheduled for “rewilding.” It may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s essentially accurate. For the communities that are designated as future innovation ecology, the plan says the city will cut off services, raze houses, and let roads fall apart and go back to fields. The plan also says that any individuals who choose to stay in these areas will continue to receive services.

How the DFCSF plans to do these two contradictory things is largely left unarticulated. As Hammer points out, as soon as a neighborhood receives this designation, zoning housing prices will plummet.

Despite a couple of oddballs like Live+Make — think of a Frankensteining of Palo Alto and Williamsburg — all the other development types are less apocalyptic. They share the same mechanism for remaking the city, however: putting vacant land through a decision-making matrix to determine whether it’s valuable enough sell on the market or package it into much larger parcels.

There’s a vacant lot next to a factory? Give it to the factory owners. There’s a large swath of empty land divided into smaller pieces by one or two tenacious residents? Hold onto it until those people move out, and then assemble that even bigger parcel together.

The plan notably incentivizes people to leave these low-occupancy areas by cutting off their city services, while still claiming residents have agency (“choices you can’t refuse,” as Hammer puts it). When reduced to this basic mechanism of land assemblage, the plan becomes no less neoliberal, but much less sexy, and also begs the question: why combine all this land to begin with?

Before the recent financial collapse, there was no real barrier to making money off of low-income homeowners, in Detroit and elsewhere. The limits had been overcome with a predatory form of lending and massive government subsidization. The predatory lending eventually caused the collapse, resulting in new barriers to profiting off of small, residential plots of land located in the inner city.

The DFCSF is well aware of this, pointing out that as much as 50 percent of properties at the October 2011 Wayne County public auction have ended up back in the county or city’s hands. Unfortunately, selling it back to poor people of color is just not as profitable as it used to be.

Instead of taking the traditional real-estate approach (you know, happy shucksters talking about all the advantages of having a home next to the freeway), what if we keep the land, do whatever we can to combine it into much larger parcels, sell it to large land holders who we know can stabilize the market, and let them use it to turn a profit? Everybody in a suit wins! And of course, the benefits will trickle down, as they always do.

What is obvious — and what Daniel Clement shows in his thesis, “The Spatial Injustice of Crisis-Driven Neoliberal Urban Restructuring in Detroit” — is that the reduction of city services disproportionately affects “impoverished, undereducated, and public transportation-reliant citizens.”

Even if followed to its utopian letter, the DFCSF plan will result in the land of Detroit, whether individually or publicly held, ending up in a much smaller, wealthier, predominantly white, group of hands. We don’t have to rely on theory. The boosters of the plan have already given us a couple of dry runs of their ideas, and from this we can see how they might operate.

Widely cited yet not legally codified, there’s a convenient ambiguity at the heart of the DFCSF. On the one hand, it is widely supported by the city’s elected and unelected officials. On the other hand, Mayor Duggan himself said at a community forum in May that the plan was only a plan, subject to change, and if residents are worried about their neighborhood’s fate, they should come up with an alternative.

Even so, there are some already existing actions that the DFCSF cites as first steps to bringing the city in line with its vision.

One of those is the Hantz Woodlands. The Hantz Woodlands is a project of the Hantz Group to turn “more than 140 blighted acres on Detroit’s east side into a hardwood tree farm,” located in what the DFCSF would term an ecological productive zone of development. The land came directly from the city, which received only $500,000 for the transaction. Many groups opposed the proposal, disrupting the city council meeting where the vote took place and calling it a “land grab intended to drive up scarcity” and price people out of the city.

John Hantz, the founder of the Hantz Group did not deny the scarcity part, telling the Atlantic, “We need to create scarcity, because until we get a stabilized market, there’s no reason for entrepreneurs or other people to start buying. I thought, ‘What could do that in a positive way?’”

But why create scarcity in this specific way? There are millions of ways to create semi-altruistic outcomes from land. Hantz could have set up a foundation to create parks, and use that money as a tax write-off and increase the value of the land he already owns. The same goes for the city, if the goal is to create a tax base. There are innumerable ways to incentivize people to move somewhere. Homesteader capitalism, at any cost, even genocide, laid one of the economic foundations of the American experiment.Why this?

To be sure, the city does enjoy an enlarged property tax base from Hantz Farms, something it desperately needs. In agreeing to do so, it does not have to rely on a low-income tax base, and as an added bonus, does not have to provide that tax base with services. For Hantz, the value he gains is obvious, not only from owning the land or growing trees on it but from an economy of altruism that goes with the weird industry of Detroit saviorism.

In the clearest example, the first 15,000 of Hantz Farm’s trees were planted by more than 1,000 volunteers in a single day. In one of the most depressed cities in the United States, more than 1,000 people provided free labor to plant the crop of a for-profit lumber farm with the cover of creating green space, a state of affairs that makes the Whole Foods prison labor scandal seem like a confounding example of corporate selflessness.

In his extremely critical thesis, Clement seems incredulous about how Detroit’s “contaminated soils, understandable for a built-out city over 300 years old with a strong industrial history” could be profitable or even workable as farmland. Hantz Farms has provided the answer.

Vacancy and the creation of density are urban dilemmas throughout the United States. In a world of rising inequality, the DFCSF sees a solution to both: don’t turn the land over to those who would live on it, but those who would turn a profit from it. This exacerbates the problem that caused the last crisis by funneling more of the world’s resources to a small ruling class. The plan seeks to create a modern plantation system for the American city, one that could be easily exported to any municipality also facing high levels of vacancy.

Luckily, Detroit residents are already seeing many ways of fighting back against this tendency. For example, Detroit Eviction Defense has successfully kept numerous people from losing their homes, using everything from the courtroom to physically occupying a foreclosed property. The Detroit Water Coalition has brought attention to the water shut-offs that would intensify as land is scheduled to be vacated and assembled. This has led the United Nations to declare the state of affairs in Detroit a human rights emergency, and renewed interest in the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization’s call for the city’s water bills to be limited to 2 percent of the households’ income.

While these actions are crucial to challenging the DFCSF and building community support, they do not imagine a new city in its entirety. For all its faults, the DFCSF does just that.

Socialists must envision an alternative, a city that would make land and all other city resources free and public. We already have reproducible models. The city of Marinaleda, Spain, has completely decommodified land, making it a public asset that cannot be sold.

If we are to live in a society that does not expose its citizens to the cruel whims of a rigged market, we must create a city that, given the choice between a massive for-profit urban farm and housing for families who have lost their homes, chooses the families.