Wednesday, 7 January 2015


Seth Schindler
Department of Geography, University of Sheffield
My recent article entitled Detroit after bankruptcy: A case of degrowth machine politics focuses on urban governance in the context of the city’s longstanding crisis. It examines a coalition among some of the city’s civic and political leaders that emerged after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013. The main argument is that this coalition envisions a future for the city whose emphasis is on making the city liveable rather than rejuvenating its manufacturing base. This has fostered a freedom to imagine the future and experiment with policy not seen in Detroit for years, and it demonstrates that crises do not necessarily result in the intensification of neoliberalism.
As a native Detroiter I have watched with interest the growing scholarly and media attention paid to the city. Hardly a week passes in which a major news outlet does not publish a collection of photos documenting the city’s crumbling built environment. I wrote this article in an effort to counter some commonly held assumptions about Detroit’s relationship with ‘cause and effect’ neoliberalism. Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the city was plunged into crisis by neoliberalism, and that the crisis has resulted in the intensification of neoliberalism. Instead, Detroit’s crisis dates back to the 1960s and I argue that its bankruptcy represents a failure of neoliberalism. The city’s longstanding crisis has shaped the lives of Detroiters for decades. It determined their occupations and life courses, depending on their skin colour and class. People have responded in ways that produced the sprawling metropolitan area with deep divisions (i.e. moving to suburbs in successive waves). The border separating city from suburb is marked by 8 Mile, a wound that is etched into the geography of the city and is emblematic of the decline of the great American city. It demarcates the city, as both a frontier and threat that must be contained. This narrative of containment looms large in the imagination of suburbanites. For as long as I can remember, there was a perception among suburbanites that Detroit was in terminal decline, and that this decline threatened to spread like a cancer and engulf the inner suburbs. The answer for working-class whites was to stay one step ahead and move farther north.
Many European-Americans who began their lives as factory workers in the heyday of Fordist manufacturing moved to northern suburbs in the 1960s. Their children followed suit and moved farther north and their own children now work in the tertiary sector. Many Metro Detroiters have a love-hate relationship with Detroit. Indeed, the word ‘Detroit’ conjures up feelings of nostalgia, reverence, fear, hope, guilt and resignation. These complex feelings are a result of the city’s decades-long decline, of which the 2008 crisis was only the latest chapter. The municipal government was already faced with a shrinking tax base and ballooning debt when the financial crisis began. It was clear to everyone that borrowing money to simply keep the traffic lights on and the city’s ambulances limping along was untenable. The question was who would take the financial loss when the city finally declared bankruptcy? Common wisdom among urban scholars is that neoliberalism is intensified during times of crisis, and in a neoliberal regime the public sector assumes risk while the private sector reaps rewards. Ultimately extra-local bondholders failed to recoup the lion’s share of their investment, and this is why Detroit’s bankruptcy represents the failure of neoliberalism. By declaring bankruptcy the city was able to shed some of its crippling debt, and this has allowed local civic and political leaders to re-envision the city’s future.
Urban transformation interrupted in the wake of the financial crisis
I hope that this article makes us think critically about neoliberalism and cities in crisis. In the case of Detroit local leaders have recognized that further degrowth is likely. They have articulated a plan that acknowledges the end of Fordist manufacturing in the city, and instead focuses on quality of life issues. It also aims to construct ‘blue’ and ‘green’ infrastructure and make the Detroit one of America’s greenest cities. This transition is scheduled to take five decades, and indeed, it necessitates difficult choices and trade-offs. It would be illogical not to recognize the very real fiscal constraints faced by the municipal government and to simply dismiss any and all budget cuts as evidence of intensified neoliberalism. Ultimately this article demonstrates that we need a more nuanced understanding of how crises unfold in cities that have been in decline for decades. It is unclear why policy makers in these cities would turn to out-of-the-box neoliberal policies since no amount of fiscal austerity is likely to jumpstart economic growth. This explains why these cities may be fertile ground for the emergence of degrowth machine politics. Depending on what happens in Detroit, local political and civic leaders in other cities may view bankruptcy as a viable way to escape unrealistic financial burdens imposed by extra-local bondholders. Bankruptcy is just one option that is related to a more fundamental question in Detroit and a host of other cities whose degrowth seems inevitable: how can degrowth be managed equitably in ways that make cities liveable?

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