New 'People's Atlas' explores radical strategies for Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

"A People's Atlas of Detroit" (2019, Wayne State University Press) takes a long view of Detroit's recent revitalization, and asks why the city's revival can't pan out in a way that benefits longstanding residents as much as developers and new arrivals from the suburbs and beyond.

Edited by Linda Campbell, Andrew Newman, Sara Safransky and Tim Stallmann, the book examines the forces reshaping the city through a progressive lens, spotlighting radical visions for a more hopeful, equitable Detroit.

"A People's Atlas of Detroit" is a new book examining Detroit's revitalization and why it hasn't benefited more of the city's residents.

As the WSU Press summary puts it, "'A People’s Atlas' weaves together maps, poetry, interviews, photographs, essays, and stories to critique status quo urban governance while elucidating radical visions for change."

The 352-page book, says Newman, a Wayne State anthropology professor, belongs in its own category. "It's not an academic study per se at all," he said, despite its rich set of footnotes.

The essays by the 60 contributors grew out of a series of community meetings organized by the Uniting Detroiters project, which brought together residents, activists, and scholars to discuss the political landscape and opportunities for social change.

"Our job as editors," he said, "was to stitch these reflections about the state of the city together, with Linda Campbell as the leader putting it together."

Campbell is an activist with Building Movement Detroit, the organization behind Uniting Detroiters. Safransky is a geographer and urban planner at Vanderbilt University, while Stallman is a freelance cartographer based in Durham, North Carolina. 

A widespread concern in those Uniting Detroit discussions and among the book's 60-plus contributors, Newman said, had to do with the narrative pushed by much of the national media, that paints the city as almost empty of residents -- or in the term loathed by many longtime Detroiters, a blank slate.

"Around 2012 or 2013," he said, "there was a general sense that the way the city’s revitalization was being narrated didn’t quite correspond with the experience of our contributors," many of whom are deeply steeped in Detroit community and neighborhood activism going back decades.

One big problem in most discussions of Detroit's rebound, Newman said, is that they "have a real blind spot about the impact of systemic racism on the city and its residents, and anti-black racism in particular."

If this makes the book sound like a downer, it's not. Among other things, it's richly illustrated by a wide variety of handsome, illuminating maps drawn up by Stallmann. And Newman argues the book's thrust is hopeful. But he and the other editors do see a need for some big shifts.

"Cities need to stop worrying about attracting a middle class and start trying to produce one," he said. "We need to move beyond seeing cities as centers of consumerism for the middle class, to cities with the infrastructure to sustain people at all income levels."

Among specific issues the book discusses are the history of race and slavery in Detroit, land and urban agriculture, housing, and water and environmental justice for residents in neglected communities who often bear the brunt of pollution.

The title of the afterward underlines this optimism: "Another City Is Possible."

Still, Newman is skeptical about schemes to reinvent Detroit from the ground up.

"The notion that the city needs to be radically remade can be problematic," he said. "My  vision of Detroit’s future would be pretty much like it is now -- just with certain things that need to be rectified."

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‘A People’s Atlas of Detroit’

Wayne State University Press, 352 pages