Horse Power


I posted awhile back about horses in Detroit. My friend and former coworker Pasha Ellis organizes monthly equestrian events for kids in his central Detroit neighborhood with the group Motor City Horsemen. He envisions a future Detroit where horses become a prominent form of transportation.

It may seem like a bit of an esoteric goal. In an interview we did this summer, he explained his thinking. He said horses are about:

Bringing people closer to who they are. Helping people find definition without things, objects, man-made products. Yo, riding a horse is an exhilarating experience man, especially for people who’ve never rode a horse before. It’ll definitely cut down on pollution, and it will spark an interest, I feel, in nature and being closer to nature.

As the leader of the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, Pasha organizes a wide range of projects in the neighborhood—tending gardens, cleaning streets, building community spaces in vacant lots. He argues that American consumer culture perpetuates an internalized mentality of white supremacy in distressed black Detroit neighborhoods. Improving the city’s quality of life therefore requires confronting that culture. Beyond the free fertilizer and saved fossil fuel, horses have a role to play in that work:

I think all aspects of nature have a healing aesthetic, whether it’s planting gardens, riding a horse, raising livestock, since it’s our natural element as people. It just puts us in a better place health-wise, overall. And like I say for these kids, these city kids, definitely just bringing them closer to nature and their humanity, opposed to, you know, ‘ooh I like that new car, that new car!’ You know, fuck that pollution, get up on this horse and stop next to that car. See how majestic you really feel!

Ernie // Detroit, MI // 07/01/2016

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News broke earlier this month that Detroit artist Tyree Guyton is going to systematically dismantle the Heidelberg Project. Over the years I’ve taken several visitors to Guyton’s found art installation, which sprawls across several blocks in the neighborhood in which he grew up. Guyton painted the street and sidewalks and smothered abandoned houses with clothing, appliances, children’s toys. I’ve written in the past that the unknowable histories of these once-loved everyday objects have a way of driving home the awesome magnitude of what has happened to Detroit.

Guyton’s work always seemed a fitting symbol of Detroiters’ ingenuity in the face of ever-increasing urban disinvestment, and a good counterpoint to the hype that tends to surround the (mostly) white, (mostly) recent transplants among Detroit’s arts scene.

“After 30 years, I’ve decided to take it apart piece-by-piece in a very methodical way, creating new realities as it comes apart,” Guyton told the Detroit Free Press. “I gotta go in a new direction. I gotta do something I have not done before.”

Garden // Detroit, MI // 7/21/2016

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Last fall, I helped install a small garden on this lot, in the site of a recently-demolished house. We noticed at the time that the dirt was especially compacted and difficult to work with. Pretty clear why now–when city contractors returned to take down the abandoned house next door, they flattened the rubble (and our garden) with this machine here.

Motor City Horsemen // Detroit, MI // 6/4/2016

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A friend of mine, the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, and the Motor City Horsemen organize monthly horse rides and gardening workshops on this corner in Central Detroit. The goal is to build community and put vacant land–of which Detroit has 20 plus square miles–to good use.


I’ve long struggled to adequately explain the racial tinge of the animus toward Detroit prevalent in so much of Michigan. Mark Binelli taps into it pretty impressively. He reflects after realizing how a group of suburban companions seemed to relish littering in a Detroit parking lot before a football game:

A wave of exhaustion came over me, even though I’d only been awake for a couple of hours. The gulf between city and suburbs felt gaping and hopeless. Still, when one of the tailgaters asked about my reporting, I mentioned that things in Detroit felt different, better, knowing I risked scorn for being hopelessly naïve, a dupe. Predictably, the guy shook his head and said he’d been hearing that for the past thirty years. The main problem, he claimed, was leadership, that the city really screwed up by electing the worst people ever, that nothing would change unless you changed things at the top—a not uncommon assessment from white suburbanites, “leadership” often signifying “thieving blacks who demanded the keys to the shop, and now look what fucking happened.” If there was national schadenfreude about the failure of Detroit, regional schadenfreude was even stronger, and it hinged in large part on race.

In that moment, I thought of certain aspects of United States foreign policy—the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we’ve labeled a tyrant act more and more like one when his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology. And if his people do not rise up against him, their suffering is, at least in part, their own fault. Here, Detroit was the rogue state, defying the bullying hegemony of a superpower that (in the eyes of many Detroiters) wanted to install its own hand-picked leader, making the transfer of any remaining natural resources that much smoother.

Green // Detroit, MI // 6/8/2016

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Once spring hit, this city exploded with vegetation. Here, my home neighborhood, Woodbridge.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Casino Billboard

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Keeping watch like F. Scott’s blue eyes.

“They only put these in certain areas,” one resident of the neighborhood I work in told me. It’s not the first quasi-conspiratorial take on the city’s three casinos that I’ve heard in my time in Detroit. Whether or not MGM Grand’s intentions are sinister, billboards do tend to appear near highways and Detroit’s highway system (including the John C. Lodge expressway this billboard overlooks) was designed to specifically bludgeon poor and black neighborhoods. As Thomas Sugrue writes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis:

Detroit’s highway planners were careful to ensure that construction of the new high-speed expressways would only minimally disrupt middle-class residential areas, but they had little such concern for black neighborhoods, especially those closest to downtown. Instead, they viewed inner-city highway construction, in Detroit as in other major American cities, North and South, as ‘a handy device for razing slums.’


Everyday Ruins

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I wrote a few years back about the dubious pastime that is gawking at the behemoth ruins of abandoned Detroit factories and skyscrapers. It often seems to reduce the city to a sort caricature of itself, or draw attention to the spectacle of Detroit’s plight and not the substance.

But standing in front of a ruined house feels different. It’s hard not to wonder about whose one-time home you’re looking at, when it burned down, what kids sat on that upturned couch, what cartoons they watched. You gain an intimate sort of access to one family’s history, the remnants of countless stories that are now strewn as debris across a front lawn.

And when you contemplate how many iterations there are of this history, you might begin to sense the overwhelming magnitude of what has happened to Detroit. Detroit once had two million residents. After decades of suburbanization and deindustrialization, Detroit’s population is only a third of what it was at its peak. The city now has 84,000 blighted properties, according to city officials. Detroit’s population began to decline in the 1950s, but one of every three houses has been foreclosed on just since 2005.

This city was once the symbol of how American industrial capitalism could deliver a comfortable living to a wide swath of the nation’s people. Legions of auto factory workers with no advanced counted themselves among the American middle class. Many of them lived in homes like these.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI. 2010.

Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?

My big one is out today in The Atlantic, on Michigan’s emergency manager law and the residents suing to overturn it. A taste:

The suit highlights the paradox of American municipal governance. Local government is deeply ingrained in the ethos of American democracy, from colonial-era New England town hall meetings to New York City’s experiment with people-powered budgeting. But it is not an inalienable right. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all states a “republican government,” but gives states power to grant — or not grant — home rule to municipalities.

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, contends that the state has an obligation to make sure local governments are on solid fiscal footing. Despite the demographic disproportions in the affected cities, it’s unlikely that discrimination has motivated the governor’s EM appointments. The areas under emergency management are some of Michigan’s largest clusters of concentrated poverty, ravaged by decades of deindustrialization.

Discrimination aside, the Michigan appointments — whether constitutional or not — set a troubling precedent by curtailing local representation in the state’s most chronically impoverished cities.

Read the whole thing

How Detroit Lost Its Democracy


Detroit’s skyline. In several Michigan cities, Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) has suspended local democracy and then rolled back the public sector. The Motor City may be next.

For years, progressives have been battling to defend the public sector of the American economy against the likes of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc) and Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. And more recently, they have fought against the Republican-led legislative efforts to restrict access to voting.

In Detroit they will have to do both at once.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder is using a highly contested Michigan law to bring the city of 700,000 under state “emergency management.” Kevyn Orr, his appointed manager, will have near-total control over the city’s affairs, superseding the elected mayor and city council. Orr—a lawyer with a background in business restructuring—will be tasked with fixing the city’s chronic budget woes.

Needless to say, many Detroit residents are not happy. “Essentially what it means is that Detroit voters have been robbed of the right to vote,” said Darrell Dawsey, a columnist for Deadline Detroit and Motor City native.

In a referendum last November, Michigan residents—including 82 percent of Detroit voters—overturned Public Act 4, the law that gave emergency managers such sweeping authority. But shortly after, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a new, similar law.

Snyder and his supporters contend that state control of Detroit’s finances is necessary because city leaders haven’t come up with a feasible plan to return the city to solvency. Snyder has given little detail, though, on how Orr will solve decades of structural economic obstacles in a span of 18 months.

But what if he doesn’t solve them at all? If Snyder were looking to push a conservative economic agenda on an unwilling populace (sound familiar?), emergency management would be the perfect way to do it.

“For all the hits it takes in the media, Detroit is a city with tremendous public assets,” The Nation’s John Nichols reported. Oft-discussed plans for “fixing” Detroit include privatizing the city’s water department and converting beloved Belle Isle into a state park or—less realistically—a sovereign territory run by wealthy libertarians. Emergency managers in other Michigan cities have dissolved union contracts and sold off public assets.

Half of Michigan’s black residents are now governed by an unelected emergency manager; Detroit is over 80 percent African-American.

“You can get away with doing this to struggling black townships and cities,” Dawsey said. “But I think this is going to find its way into a lot of white folks’ communities too. It’s sort of like my aunt used to say down south: ‘If they come for me in the morning, they’re coming for you at night.’”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Ian Freimuth.