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The Last White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy: The Meaning of the Meme

May 3, 2013

wedg

The White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy (WEDG) meme has turned into the quintessential Frankenstein’s Monster.  What began as a cathartic venting mechanism for Detroiter’s anger and frustration has been inverted into a self-congratulatory “dialogue” rehabilitating the image of the city’s entrepreneurial clique.

The meme mocked Jason Lorimer, the self-described “nonconformist” and co-founder of Dandelion, a consulting firm for social entrepreneurs and investors.  It was sparked by this self-aggrandizing article written by Lorimer for Model D, and gained a significant following and press attention.

The message from bloggers like Aaron Foley, of the Gawker media affiliated blog Jalopnik, and Jeff Wattrick at Deadline Detroit appears to be “We had some laughs, but it’s all good now.”

Foley and Wattrick are quick to apologize, in part because they completely misplaced the meaning behind the meme.  Foley, for instance, explained that the real problem lies with the local press who gives undue attention to Detroit’s white entrepreneurs at the expense of Black businesses.  Wattrick similarly blamed the “rhetoric bubble” exposed by Lorimer’s loathsome, jargon-laden writing style that forces one to picture themselves at the end of a Human Centipede made of corporate hacks.

Two of the most vocal bloggers about this controversy, therefore, dumbfoundly concluded that the White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy meme had nothing in particular to do with white entrepreneurial Detroit guys.

Of course, nobody can conclude with hard, scientific precision exactly what made the meme so explosive.  Nevertheless, one can make the case–as Wattrick and Foley have–for how one should read the meme and for what it can tell us.

One thing it tells us is that there is at least a significant–if not large–audience of people in Detroit who have lost patience for complacent social entrepreneurial wonkery and bullshit.

And why shouldn’t they have?  The vast majority of the city’s residents continue to suffer under deplorable living conditions that should be considered criminal in a country as wealthy and affluent as the United States.  The people who continue to write self-congratulatory pablum about the growing community of young entrepreneurs rebuilding Detroit over-and-over again would be embarrassed for themselves if they had one scrap of shame or humanity in them.

Such a contradiction, however, is the inevitable result of decades of neoliberal urban policy, which has succeeded in its push to wholly restructure the city in favor of attracting private investment.  “Neoliberal urban policy,” which has become standard in the post-civil rights era, explains the Marxist geography David Harvey in his book Rebel Cities,

concluded that redistributing wealth to less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions was futile, and that resources should instead be channeled to dynamic “entrepreneurial” growth poles.  A spatial vision of “trickle-down” would then, in the proverbial long run (which never comes), take care of all those pesky regional, spatial, and urban inequalities.  Turning the city over to the developers and speculative financiers redounds the benefit of all!…The idea that a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly, is never examined.

One can easily see this reflected in a recent Financial Times article by Richard Florida, where he celebrates Detroit’s “turnaround” led by “a coalition of profit-led entrepreneurs, philanthropic foundations and grassroots groups unhindered by city government.”

The fact is that, whatever good intentions the newly arrived entrepreneurs might claim they have, the needs of the vast majority of Detroits residents do not square with their business interests.  Firms like Dandelion, for instance (which, as many have noted, is the flowering part of a weed–and a weed of course being an undesirable thing that chokes the life out of those nearby), shamelessly adopt pleasant phrases like “social entrepreneurship” to advance the myth that entrepreneurial interests can be seamlessly aligned with those of the poor.  That this is essentially just a recycled, less fowl smelling form of Reaganomics is never acknowledged.

The kind of entrepreneurial renaissance being promoted by people like Lorimer and Florida requires the taming, slashing, and burning of the public programs that poor people depend upon, in order to make the city more attractive to wealthy investors–especially the creditors that often provide start-up capital to new businesses and construction.  This is precisely the agenda the city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is charged with administering.  But it goes far beyond our Honorable corporate overlord.  Long before Kevyn Orr’s rise to power, for instance, Detroit’s brand new Whole Foods was handed $4.2 million in incentives.  So while Detroit foodies can celebrate new access to healthy and organic food, $683 million was just cut last month from Michigan’s food assistance program (meanwhile, Whole Foods’ CEO claims he’s”going after racism“).

Demographic and population shifts are also required in order to meet the needs of new investors.  Programs like public housing, in other words, are not only inconvenient expenditures that could otherwise go toward posh grocers.  The very existence of public housing and the poor acts as a physical barrier to urban renewal.

While the New York Times can celebrate the renewal of downtown Detroit (again and again), therefore, nearly 200 senior citizens are being evicted from their Section 8 apartment building to clear the path for development.  Not too far away on Henry Street almost another 100 occupants of the Cass Corridor are being evicted.  Additionally, the Free Press recently reported that there have been over 4,100 foreclosures in Wayne County since January 2013 (that’s down 46% from 2012’s first quarter of over 7,700 foreclosures).  And it’s a widely known fact that Detroit lost over 237,00 residents over the past decade.

Meanwhile, however, “thousands of residents, including designers, techies and music makers,” have moved into the cities central neighborhoods, as Florida put it.  We’re constantly told about the wave of young professionals and neo-urbanites moving into neighborhoods like Downtown, Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Hubbard Farms, Lafayette Park, the Villages, etc.  The readily deployed phrase “urban pioneer” aptly describes the scenario–evoking the history of the pioneers that cleared the old West of its native population in order to make way for new development.  Put in this context, expressions like, “Get your ass to Detroit,” as Lorimer exclaimed, or “Outsource to Detroit” become far more suspicious.

Writers like Florida that favor the neoliberal policies plaguing Detroit’s poor frankly acknowledge the consequences of their proposals.  “A cynic might say business interests and corporate urban pioneers are merely colonising the one economically viable district,” writes Florida,

“leaving those in distressed areas to the mercy of its broke, powerless government…Nonetheless, if it can be sustained, the downtown revival will be a first step to creating the jobs, economic activity and tax revenues needed to underwrite broader recovery.”

Florida not only plainly favors the entrepreneurial and business interests over people, therefore, but seems not the least bit ashamed that his proposal could be so easily compared to colonization–which, one might recall, was once also justified with the claim that it was good for the indigenous population.

Frustrations shouldn’t be aimed at “outsiders,” however, as the Huffington Post and others would have it.  Such answers completely miss the point. People should move wherever they want to.  The fact is that in a city home to enormous corporations like General Motors–which just posted $1.8 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2013–nobody should have to be evicted from their home to make room for others.  No one should have to be unemployed, or starve, in order to employ or feed others.  People’s anger and frustration should take aim at the familiar claim that there is no way out for Detroit other than by attracting youthful profiteers at the expense of Detroit’s poor.  The lackeys that advance this banal refrain–Florida, Lorimer, The Times, and others–are the real cynics.

The fact that social entrepreneurs and jargon laden consulting firms cannot address the vast and complex needs of Detroit’s residents does not need to foredoom the city.  But it needs to be acknowledged that there can be no resolving the crisis so long as we’re constrained by the narrow interests of business and profit.  The needs of the city’s poor residents need to be placed first, and not mediated or reduced to some pro-business policy gimmick or sleight of hand.  Such a change will require a political solution outside of city hall, or any legislative or business body–it will have to come from the people in the streets.  Luckily, Detroit has a long and proud history of such struggle from which to take guidance and inspiration.

  • Excellent analysis with lots of good links.

  • Tyson Gersh

    I love so many things about this article. Great insight that captures a complex situation. That being said, do you really think that “The needs of the city’s poor residents need to be placed first.. “? I can see equal to, but first? How can that work in building/maintaining a sustainable city?

    • Word, Tyson. I think a lot of people think that. Unfortunately, in that kind of hypothetical scenario the entrepreneurial interests automatically win over people’s needs. So long as we live in a society structured so that profit takes precedence over people, the business interests will always subjugate the needs of workers, the poor, etc. unless there’s a strong enough push in the opposite direction.

      • Agreed. I guess there is always a compromise between the two loudest voices in the room. In other words a the majority tends to fall somewhere in the middle of the two ends of the advocacy spectrum. Given that the business side is so loud, perhaps advocates of the other end of the spectrum need to take that much more of an extreme stance in order to sway the majority towards the middle.

  • bebow

    Well done. The colonials are ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.

  • Great article and analysis on this urban policy trend

  • Great analysis. I have to admit though, that I just thought the meme was funny merely because the guy looked like a douche.

  • Greg N

    “So while Detroit foodies can celebrate new access to healthy and organic food, $683 million was just cut last month from Michigan’s food assistance program”

    This is very, very misleading. If you just read the headline of the link you offered, you’d see this is a legislative subcommittee’s recommendation. Not even the House’s recommendation, not even just a committee’s recommendation, but a subcommittee’s recommendation. I believe this recommendation was included in the budget eventually passed by the full House – but the budget process is still in full swing. The House’s proposed cuts to the DHS budget are drastic compared to Governor Snyder’s proposal and the Senate’s version of the budget. Is almost $700 million in food assistance in danger? I think that’s at least a fair view. But it has not been cut yet.

    • This is a fair point. But I don’t think it significantly undermines anything I’m arguing. The fact that they’re even considering cutting almost $700 million from food assistance while giving millions away in incentives to a for profit business is still consistent with everything I’m arguing about mainstream neoliberal urban policy.

    • Mars305

      I’m tired of people giving credit to people who don’t really know what it is like to really fight for a neighborhood. You Yuppies moved in to Brush Park after a hand full of us worked hard for 30 years to keep our historical houses from being torn down, we had to live with the suburbanites coming into our neighborhoods looking for their drugs and prostitutes. I spent many months chasing them away from the front of my house while they would do the drugs they bought. We were broken into, cars were stolen more times than I can count. We fought with City Council, the city, and the drug dealers, now you all want to come in and reap what we have sown, but you want to get rid of some of the people who fought for the neighborhood just because they might not have the money that you have.
      I was kinda excited about whole foods, but if they can’t beat the Eastern Market in prices than I won’t shop there. I like buying from the farmer, I know my money isn’t going to some super rich person who doesn’t even need the money. I like to shop local, to help out the small business person, not the big business that don’t really give a crap about anyone, as long as they make that almighty dollar. The rich didn’t want to live in our neighborhoods, you all ran as fast as you could to get out. Now some of you want to take over what we fought for, fine, I don’t mind if you really are trying to make it a better place, but not at the expense of those who fought to keep what there is left, and than you take the credit for bringing Detroit back. Those of us who stayed by choice when it got rough,and didn’t run away, we are the true Urban Pioneers, not these Yuppies that are showing up now when the really hard work was already well on it’s way. I’m really glad that you want to move into our neighborhoods, but don’t try to push out those of us who fought long and hard to even have this many beautiful old buildings left. Because they would have torn down if we hadn’t stayed and fought.

  • eno laget

    “It has been said that I am capable of out eating, out drinking and out smoking anyone in town for political purposes. And I still get up the next morning fresh as a daisy and ready to work.
    And work I will, and always have, for the regular Detroiter, not for the elites.
    Therefore, Today I am announcing my bid for re-election as Mayor of the city of Detroit.
    I am asking for your support.
    Sincerely yours,
    Hazen S. Pingree ”
    (transcribed and posted by Eno Laget on behalf of former Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree on day, 7 May, 2013)

  • Great article. You forgot to mention that most of the people who are moving to Detroit are doing it on the taxpayer-dime. I agree that Detroit needs to focus on its long-time residents first. If Detroit is going to have pro-business policies, they need to do it city wide so the long-time residents can reap the benefits too. In the 1950’s, Detroit was the perfect example of free-market capitalism with limited government, low taxes and low regulations. Detroit was the wealthiest US city in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. This was destroyed in the early 1960’s by Jerome Cavanagh and President Johnson with the War on Poverty and the Model Cities Program. These two programs were designed for wealth redistribution. The Model Cities Program also destroyed the middle class havens of Camden, NJ, Newark, NJ, and Oakland, CA to turn them into the crime and poverty ridden cities they are today. The 1967 Detroit riots were started right in the middle of the Model City Area. The Model City Program is similar to what is going on in Downtown Detroit today with government giving grants to businesses and telling people what to do at the expense of someone else’s money. In the 1970’s, Coleman A. Young took power. According to Forbes, Coleman A. Young was a member of the Communist Party. Not to many people knew about that. He came up with more destructive policies that wrecked the business community and made the city one of the most dangerous in the country. He also expanded the role of government within the city. This continued under the next couple of mayors until you see what happened today.

    Sources:

    1.) Forbes
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/01/13/detroit-betrayed-the-radical-wrecking-of-an-iconic-city/

    2.) Canada Free Press
    http://bit.ly/11zJ6fU

    3.) Motor City Times
    http://bit.ly/101w1ZE

    4.) Porter Stansberry S&A Digest
    http://secure.stansberryresearch.com/pub/reports/201112psi_issue.html

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