Detroit as a case

What do we learn when we study Detroit? I’ve been asking myself this question for the past month as I work on two essays. The first is a collaborative effort with my advisor and three other Ph.D. students. We’re making the case for why and how scholars should do research on Detroit to advance our understanding of urban studies (building on a series of talks and discussions held over the past two years). The second essay, which I started writing in response to the first, is a personal reflection on the ways I’ve learned from Detroit, and how that’s changed over time, and how what I’ve learned has changed me.

Both essays hinge on the same questions: Why study Detroit? For whom? To what end? Scholars, I have learned, almost always study the city instrumentally. They study Detroit not for its own sake but to advance some larger theoretical end. Detroit is either used as a representative case of a larger class of Rust Belt cities or as an anomalous case that contradicts prevailing ideas and policies, such that it forces us to reconsider what we thought we knew about cities generally. The goal of this research is not to learn more about Detroit per se but to learn more about all cities, or at least the cities that share some commonality with Detroit, and to share those insights with other scholars, students, and policymakers.

Even a book as intimately focused on Detroit as The Origins of the Urban Crisis justifies itself this way. In the introduction, Sugrue writes that his book should not be read as a full history of postwar Detroit but rather as “a starting point for an examination of the causes of the vexing problems of urban poverty, inequality, and urban decline, and a tale of the struggles for equality and survival in the postindustrial American city.” It is, in fact, the best history of postwar Detroit—richly detailed and a pleasure to read—but this storytelling mission is subsumed to Sugrue’s more global analytical goals: to historicize the “underclass” debate among social scientists and reveal the deep roots of urban inequality in America. Detroit is the best choice for such a case study because it represents, to the extreme, the disinvestment and racial conflicts that wracked all Rust Belt cities after World War II. The implication, which I think is right, is that much the same story could be told in Cleveland or Flint, but Detroit was, in Sugrue’s estimation, the best vehicle for the larger narrative.

But would Sugrue have cared enough to tell it elsewhere? As he has admitted in later interviews and the preface to a newer edition of the book, the choice of case study was motivated, at least in part, by his own family history in Detroit. But from this inductive impulse he was able to deductively articulate the national significance of the case:

Yes, I selected Detroit, in part, I think because of personal biography. That is, I wanted to understand the place that I had grown up in. I also decided to focus on it because Detroit was, in the 1940s, a symbol of American industrial power at its peak. This was a place that was visited by Europeans and Asians, people coming to the United States to see how American capitalism worked. It was the pinnacle of American power. It was the arsenal of democracy during World War II. Yet, by the 1960s and 1970s Detroit had become a symbol of America’s urban crisis. It was a city ravaged by one of the most violent racial disturbances of the 20th century, the uprising of 1967. It was a city that lost most of its white population to suburbanization and it became, in many respects, an emblem of America’s urban crisis. So Detroit in some ways was an ideal type. It allowed me to look at a symbol of America at its most prosperous and affluent and a symbol of American cities at their most troubled, all within 300 short pages.

I suspect any intellectual project of this magnitude has a personal hook of this sort, be it familial, political, or otherwise. Something powerful must motivate the endless digging through archives and sifting of data.

Another of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, has always been upfront about mixing the personal with the scholarly. Even when she doesn’t employ “I” in her essays, she is an unmistakable narrator by her word choice and perspective. In 2007, she wrote a beautiful essay on the city, called “Detroit Arcadia,” that I still admire. Like Sugrue’s, her story evokes broader themes: the meaning of the city post-collapse, the interplay of urbanity and nature, and the seeds of a possible renewal for Detroit and the American city. Sugrue’s work straddles the social sciences and the humanities; it’s explicit about its contribution to academic theory, but it’s a riveting story as well. Solnit’s is more firmly on the side of the humanities. She’s writing beyond Detroit thematically, but she’s also unabashedly writing about Detroit and for Detroit as well, dwelling in its particularities, just as she has done, more famously, in essays and books on her hometown of San Francisco. In her writing, the city isn’t just a setting or a case to prove a larger point; it’s a character in itself that’s intrinsically worth knowing.

As a Ph.D. student, I’ve been trained in the social sciences, but by instinct my work probably falls closer to the humanities. It’s partly a disposition toward writing. Contrary to many social scientists (but like many historians and public scholars), I identify myself more easily as a writer than a researcher.  I see “research” as a journalist sees reporting: as the building blocks of a story, not the story itself. I can’t just “write up” research; the writing itself gives the research its value. I’m also trying to satisfy multiple impulses: to contribute original thinking to urban studies, yes, but also to enrich what I know of the places I care about and engage others in that learning. In other words, I care about the cases as much as the theory.

For my dissertation, I’ll be writing about the restructuring of governance in Detroit: how city government has adapted to shrinkage and austerity and with what repercussions for residents and other institutions that must adapt in turn. I chose the topic because I recognize how Detroit’s story can reshape what we think about governance and urbanism generally, and I’m eager to tell that broader story, but I don’t see Detroit as just a case. I’m trying, I suppose, to split the difference between Sugrue and Solnit. My work may not end up as rigorous as Sugrue’s, or as evocatively told as Solnit’s, but I’d be happy to fall somewhere in between.


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