Is Detroit Really A ‘Blank Slate?’ Depends On Who You Ask

By John Gallagher
Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Some longtime Detroiters say that oft-heard “blank slate” metaphor is disrespectful of residents who stuck it out in the city all these years.

Detroit Free Press

If you wish to spark an argument in some parts of Detroit today, refer to the city as a “blank slate” — as in “Detroit is a blank slate where anything can happen.”

You hear that term a lot as the narrative of Detroit’s comeback takes shape. The idea is that Detroit was so abandoned that it needed newcomers to totally reinvent it — artists and hipsters and out-of-towners who bring their money and ideas. Detroit, then, presents an empty canvas on which to sketch the future.

This was most recently captured in a New York Times column by a writer named Reif Larsen, who wrote, “There is space to dream big in Detroit, to do things that would be impossible almost everywhere else, and this is part of the reason it feels like the most exciting city in America right now.”

But longtime Detroiters say that oft-heard “blank slate” metaphor is disrespectful of residents who stuck it out in the city all these years. These are the Detroiters who weren’t necessarily waiting for people like businessman Dan Gilbert to come in and reinvent the place, let alone the artists and hipsters priced out of Brooklyn who moved here instead.

These longtime Detroiters exhibit a feisty attitude, captured in those T-shirt slogans “Detroit vs Everybody” and “Detroit Never Left.” And their message is both correct and understandable.

But in many ways the “blank slate” metaphor captures something real. After the 1950s, Detroit lost two-thirds of its population and 90% of its tax base. Today, the city counts something like 100,000 vacant lots and tens of thousands of empty buildings.

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