When We Say Things Like 'Blow Up Detroit,' What Do We Really Mean?

Another day, another disparaging comment about Detroit from someone somewhat important and another week's worth of outrage coming from Detroiters about how Detroit is Not That Bad. It's such a regular occurrence, you could set your watch to it.

Just when we were finally starting to stop talking about emergency manager Kevyn Orr's "dumb, lazy, happy and rich" comment, here comes Boston mayor Thomas Menino with some thoughts on the Motor City in The New York Times. This quote has been aggregated and rehashed to death, but for Jalopnik Detroit's sake, let's blockquote and italicize this mother anyway:

I’d blow up the place and start all over. No, seriously, when it takes a police officer 90 minutes to answer a call*, there’s something wrong with the system. Forty percent of the streetlights are out, most of the buildings are boarded up. Why? Inaction, that’s the problem — leadership.


(Obviously the new thing in journalism: Ask your subject about Detroit, get a bunch of residual traffic from Detroit news sites linking to it. Someone alert Poynter of this new scam!)

Menino apologized — quickly — after Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, perhaps saying the smartest thing he's said all of 2013, rightfully called him out for the idiocy of suggesting another city should simply "blow up" when his own city almost blew up just a few months ago. (Seriously, was a PR flack not present during this interview? No one jumped in and said "hey, whoa there, Mr. Mayor!")

That skirmish aside, there's something troubling about the more recent solutions, if you can call it that, for fixing Detroit problems.

Menino isn't the first person to suggest that Detroit should be completely demolished, burned to the ground, exterminated, or what have you, but he might be the loudest. That comment, to "blow up the place," isn't becoming of a mayor of a large city, but more like a commenter on a suburban newspaper's website. (Or maybe a suburban county executive.)


But Niraj Warikoo, a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, tweeted this observation about Menino's comments and similar ones that came before it:


I thought about it, and yeah — why do people feel so comfortable with the idea of wiping out a city comprised heavily of black citizens, with Hispanics and Asian-Americans comprising almost the rest of the percentage? Do we want to get rid of Detroit, or get rid of the people in Detroit? Or, taking it a step further, people who look like the people in Detroit?

To my knowledge, no one has suggested blowing up Stockton, another bankrupt city. But Stockton is a mix of races, too — mostly Hispanic, but near-equal parts white, black and Asian.


Thinking too deep into it? Well, remember also that people have also suggested an outright purchase of Detroit, even though the city is not for sale. Again, I don't know of anyone suggesting a purchase of Stockton. But that idea that a large city (and its residents, by proxy) can simply be bought and sold with no input from its populace, its culture erased and its future defined by its new owners sounds dangerously close to more tragic chapters in American history.


There's also the underlying premise brought upon by some commentators that Detroit is just too uncultured to appreciate things — specifically, the art — and it should be taken away. Consider comments from Bloomberg's Virginia Postrel, who also raised a stink among the locals a few weeks back:

Parochial interests aside, however, great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region. The cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit. Art lovers should stop equating the public good with the status quo.


Postrel's logic was largely flawed, factually incorrect and debunked thoroughly, but if we look again at the demographics of Detroit, it's bold, flippant and insulting for Postrel and other coastal art critics to assume that art goes unappreciated in a mostly black city. It's why terms like "held hostage," something that easily conjures images of crime, are used, right?

Not too long ago, residents had to fight back against the "blank canvas" meme pushed by newer residents who saw Detroit as an empty landscape to basically run free and redefine the city as a whole. It was Colonialism, the Sequel — completely ignoring everyone else that lived here and taking credit for discovering what was already present. That was around the financial collapse and the automaker bankruptcies when those terms were flying wild.


So now that "blank canvas" is dead, is it time to fight against the "blow Detroit up" sentiments? Maybe people are tired of fighting back against every single detrimental thing said against Detroit lately (and there has been a lot post-Chapter 9), but if there's something deeper to some of those sentiments, then why not?

[*Hopefully there are swift changes coming very soon to the 911 system thanks to our new badass police chief.]


[Photo via AP]

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