How Detroit Became the Do-It-Yourself City

The following is an excerpt from the new book DIY Detroit by Kimberley Kinder (University of Minnesota Press, 2016): 

The Great Recession that began in 2007 deepened an already well-entrenched and growing trend toward precarious life in the United States. Within two years unemployment increased 4.7 percent, a change that pushed around eight million people into economic hardships and degraded the working conditions of countless others. Home and business owners lost one-third of their equity; retirement accounts lost one-fifth of their value; and the wealth of American families fell 28 percent. Within five years concentrated poverty rates had risen 21 percent in urban centers and 105 percent in suburban areas, and several million housing units had gone empty.

These changes triggered unprecedented budget crises at all scales of government, with especially troubling implications for urban municipalities. Cash-strapped cities like Sacramento, Colorado Springs, and Honolulu made deep cuts to their police departments, public school districts, and public lighting authorities. The situation was especially dire in Detroit where in 2013 and under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager the municipal government declared bankruptcy. The recovery years following the crisis did not fully reverse the losses. Some services were restored; others were privatized; and some neighborhoods and amenities simply disappeared.

These accounts of government contraction may give the misimpression that all residents were equally without help in navigating the economic crisis. As urban scholar Ananya Roy has shrewdly surmised, in the contemporary neoliberal climate “the rich have state help [and] the poor have self help.” Evidence of this situation was palpable in metropolitan Detroit. While suburban auto companies and young, white entrepreneurs received federal bailouts and small-business subsidies, the City of Detroit and its predominantly low-income, African American residents saw significant budget cuts in social spending, public works, and public safety. In this context of inequitable aid, Detroit emerged as a quintessential do-it-yourself city, a place where residents swept public streets, adopted vacant lots, and organized neighborhood safety patrols.

Although extreme, Detroit was not alone. The rise of market-based governance has made basic services unavailable or unaffordable in urban areas nationwide. Countless residents now rely on household labor and neighborhood volunteerism to coordinate land use, maintain public spaces, and control social behavior. These practices provide meaningful, local, short-term “fixes,” but Detroit’s ongoing decline—despite ample evidence of widespread self-provisioning—challenges political ideologies that favor individual solutions to structural problems. Regrettably, more-lasting social reforms are slow in coming and may never arrive. In the meantime self-provisioning reflects a new social role vulnerable residents increasingly play in coordinating the logic and life of the neoliberal city.

Resident activism often looks like a sign of community strength. During the Great Recession, concerned citizens in Detroit and elsewhere organized petition drives to expand public bus routes. Neighborhood associations lobbied for improved street lighting. Resident volunteers collected litter from public parks and planted flowers alongside public streets. Residents adopted vacant homes, converted overgrown lots into community gardens, and checked on neighbors during moments of concern.

These practices looked like signs of strength, but as in all things, context was key. The urgency of self-provisioning reflected the precarious conditions of everyday life. Residents in Sacramento did not need to self-police the streets so vigilantly until the police department lost 30 percent of its operating budget between 2008 and 2012. Residents in the Atlanta suburb of Clay County did not need such extensive grassroots ridesharing networks before the cash-strapped government terminated its public transportation program in 2010. And residents in East Saint Louis did not need so many urban gardens until two-thirds of its residents had moved away. Resident activism in those contexts signified vulnerability, as well as strength. It dramatized a series of political economic changes that have reduced the institutional capacity for one of the richest nations on earth to deliver basic services—like police protection, public transportation, and land management—to a growing group of increasingly vulnerable residents.

Basic services were unavailable or unaffordable in many rural areas, as well, but by 2010, 81 percent of the U.S. population lived in cities and suburbs. In earlier eras urbanization meant improved access to jobs, education, health care, and utilities. Not everyone benefitted equally, and urban epidemics, pollution, drug cultures, and skid rows claimed more lives than boosters cared to admit, but cities were still places of relative opportunity. Unfortunately, the Great Recession was one in a series of economic crises that have fueled urban poverty and inequality since the 1950s. Government devolution, privatization, and austerity measures have exacerbated these trends, stripping residents of the physical and political infrastructure they once used to solve shared problems collectively. The situation was especially acute in “shrinking cities” where several consecutive decades of disinvestment, depopulation, and spiraling legacy costs eroded the municipal capacity to continue funding basic health and safety programs. But even in shrinking cities, service cuts were not inevitable. Instead, they revealed the scarcity of politically viable alternative responses to economic instability and social inequality.

Self-provisioning is not new. Volunteer fire brigades were common in cities until the late nineteenth century. Urban homesteads and informal room rentals were widespread until the mid-twentieth century. Urban victory gardens proliferated during the crisis years of World War II, and an entire consumer-based industry of do-it-yourself suburban home remodeling emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite this rich and varied history, the scope and urgency of self-provisioning diminished significantly throughout those decades. Municipal roads, waterlines, and fire trucks replaced amateur volunteers. Rising incomes, falling commodity prices, more stable employment patterns, and expanded social security programs made chicken coops and self-built homes redundant for the growing, urbanizing middle class. Zoning laws also made these practices illegal, which hurt minority groups, who received fewer benefits from the postwar social contract, but city-run welfare programs provided nominal alternatives to poverty in rural areas where self-provisioning remained more prevalent. Some city dwellers undoubtedly kept their tomato plants and informal remodels, but millions more happily traded the labor intensity of self-provisioning for the comfort of mass-built suburbs, chain grocery stores, rising property values, and municipal public works.

Then, beginning in the 1970s, self-provisioning resurfaced with a vengeance. Deindustrialization undermined urban revenue streams. Employment instability increased; real wages fell; and welfare spending declined. Impoverished communities of color in segregated neighborhoods were among the first to revive older practices of self-provisioning in response to municipal breakdowns. In Boston’s Villa Victoria and Roxbury neighborhoods, Long Island’s Corona, Brooklyn’s Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Harlem’s El Barrio, and Chicago’s the Flats, residents exchanged food, clothing, child care, and car rides to help friends and family members meet everyday needs. They organized community cleanups, neighborhood safety walks, and housing redevelopment campaigns to counter market disinvestment and municipal neglect.

Self-provisioning became more widespread as household vulnerability expanded, a national trend especially visible in the growing informal economy. Day laboring and sidewalk vending became more common, especially among African Americans and recent immigrants, who occupied the most precarious positions in the national labor pool. Subcontracting and self-employment also expanded among middle-income whites. Those jobs came with fewer benefits and less job security than did salaried or unionized labor. The growing group of residents being squeezed out of the middle class began relying more heavily on informal garage sales and unofficial room sublets to make ends meet.

Alongside these economic changes, the neoliberal turn to market-based governance fundamentally transformed the logic of municipal public works. In Chicago, for instance, in the words of sociologist Mary Patillo, “the model has changed from one in which cities ‘deliver’ public services like education, health care, and protection from crime, to one in which residents ‘shop for’ these goods in a service landscape that includes more nongovernmental, private subcontractors.” In the 1980s and 1990s, large cities nationwide privatized street maintenance, waste management, ambulance services, legal services, and drug treatment centers. In the mid-2000s, small cities like Sandy Springs, Georgia, and Maywood, California, made headlines for subcontracting every municipal service to private companies, including public safety. In these places, people no longer looked like citizens entitled to basic services and instead were simply residents who could buy services, beg charities for help, self-provision alternatives, or go without.

Nonprofit organizations and community activists encouraged residents who could not afford to shop for services to collectively self-provision them. On the outskirts of El Paso, for example, nongovernmental agencies in the mid-2000s recruited low-income Latina women to work as volunteer community leaders and unpaid laborers bringing school busses and water systems to their communities. Similarly, police officers and block club activists in west Seattle encouraged impoverished African American residents to self-sacrifice their time, bodies, and emotional energy by cleaning trash and organizing safety patrols in their chronically underserved neighborhood. Community-supported self-provisioning was also crucial in hurricane-damaged New Orleans, where government-funded subcontractors rebuilt business centers and high-end condominiums but left low-income residents to self-organize their own disaster recovery. These trends illustrate an evolving division of labor where more affluent residents and businesses continue to receive services through markets and market-based governing but vulnerable residents neglected by those market models have to self-provision their cities, instead.

Self-provisioning is not always an act of desperation. For some lucky residents, self-provisioning comes with countercultural cache. Taco trucks, pop-up beer gardens, artist enclaves, and guerrilla gardens in Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston resonate with social protests against capitalism, consumerism, environmental destruction, and white privilege. By the late 2000s, city planners were describing urban informality and provisional spatial development as a way to stimulate reinvestment by making neighborhoods feel trendy and public streets feel lively.

These trends are important, but they are only one small part of the self-provisioning story. Urban gardening involves significant manual labor, and taco trucks come without retirement benefits or health insurance. Residents with overwhelming work and family obligations or physical disabilities have trouble sustaining the work. Also, the romanticized spatial cracks and fissures of capitalism look much more ominous to middle-income residents watching those cracks engulf them through falling property values, rising crime rates, and decaying infrastructure.

For many residents in Detroit, self-provisioning was not about countercultural reform but about a way to buttress collapsing markets and avoid countercultural lifestyles. The residents I interviewed wanted to live in a functional city. Informal gardens and pop-up coffeehouses reversed disinvestment on a few blocks, but self-provisioning was much more expansive than that. Residents became informal realtors helping empty housing find new occupants. They adopted or destroyed vacant structures to prevent unsanctioned theft and vandalism. They cleaned trash, cut grass, and shoveled snow from vacant lots and public parks. They monitored street activity to keep each other safe, and they publicized positive images of strong and vibrant communities. Almost none of the residents I spoke with described these activities in countercultural terms. Instead, they tried to reinforce—not undermine—the capitalist status quo.

It remains unclear whether self-provisioning can stimulate the political activism needed to overcome racial inequalities or challenge market-based governing agendas. In Detroit, self-provisioning rarely came with an explicit political message. The work was usually fragmented, and the benefits were local. Self-provisioning was especially prevalent, however, in areas where other efforts at community capacity building and political mobilization were also under way. This coincidence underscored the mutually reinforcing connections between resident activism at the household scale and collective mobilization at the neighborhood and district levels.

It would be unreasonable to expect self-provisioning alone to solve the problems that daunt policy makers, community groups, faith-based organizations, and socially conscious investors. But self-provisioning practices created new urban logics by reorganizing people in space, changing the way people accessed collective resources, and influencing the normative expectations residents had about their neighborhoods. And when combined with other modes of activism, self-provisioned alternatives to disinvestment and decay had powerful effects on local quality of life.

Stories of residents sweeping streets and planting vegetables in public spaces are wonderfully inspiring, but the capacity for residents to adapt and “make do” hardly justifies the prolonged lack of amenities available in chronically underserved areas. These atomized responses to collective problems are difficult to sustain, and the continued deterioration of these neighborhoods despite resident activism suggests that self-provisioning, whatever its benefits, is no panacea. 

Excerpt is reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from the chapter “Do-It-Yourself Cities” from DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City without Services by Kimberley Kinder. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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