It’s become a familiar narrative: Detroit, a two-fisted Rust Belt titan that collapsed into bankruptcy and crime, has been reborn as Midwest Brooklyn. The home of Aretha Franklin and General Motors has become a hipster’s paradise of craft boutiques, microbreweries, urban farms and cheap housing.
In her new book, “Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises,” Jodie Adams Kirshner pulls back the curtain on the Detroit Renaissance to reveal an alternate African-American universe. In the other Detroit, she writes, the overwhelmingly black majority inhabits a city crippled by government dysfunction and pockets of intractable poverty.
And, like other cities where white millennials are blamed for displacing black residents and soaking up resources — Washington, D.C., anyone? — race is never far from the surface.
Kirshner’s point is unmistakable: Decades of federal and local policies in the Motor City and elsewhere hastened white flight, punished low-income black residents who stayed, and hollowed out the tax base through giveaways to corporations in exchange for promises of development. Then, as whites gradually reclaimed Motown 2.0 as it emerged from bankruptcy, city leaders preached the gospel of trickle-down economics — “You’ll get yours, eventually” — to poor residents barely hanging on.
As whites move into a renovated downtown, “many [outer] neighborhoods stand derelict, public transportation remains inadequate and the population continues to decline,” she writes. “Studies have shown that the resurgent popularity of cities across the country has not helped the parts of those cities afflicted with concentrated poverty.”
In documentary style, Kirshner follows seven Detroiters — four African-Americans and three whites, including two transplants — from the city’s 2013 bankruptcy and beyond. Their profiles range from Lola, a young single mom, college-educated but underemployed, to Miles, a middle-aged handyman and ex-offender. Robin, a white filmmaker-turned-speculator, is the only one who hasn’t crashed into poverty or teetered on its edge.
Each navigates a city struggling to provide basic services and a housing market filled with abandoned homes picked clean by scavengers and unscrupulous real estate operators looking for easy marks. The subjects deal with idealistic but underfunded housing nonprofits; a labyrinthine city bureaucracy; and minefields laid by underwater homeowners who walked away, leaving behind unpaid taxes, decaying homes and uncertain deeds of ownership.
An academic and bankruptcy lawyer, Kirshner isn’t a natural storyteller — her prose is a bit stilted, and the book feels overpopulated. Reggie, Charles and Miles, three middle-aged black men fighting destitution and bad luck, blurred together; fewer characters would help readers get to know and care about each one.
Ultimately, though, her characters are somewhat secondary to Kirshner’s goal — sounding the alarm about America’s cities. The core message is captured in a quote by Miles.
“You lost so much and you still got to try to go forward,” he says. “But you got all this dragging you backwards.”
Joseph P. Williams, a former assistant managing editor at the Star Tribune, is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.
By: Jodie Adams Kirshner.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 342 pages, $28.99.