Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Detroit: Transformation or Revitalization?

I'm working on a grad school essay, and I got to thinking about the words we, meaning Detroiters and Michiganders, use to characterize the turnaround efforts in the City of Detroit.

More often than not, we talk about "revitalizing" Detroit. To me, this means refreshing and returning Detroit to the state it once was. It's re-energizing what's already there. It's not changing what's there, per se, it's just "bringing back" Detroit.


I think there's something off about this frame.

As far as I'm concerned, Detroit - and other cities across the country and world - have outdated institutional frameworks. The way organizations and governments run is built for an older world. To put it bluntly, the institutions in Detroit are built for a time without digital infrastructure and ubiquitous internet connectivity. Instead of being built for a world that's constantly changing, current institutions are built for a world that changes slowly.

Rather than claiming that it's a story of revitalization, I think we should characterize Detroit as a story of transformation. Why? Because we need a transformation, not a revitalization. The workings of institutions in Detroit, and again, other cities too, has to fundamentally change. Of course, I could be wrong about this...but I dare you to try convincing me. (I think about institutions all, day, every day and consequently have sharp, thought-out arguments and a fierce, cavalier, even bulldog-ish attitude about the subject).

Now, transformation doesn't have to mean wiping out the people, culture, and community sovereignty that exists in Detroit. I mean this in a technical sense (literally, transformation doesn't have to wipe out culture, there are other ways to go about it) and I also think it would be a tragedy if elites in the city used transformation as an excuse to wash over the character and spirit Detroit currently possesses.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I think Detroit needs to be a transformation rather than a revitalization and I think we should use language that reflects that.