The Real Story of Detroit’s Economy

Good Things Are Really Happening in Motown – Published on ZNet (first on AlterNet), by Frank Joyce, Sept 4, 2013.

As a life-long Detroiter who has lived both in the city and the suburbs, I’ve been fascinated by the media frenzy over Detroit’s bankruptcy. Like most big news topics these days, Detroit has become a screen onto which people project whatever political viewpoint they have.

First off, it’s worth considering why the bankruptcy is getting so much attention. Is there really that much there, there? After all, as with any bankruptcy, isn’t it just an argument among some people about some money (or artworks, real estate and other assets).  

In the private sector companies file for bankruptcy every day without making much, if any, news. And why not? Bankruptcy is a tool used by capital to manage failure. Capitalist orthodoxy is that some degree of failure is both inevitable and desirable (it’s called creative destruction). It’s no surprise therefore that capitalism creates procedures to manage it.

At the height of the depression Congress added a new tool, Chapter 9, to the Bankruptcy Code to address financial failure by local governmental bodies … //

… The government is bankrupt. Detroit is not: … //

… If Detroit is so bankrupt and dysfunctional, how can that be? … //

… But there is more to this story—way more:

  • Believe it or not, the worst of times is well on its way to becoming something truly inspiring The very isolation of Detroit has created the conditions for economy number 4 to develop a new paradigm of economic activity.
  • Economy number 4 is a complex, multi-layered thing in its own right. It is single moms stretching dollars from government programs for the poor as creatively and as far as they can. It is back alley auto repair shops and church’s selling dinners on the street. It is off the books home child care. It is what African-Americans have had to do for many generations to make a way out of no way.
  • It is also scrappers who are repurposing the copper, weathered wood and other valuable products left by the abandonment of homes, stores and factories. So, yes it’s crime too. Crime, after all, is a form of economic activity whether it is Wall Street stealing homes through foreclosure or robbers who target dope-dealers cuz “that’s where the money is.”
  • Some people look at the physical destruction of Detroit and see only the blight. What I see is amazing resourcefulness on the part of the remaining residents to prevail again and again against overwhelming odds.
  • Necessity truly is the mother of invention and in that spirit, Detroiters are also developing a remarkable highly intentional economy. That economy includes increasingly sophisticated urban agriculture and a growing network of alternative schools. It is neighborhood based conflict resolution; do-it-yourself solar street lighting; community based manufacturing using the newest fab lab technology and alternative transportation systems. It is new art and new music and new media. It is time-banking, co-ops and other forms of creative finance. It is Skype conferences and face to face meetings with partners all over the world to reimagine work, finance and democracy. It is the creative use of social services and churches to create maker spaces and entrepreneurial opportunities for returning citizens. It is the hard below the radar work of the Detroit Roundtable and others facilitating healing and practical new alliances between the city and the suburbs.
  • The living, breathing Detroit new economy movement taps into Detroit’s deep political traditions of advocacy for economic and social justice. It is especially dependent on the decades long visionary analysis and activism of the late James Boggs and 98 year old Grace Lee Boggs.
  • Interestingly enough, the new economy component of Detroit’s fourth economy is itself attracting a significant amount of tourism. Plans are already underway for new B & B’s to house both long and short term visitors. Already people are coming from around the country and the world who want to learn first hand what a fledgling post-capitalist, post industrial, new paradigm economy looks like.

Katrina or Canary? Detroit and the US of A:

  • So, which is it? Is Detroit just a perfect storm of forces that hit a particular place in a particular way such as New Orleans, albeit over a longer time frame? Or is Detroit the canary in the coal mine that is previewing where the whole country and in some ways the whole world is headed?
  • I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about that question. Every time I wind up with the same conclusion. Sooner or later, this movie will come to a theatre near you. Either that, or it will open nationwide, that is for the whole country. Dependence on debt, political paralysis that prevents anything being done while the system and its component parts flounder and decay, an obsolete system of organizing work—isn’t that exactly what Detroit has been through over the last 40? Add in accelerating ecological catastrohpe and you can see that one day we will all be able to say Ich bein ein Detroiter.
  • Lest I be mistaken for a deficit hawk, I don’t care if even a right winger says it, our dependence on debt is unsustainable. As individuals, students especially, as governments and as an economy—we are truly living on borowed money and borrowed time. Just speaking of governments, if the standards invented for emergency managers to take over Detroit or Flint were objectively applied nationwide—thousands of cities, counties and states would qualify.
  • And guess what, so would the United States itself. Who knows, perhaps one day the UN or China will take over the powers of Congress and the Preident and replace them with an Emergency Manager.
  • Whatever the ultimate outcome of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy drama, we can be certain of one thing. It won’t fix any of the underlying problems of systemic racial, political and economic dysfunction.
  • For that, we will have to rely on ourselves. And more and more, we are doing just that. For those of us who believe the current dominant order is not only not working, but a menace to life on earth, Detroit is exactly where we want to be. We are proud and grateful to be in the place and the time where we get to have a part in making another world happen.

(full long text).

(Frank Joyce is an activist and author. He can heard on Dave Marsh’s radio program, “Live from the Land of Hopes and Dreams,” SiriusXM 127, 1-4pm EST).


Detroit Luxury Apartment, Condo And Loft Rents Skyrocket Despite City Bankruptcy (PHOTOS), on Huffington Post, by Ashley Woods, Sept 3, 2013;

Bankrupt Detroit needs October to be more than a 1968 replay, on Detroit Free Press, by Tom Walsh, Sept 3, 2013;

Detroit Firefighters Face Challenges of Bankrupt City, on FireEngeneering, Sept. 2, 2013;

Can Detroiters govern their own city? on DetroitNews, by Nolan Finley, August 22, 2013;

Bankruptcy not an option for cities, Gov. Rick Snyder says, on Detroit Free Press, June 15, 2013;

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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