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  • A People's History of Detroit by Mark Jay and Philip Conklin
  • Jodie Adams Kirshner
Mark Jay and Philip Conklin. A People's History of Detroit. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. Pp. 320. Illustrations. Paper: $26.95.

A People's History of Detroit situates itself in the tradition of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, updating a seemingly misunderstood view of the past with a more working-class slant. Jay and Conklin narrate a systematic dispossession of wealth from the people of Detroit. The authors describe their project as the outgrowth of their two-person reading group at a local Detroit hot dog restaurant, an effort "to understand what we were living amid." (6) In the book, they superimpose the "new" Detroit against a history of the city and argue that "nothing about the new Detroit is new." (5)

After setting up a critique of current-day Detroit, the authors slide backward in time and work forward from the Fordist period to the present. They characterize their structural critique of Detroit's political economic system in this way:

At first we examined the city's bankruptcy, but this was clearly an event—a coup—laden with history. Nor did the concept of racism or neoliberalism seem to fully get to the root of things. So we went back to the Great Rebellion of 1967. But how can one understand an uprising if one fails to understand the material conditions and the political consciousness of the people who took to the streets? So we went further back, to the post-World War II era, only to discover that, for most Detroiters, this supposed golden age was far from golden: it was instead a time of intense economic instability, harsh work conditions, and racial violence. [End Page 149] Finally, we decided to start with the era of Ford and the International Workers of the World, and to begin unraveling the contradictions from there.


The chapters on the new Detroit that bookend the manuscript illuminate ridiculous aspects of the current renewal. The authors contrast public largesse for corporations against austere public treatment of individual residents. For example, after stating that "elites complain that the city has too much empty land, and also that there are not enough parking spaces near Downtown," they point out that a heavily subsidized new sports stadium intended to catalyze development in the area has chiefly "catalyz[ed] new parking lots—over twenty acres of them." (41) Daniel Gilbert, the billionaire co-founder of Quicken Loans who owns roughly 100 properties in downtown Detroit, they indicate, is also in the possession of more than 17,000 parking spaces. Yet the managing CEO of Gilbert's company cites a "strong need for additional parking options" as an obstacle to redevelopment. (41) At times, the authors push their arguments to extremes, writing, for example, that "crime prevention as such has never been the purpose of police." (68)

The book moves between a deeply researched history of Detroit and explications of prevailing national trends of each period. The materials in the more recent chapters feel freshest and most compelling, especially the history around Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit's first African American mayor. He took office in 1974 and presided over significant population loss and sharp increases in unemployment and violent crime, as nationally, labor power weakened, drug criminalization ballooned, and municipal tax receipts fell.

Ultimately, having argued that urban renewal in a capitalist system inevitably increases inequality, "with wealth accumulat[ing] at one pole … in direct proportion to the accumulation of poverty and misery at the other," A People's History of Detroit leaves readers without solutions. (77) Any "comeback" carries concomitant immiseration, elites have "co-opted and thwarted" activism, and the authors "do not pretend to have an answer" to how a grassroots politics can emerge. (227) [End Page 150]

Jodie Adams Kirshner
New York University


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pp. 149-150
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