Simon Johansson, PhD student, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

Remaking Detroit

In this seminar I will share some of my experiences of fieldwork in Detroit and discuss what those experiences have taught me. The presentation draws upon work conducted in 2014/2015 but it also looks ahead, towards my planned return to Detroit in 2016. Condensed to a sentence, my first round of fieldwork came to explore the conditions of urbanism in a declining city faced with large-scale restructuring.

The story of Detroit’s 20th century is by now iconic; that of the great rise, followed by the great fall; of prosperity turned to poverty. Since the post-war era, industry and demographics have been declining in Detroit and its once 2 million residents are now less than 700 000. In 2013, the city made headlines as the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S history, with 18 billion dollars in unresolved debts. The fiscal crisis, which has been decades in the making, ushered in changes to the city’s political, economic and social landscape. Municipal sovereignty was supplanted with state control, where the political power over the city’s future passed from elected representatives to an appointed emergency manager. Far from paralyzing the city, the crisis widened the horizons of imagining Detroit, opened up new fields of spatial struggle, as well as giving momentum to the idea of reorganizing the city in its entirety.

These transformations are occurring at multiple levels of the city. On the policy level, the current master plan of the city is arguably one the most ambitious urban makeover strategies in the world and provides an instructive discourse on the management and planning of urban restructuring in the 21st century. Over a 50 year period, Detroit is supposed to emerge as a smaller, smarter and more sustainable city, a place where people bike and walk, a space of innovation, technology and culture, full of green infrastructure. On the neighborhood and street level, people are engaged in what could be called insurgent placemaking, an act whereby residents appropriate urban spaces – legally or illegally – in attempts to remake them more to their hearts desire. This takes a multitude of forms, from urban farms to improvised bike lanes, from whole blocks turned into art galleries to homemade solar powered streetlights. Joining these various levels is the labor of imagination, of projecting images and narratives of the future in the creation of a present. Intimately linked to the act of placemaking, its labor of imagination, is the process of peoplemaking, of emerging subjectivities, ways of being in the city and spaces that can manifest and articulate people’s ideas about urban life. Given the history of Detroit, the emergence of “new Detroiter’s” and their spatial practices are informed by class and race relations, where current transformations both evokes a concern for what the future of the city will be, but also of who will be its future people.

All seminars in the series.