In popular discourse, the city of Detroit’s reputation is one of lawless frontier, destituteness and above all, exceptionalism. Countless news stories have painted Detroit as a place of poverty, violence and crime, with much emphasis placed on the city’s 2013 bankruptcy and mass water shut offs that have called for the UN’s involvement as a human rights issue. Reports of Detroit’s online tax foreclosure auctions have popularized the trope of the $1,000 house, both painting the city as economically valueless and defunct, while at the same time presenting opportunities for those with disposable income and a sense of adventure to come try and make something of this urban frontier. Relatedly, a pervasive undertone in discourse on Detroit’s future is that the predominantly Black population of the city is responsible for their own circumstances, and that they are in need of outside consultants and managers to save them from themselves.
A People’s Atlas of Detroit sets out to correct this “crisis of representation” by providing an alternative to this stigma laden history that often frames Detroit as a “problem” in need of policy or market-based solutions. The authors do so by presenting a collection of oral histories that tell the story of the city’s dynamic culture of racial capitalism and progressive social movements. In the words of the Atlas, “In twenty-first century Detroit, a powerful mythology threatens to crowd out the stories of many residents. In this myth, Detroit is an urban wilderness, a post apocalyptic landscape, a blank slate waiting for heroic entrepreneurs to discover, develop and redeem it. The need to rebuke such narratives is important. Even more urgent is the question of what kinds of stories should replace them.” Through this exploration of Detroit’s historic and current strategies of resistance to racial injustice, the authors present narratives from activists, maps of marginalized spaces and well formulated descriptions of racialized urban policy to deliver a more complex analysis of the city’s activist history than has been previously available. In doing so, the Atlas provides an excellent example for how academics and activists can creatively and effectively share important narratives to a broad audience.
A People’s Atlas points out that you cannot understand the imagery of the city or the policies enacted to control its ”wilderness” without what Neil Smith¹ described as “revanchism”: the tendency for dominant groups in society to respond to the advancements of marginalized groups through violence, whether through policy or through threats of physical harm. A People’s Atlas provides a rich, detailed history of how working class, Black and Latino Detroiters have had their advancements met with revenge, from the earliest Black homeowners in white areas of the city who were met with violent racial protests, to Michiganders voting red for the first time in nearly 30 years when Trump was elected. The authors state that, “Such revenge politics are particularly significant in Detroit where public institutions, local memory and sense of place have been profoundly shaped by progressive social movements for much of the city’s history.” The Atlas describes the social challenges of Detroit like dispossession and revanchism towards working-class Detroiters and Detroiters of color through a lens of racial capitalism, providing an alternative to the dominant narratives that often individualize the trauma felt by Detroiters instead of critiquing systemic oppression.
The Atlas begins by laying a foundation of Detroit’s historic roots by mapping significant sites of colonization, slavery, the underground railroad and ultimately resistance to the exploitation of industrial capitalism. Mapping in this book plays a particularly strong role, as the authors attempt to “redirect the cartographic gaze” towards a spatial understanding of the city that focuses on sites of importance for progressive social movements. With these events and sites as a backdrop, the authors then trace the city’s political lineage of revanchism, and subsequent resistance of Black revolutionaries through several lenses. This includes property struggles as a result of dispossession through urban renewal, emergency management, tax foreclosure and greening strategies that aim to rollback vital residential infrastructure.
The Atlas includes counternarratives to the common conception of vacancy and abandonment of these spaces, highlighting the role of the commons in community land stewardship through urban farming, mowing vacant lots, and a general obligation to upkeep derelict properties—even when they’re owned by the city and/or lending institutions that have foreclosed on them in the first place. Concluding this rich explanation of how social movements and their “intergenerational wisdom” have evolved and built on one another in the city, the authors describe the implications of ongoing struggles. The authors demonstrate connections between issues like the mass water shut offs and environmental racism, to privatization of public services and the perpetuation of narratives of the expendability of Black Detroiters that are endemic to processes of neo-liberalization.
The authors of A People’s Atlas have made deliberate choices about how to tell this alternative narrative of Detroit. This is particularly true in their choice of representation, that includes a mixture of interviews, mapping subaltern sites of significance to Black, Latino and Indigenous Detroiters, along with other thoughtful forms of representation. The book uses the unmediated language of activists and underrepresented groups to show how Detroiters have not been passive recipients of racialized urban policy, but have played an active role in nurturing their communities and resisting the devastation brought by revanchism.
Through its connections to both global movements and sociopolitical processes, A People’s Atlas presents Detroit not as a case of exceptionalism, but as a significant case for scholars and activists to examine as a site of experimentation for extreme neoliberalism that is potentially foreshadowing of things to come in cities around the world. In other words, as explained by scholars Owen Kirkpatrick and Michael Peter Smith, Detroit’s “anomaly serves to camouflage the fact that the city may well represent the leading political edge and/or logical endpoint of advanced (post-crisis) neoliberal austerity.”² The depiction of how new forms of dispossession of Detroiters represents a growing threat to communities in cities everywhere highlights why discussions about Detroit’s relevance are so important.
By weaving the ideological threads of activists organizing for racial justice throughout Detroit’s history, the authors make it easy to understand how their influences have played a significant role in shaping politics in the city today. This begins with groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who fought against racial divisions in unionization, as well as highlighting the anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist focus of groups like the Black Panthers. The influence of these ideologies on other, more contemporary, organizing highlighted in the book includes the ways that these values are applied to urban gardening, water rights and community education. The Atlas in many instances serves as a guide to the lineage of activism in Detroit, providing interesting insights into the future trajectories of this organizing. They leave us with this thought about the impacts of Detroit’s long lineage of progressive social movements: “What if Detroit—and the stories of Detroiters—are captivating not because they are so different, but because they have so much in common with such a wide variety of people and places?”
A People’s Atlas also provides an excellent example for scholars and activists who are hoping to co-produce effective and accessible ways of sharing narratives around organizing efforts and community histories. It is often difficult to do justice to the richness of community- engaged research through the traditional formats offered for academic publications. There are many instances where social justice concerned researchers in planning are unable to fully develop their work into a well-rounded depiction of community voices and resistance due to the structure and hyper-specific demands of academic writing (e.g. the scientific method, formatting in academic journal articles and reviewer biases). In other words, academic writing does not normally lend itself to sharing findings in a non-traditional way like mapping community histories or publishing activist interviews. However, the authors have bridged this divide by thoughtfully incorporating inventive media for telling stories of Detroit’s activist history, while also building on theory through their careful framing of these topics through the lenses of political economy and critical race theory. The Atlas’ ability to traverse these boundaries of what academia will legitimize by collaborating with activists to produce a well-researched catalogue of historic and contemporary narratives from activists is an important addition to scholarship in Detroit and the field of planning. The authors provide an instructive example of how the richness of community narratives can be assembled to showcase their significance across the landscape of Detroit and in ways that are of interest to many audiences.
Lisa Berglund is an assistant professor in the School of Planning at Dalhousie, University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her research focuses on community development in the context of neighborhood change, particularly in Detroit. She is concerned with the historically demonstrated potential for race and class disparity to be reproduced in cities rebuilding due to economic, social and/or political crises.
¹Smith, Neil. 1996. “From Gentrification to the Revanchist City.” In The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, 206–27. New York: Routledge.
²Kirkpatrick, L. Owen, and Michael Peter Smith. “Rereading Detroit: Toward a Polanyian Methodology.” In Reinventing Detroit: The Politics of Possibility, 3–14. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 2015.