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.