Book review symposium – Rebecca Kinney’s “Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier”

Editor’s introduction

In the opening chapter of Rebecca Kinney’s Beautiful Wasteland, a book focused on the dissection of the narrative of a new Detroit, a decade of hype and hope, she offers readers a map of race by household in 1938 Detroit. In Kinney’s analysis this map plays a relatively minor role, demonstrating the codification of segregation in Depression era housing markets and government programs. It does what Kinney intends, but it also accentuates Kinney’s broader argument of urban transition and the production of space or the making of place for whiteness. In her description of the map and its matter-of-fact representation of the city’s segregation, Kinney engages with the limits and constraints of an argument that accepts Detroit as container. Though the Southeast Michigan suburbs and its residents appear throughout the book they are often aberrations acting on or in the city of an imagined past or sensationalized present. It is a tension that is present and acknowledged but left largely unexamined in the focus on media production and narratives of an emerging post-industrial frontier of opportunity.

If one were to overlay this 1938 map (above), which shows a stark rectangle of segregation running from the Detroit River at the city’s southern edge up the main north-south thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue and ending somewhere near Clairmont Street in the city’s North End neighborhood, over the contemporary islands of foundation-led development strategies it reveals the persistent targeting of these particular spaces in the city for transformation, whether through the neighborhood containment strategies visible in the late 1930s or the urban renewal strategies that followed in the post-war years to the contemporary whitening of these spaces through state dependent gentrification. These are in essence the neighborhoods at the center of dis/accumulation and racialization that buffer the argument in Beautiful Wasteland. What Kinney captures is how these spaces serve as models and targets of the frontier rhetoric she examines throughout the book.

A work of cultural studies, it is an analysis that primarily dwells on the representation of space rather than its production. Kinney’s critique of the image of Detroit circling in popular and not so popular culture draws from a collection of creative source material such as interview snippets of filmmakers, ad makers, and anonymous avatar comments on a real estate message board. Beautiful Wasteland marshals an array of new and old media to examine not only the power of the frontier myth but also its malleability in invoking nostalgia and hope and the insistence by its purveyors on a narrative of race neutrality and unexamined privilege. Yet as a reader, a geographer, and a Detroit resident, I was left wanting deeper insight into both the motivations of these cultural producers and the ways in which these objects were received and interpreted beyond the author.

The critique of the partiality and limits of cultural media in presenting and reimagining Detroit that undergird the book’s central themes could also be mounted in examining the argument of Beautiful Wasteland. It is a work often caught in the binaries that limit rather than illuminate the city. Kinney works between various divisions–downtown development in relation to neighborhood decline, the suburban gaze on the city, and the inhabitant versus distant observer–to develop her conceptualization of Detroit as a beautiful wasteland, an emerging post-industrial frontier. If we return briefly to the map (above), one of the most immediate physical binaries resting on the surface of this critique, and left unexamined in the text, is the relationship between emerging white enclaves where the artists, filmmakers, journalists and writers producing images and arguments of Detroit as a “beautiful wasteland” use an encampments before they journey into the wilderness of their subjects.

The narrative of hype of a new Detroit that Kinney dismantles seems ever present in external media coverage of the city and in the promotional narratives of city boosters and corporations tied to the place, but the population continues to decline, neighborhoods continue to falter, the suburban fringe moves deeper into the agricultural hinterland, and the region is constantly being reshaped by political and economic maintenance of geographies of white supremacy. Essentially, just as these images and conversations are producing the idea of a beautiful wasteland for broader consumption, the focus on the circulation and construction of developmentalist narratives in this work cannot account for the actual production of this wasteland, the expulsions, dispossession and displacement laying waste to lives and neighborhoods.

One of the most under-theorized and unexamined components of most academic work on Detroit today is its relation to the suburbs or, more specifically, its production in relation to the suburbs. Though the suburbs loom large in Beautiful Wasteland they are more a specter haunting Detroit. In the shadows, this geography has an unexamined power as it defines the boundaries of the city in stark racial terms, but also acts on the city through policies and practices. The nostalgia of the message board participants in the first chapter of the book also carries with it a sense of ownership in the lament of loss. This particularly regressive vision of a right to the city is not only present on real estate message boards, it is prevalent among my undergraduate students whose parents or grandparents once lived in Detroit, and in my interviews with young pioneers and social entrepreneurs as they offer variations on this theme of the legacy of belonging, of being a Detroiter (Steinmetz 2008). It is a rhetoric and an articulation of a particular right to the city, of being a Detroiter residing in the suburbs, that is more than nostalgia; it carries an organizing power and morality in its echoes of white supremacist romanticizing of a “way of life” in the US South, or more contemporary white supremacist nostalgia for Southern Rhodesia and apartheid regimes.

In the early 1990s, as South African apartheid was crumbling, Robin Bloch finished an unpublished dissertation at UCLA (he said it remained unpublished because there were more interesting things to do in organizing against apartheid). In this work he argues for a reading of the suburban boom through the 1970s and 1980s as the shift of the central city from the core to the periphery (Bloch 1994). I only bring this up because it centers the suburbs in the story of Detroit as a site to examine in the understanding of the region. But it also makes the rhetorical construction of the frontier captured in Beautiful Wasteland operate in multiple registers and meanings of the word. Detroit becomes the edge of the city. Detroit becomes the site of territorial demarcation with border skirmishes and unstable market relations. Detroit becomes a terra incognita–an unknown, unexplored land transformed through racial containment and economic violence. As Lynda Schneekloth argued over 20 years ago in her essay “The Frontier is our Home” (1996), it is not the settler, but those in the metropolis that romanticize life on the edge. The frontier is a place nearly always written about from outside. This is where Kinney’s analysis is strongest, contextualizing the image of the city and the work of remaking it as a postindustrial frontier in the imagination of those outside the city–in Southern California where she began this project or in the New York editorial offices of Time Magazine where decisions were made to embed reporters in Detroit and the subsequent material they produced critiqued throughout the book.

The suburbs also loom large in Kinney’s personal narrative appearing throughout the book and in the snippets of biography we are offered on the documentary filmmakers trawling Detroit at the deepest points of the last crisis. Kinney’s own experience in relation to the city, as both insider, physically present, and as outsider, a Korean adoptee growing up there, allows for a perspective that reads the contours of racial division in the city with particular clarity. But the documentarians whose films and press interviews she analyzes clearly cannot see the racial privilege of their position. These subjects use their suburban roots as both claims to an authentic voice or understanding of the region while simultaneously reproducing the trope of the bootstrapping entrepreneur. Kinney carefully works through the lingering focus of these films on individual’s black bodies and the condition of the city often centered in the same frame. The long shots of empty lots in television shows ostensibly about food to illustrate how the physical conditions of the city are continually linked to its residents despite the liberal rhetoric of the filmmakers and television producers about opportunity and social justice. In her examination of the dissonance of the image and the rhetoric, Kinney turns our attention to the fallacy of poverty as an individual rather than social issue. It is here that the argument comes closest to breaking the division between producer and subject and illustrating the relational production of decline.

The minimal number of Detroiters, or actual Detroit residents, is the most striking absence in Beautiful Wasteland. A few people appear in an early chapter examining the ways race is both addressed and erased in message board exchanges about housing conditions, but these voices do not appear again except through their representation in other media. It is a distance that limits the agency of those living in the city. Kinney offers an incisive critique of a cultural producer’s choices, but the editing choices of that producer are left to stand in as the voice of residents. This seems more generative of the discipline and material than author intent, but much like the representations of Detroit under analysis, a meta analysis of the work might engage how this narrative of the frontier is challenged or complicated by, as the acolytes of the Boggs Center (a center for activists founded by the late James and Grace Lee Boggs on Detroit’s east side) are so fond of saying, “indigenous Detroiters”. It is the challenge of examining the history of a population under siege–one actively being displaced in the tumult of state led gentrification in ten square miles of the city while many others are being expelled in the remaining 130 square miles through displacement without gentrification. It is not only a narrative of the frontier, but also the physical production of prairies, vacancies, and the actual making of the blank slate so often imagined by the planning professionals and policy consultants contracted to offer another rendering of the beautiful wasteland.

Joshua Akers

Social Sciences Department

University of Michigan-Dearborn

[email protected]

Review 1

In Beautiful Wasteland Rebecca Kinney takes on the task of examining how representations of place are part of the racialized political economy. She explores the kinds of work that images, such as photographs, commercials, and documentaries, and words, such as magazine covers and newspaper headlines, do in preparing or interpreting a place for its role in cycles of investment and disinvestment and how racialized tropes and violences are part and parcel of this process. This is a welcome addition to studies in race and political economy, given that narratives of places change over time, sometimes relatively imperceptibly in localized ways, sometimes in very prominent two-minute Super Bowl commercial kinds of ways, as she illuminates.

In the book’s chapters, Kinney takes the reader through an original analysis of particular examples and moments of popular culture, from the online discussion board to a detailed analysis of visual representations of Detroit, and argues that they variously highlight or ignore the racialized past and present that undergird Detroit’s cycles of boom and bust. Throughout she draws from academic accounts of Detroit, such as Thomas Sugrue’s excellent book The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996), along with popular representations, such as magazines and newspapers and documentaries, demonstrating a significant breadth of material about Detroit. In fact, the endnotes contain a key contribution in and of itself: a rather comprehensive bibliography on Detroit. And, as Kinney suggests, this may be one of Detroit’s moments, as it has become popular for its “ruin porn” or its “rise from the ashes” story, and thus the contribution from a “native” metro Detroiter, as she names herself in the book, is certainly welcome. In fact, place-based studies, where the task is to use our academic tools to understand a place–rather than using a place to illustrate a theoretical claim–should be celebrated.

But Kinney’s book is no uncritical celebration of place. In fact, she is highly critical of the representations of Detroit that she includes in her analysis. Her critique is laregly around the ways in which racialization processes and accounts are missing from the memories and representations of everyday Detroiters and others who take on the task of representing Detroit, such as artists, documentary filmmakers, and marketing firms. The persistence of white privilege and institutionalized racism is, for Kinney, missing in many of the narratives about Detroit–particularly the city’s present and future–that she sees as increasingly neoliberal, privileging individual, wealthy whites, and dismissing or even erasing the majority of Detroiters who are black.

I find the goals of the book and some of the analysis a compelling corrective to taken-for-granted representations of place. I am left with questions, however. One key concern involves the degree to which the material that Kinney offers as archetypal representations of Detroit is broadly significant or meaningful. That is, it is unclear how important the examples Kinney uses to explore the silenced racialization processes that have made and remade Detroit are, or how or in what ways they represent broader public conversations about Detroit that Kinney claims they do. For example, in her first empirical chapter, she examines an online discussion on the website, a real estate forum in which users participate in various conversations about places in the city. She highlights the dialogue wherein a former white Detroit resident recounts locating the home of her childhood, only to discover a foundation and porch but nothing else of it on a block that was also largely disinvested. The purpose of her post on the discussion board was to see if others had a similar experience. The discussion, which Kinney examined as a series of approximately 80 entries on the website, gets heated, as coded and not-so-coded language is used to suggest that this nostalgic person blames people of color for destroying her home and neighborhood, and ignores her own complicity as a person of whiteness and privilege–which enabled her family to exclude people of color from the neighborhood in the first place. This roughly 80-entry discussion took place in 2010, and the degree to which it is a representative example of the broader Detroit narrative, as Kinney suggests it is, or even how typical the forum participants might be, is unclear. In addition to the online debate, Kinney analyzes the photographs of Camilo Jose Vergara, drawing from both the depiction of Detroit in actual photographs (which are included in the book), which show the “beauty” of the ruins of Detroit, and also from the photographer’s notes from various exhibitions in which he explains his work. But again, how significant is this photographer’s imagery (and understanding) of Detroit in dominating representations of the city? Likewise, the remaining empirical chapters, including one on the representation of the “food scene” in Detroit, involve a series of magazine articles and television segments, which, in a cynical reading, could be seen as Kinney cherry-picking to make her point. And then there’s that two-minute Super Bowl commercial: how important are those two minutes in remaking Detroit as a site of wealth?

Another question I have is about Kinney’s implicit expectation of enlightened political subjectivities among Detroiters. And here I refer to, once again, that discussion board on; for that initial poster who lamented the state of her childhood home, Kinney draws from scholar Renato Rosaldo’s (1993) concept of “nostalgic imperialism” to critique this woman’s implication in the whitewashing of Detroit. I am left wondering, though, how often individual memories can reasonably be expected to reflect structural imperatives. I mean, it takes a semester or more of intensive reading for many of my students to begin to comprehend the structural forces of institutionalized racism and its imbrication with capitalism–and they have Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis to very clearly demonstrate these dynamics. What could reasonably be expected of everyday Detroiters to understand their own role in institutionalized racism and racialized capitalism?

Kinney is also critical of the documentary makers’ decision in Deforce to move from exposing the deleterious effects of such structural forces on the city to then conclude with a series of conversations with local Detroiters who are involved in the drug trade. Their comments, as depicted in the film, suggest that they had a choice to leave the streets. When discussing her brothers’ murders, Queen, a longtime Detroit resident featured in the film, reflects, “I can’t say this ‘hood is to be blamed. They chose that life, it didn’t choose them” (quoted on p.104). Kinney attributes this representation to a weak conclusion of neoliberal individualism: that the filmmakers end up backing away from their claims of Detroit as a product of a long history of white privilege and instead conclude with a narrative of individual choice and self-help. Again, what are the reasonable expectations of the political subjectivity of street Detroiters? Or perhaps a more interesting approach would be seeking to understand the process of political subjectivication in the first place. Kinney aims her critique at the decision making of the artists and creators of these media–not, of course, Detroiters interviewed or depicted in the films–but some of this feels hollow to me. What, exactly, is a productive representation of Detroit? What could satisfy Kinney’s desire to see the complexity of race and class and place depicted in popular media?

This leads me to my final point: what are the representations that challenge what Kinney points out as dominant narratives? Are there activist groups or “right to the city” campaigns in Detroit? It strikes me as relatively easy to be frustrated by a Chrysler commercial and its depiction of the city–and I do appreciate that Kinney alerts us to how representations matter–but I am left wondering where the moments of resistance or counter-narratives or even everydayness are that might offer yet a different, more socially just or hopeful version of Detroit.

Katherine B. Hankins

Department of Geosciences

Georgia State University

[email protected]

Review 2

In Beautiful Wasteland Rebecca Kinney offers a sweeping cultural analysis of the images and symbolic landscapes that have made and remade our imaginary of the city of Detroit. The iconic birthplace of America’s aspirational object, the automobile; the backdrop for the origin story of the American Dream; the embodiment of 20th century hopes and dreams about industry, modernization, and progress; a city like no other, Detroit. Throughout her book, Kinney digs in to this narrative of prosperity, ingenuity, and the American spirit by questioning the cultural imaginary of Detroit. She interrogates myriad representations of Detroit including an online housing forum, photographs, two documentary films, a 2011 Super Bowl commercial campaign, and more recent efforts to re-brand Detroit as a home for urban pioneers seeking refuge from rising rents in beloved cities elsewhere. Kinney examines these narratives and asks what realities are being created by photographers, ad executives, and billionaire boosters, all people who have something to gain by creating Detroit in their own image. Beautiful Wasteland traces the changing narrative of Detroit from a city of the American Dream to a city of decline, emptiness, and ruin, and then back again in contemporary narratives of downtown Detroit’s revitalization, renewal, and rebirth.

Part of the success of Beautiful Wasteland is that it offers specific examples of the devaluing of land and homes held by black families, and the persistent exclusion, marginalization and erasure of people who do not appear to be white from Detroit’s story. In excavating the racialized logics and narratives that underpin the rise, decline, and rise again of Detroit, Kinney’s book makes an important step in suturing the whitewashed history of the city to the practices, policies, and people that are so often absent from official and vernacular narratives. In so doing, Beautiful Wasteland offers an analysis of the workings of racial capitalism in the development of one US city (Kelley 2017; Leong 2013).

In the first chapter of the book, Kinney examines an online housing forum in which past residents of Detroit reminisce about their former homes. This website contains discussions of primarily white residents who are nostalgic for a past they left behind. Kinney interweaves her analysis of contemporary nostalgia for white neighborhoods and a white past with the history of housing segregation visible in public housing policies and longstanding discriminatory and predatory mortgage lending, including the racialized implementation of the GI Bill which almost exclusively subsidized homeownership for white veterans. Kinney’s analysis adeptly explains how these narratives rest on a foundation of naturalized and implicit white privilege and construct an incomplete yet hegemonic version of Detroit’s past (p.7). In examining the revisionist history of retreat, economic ruin, and left-behind homelands, Kinney shows how commentators long for a return to a different time, a better time, a time of overt segregation in Detroit.

In this chapter, Kinney examines the work of the moderator of the online housing forum who enforces the norms of conversation with banal statements like “Back on topic folks” (p.35). Kinney argues that these corrective statements construct the forum as a space for remembering past neighborhoods, but not for examining the structural racism that allowed white people to accumulate property in Detroit. In her analysis, Kinney illustrates how the moderator neutralized critiques about white privilege and racialized economic decline by policing the scope and purpose of the forum. By using posts from residents and the conditions of polite speech enforced by the moderator alongside the structural elements, such as segregated and discriminatory housing policies and lending practices, Kinney’s writing helps to make visible the policies and practices that are absent from residents’ partial accounting of Detroit’s past.

Later in the section titled “We are Refugees: Remembering White Flight” Kinney examines the common refrain “We had to leave” in order to push into the racial logics underpinning the white exodus from the city. She explores how bloggers employ the language of “refugees” (p.21-22) in order to question how white residents cast themselves as blameless migrants, as if they were victims of the very housing system in which they had only benefited. Here, Kinney successfully draws from bloggers’ own words to demonstrate how “loss” is experienced when the privilege granted to you by the color of your skin, a privilege that you did not ask for, or pay for, but expected, feels like it has been revoked. By examining how these bloggers frame the active non-choices of their exodus, Kinney’s analysis reveals how people stage the conditions of their victimhood, the terms of how they were made to do something they did not want to do, or otherwise could not afford to do, but did anyways.

In the context of Donald Trump’s recent election, the sentiment expressed in these blogs felt all too familiar. The scripts convey the idea that white people are victims, that they have been denied what is innately theirs, that something that was promised to them has disappeared or been taken, or that their invisible privilege gets them a little less than it used to. Taken together, this section lays bare the ideological commitment to whiteness, to the valorization of white bodies, and the logics that code spaces based on who is physically present and whose presence counts in the development of Detroit (see also Bonds and Inwood 2016). It is here that Kinney’s contribution shines; in its clear analysis of the cultural tropes and narratives that scripted Detroit’s recent history, Beautiful Wasteland demonstrates the importance of critical scholarship that documents and theorizes how the privileged transfigure themselves into the marginalized and how oppressors frame their personal narratives in such a way as to appear as the oppressed. Of course, the blog is a single artifact of racist thinking and white willful ignorance, which makes it difficult to determine how pervasive these sentiments are in this context (see also Katherine Hankins’ review in this symposium). However, Kinney’s analysis is successful in that it allows readers to trace psychological and institutional investments in whiteness that are often difficult to access and document.

Moving from the narratives of Detroit’s heyday, Kinney examines the visual imaginary that represents Detroit’s decline in Chapters 2 and 4. In Chapter 2 Kinney examines the works of photographer Camilo Jose Vergana who portrayed the city as a pastoral landscape, a place of ruin, and an empty space ready for someone else’s Model T dreams. In this section, Kinney draws loosely on Neil Smith’s (1996) work on the revanchist city and the frontier (p.53)–likely an all-too-brief foray into geographical thought and theory for the dear readers of Antipode–in order to argue that in visualizing Detroit as an empty landscape, the artist’s gaze frames Detroit as a place ready to be reborn by pioneers, or, rather, venture capitalists who hope to profit from investing in a risky city that is easy to sell.

As part of her inquiry into Vergana’s photographic depiction of the city, Kinney focuses on how the artist removes humans from the frame, strategically erasing over one million people in order to mythologize Detroit’s decline as one of depopulation and abandonment (p.44). Throughout her writing, Kinney pauses to note the contradictions of the once hyper-visible black population that has been intentionally removed from the frame. She invites the reader to consider which residents have been rendered into the background, not as people actively shaping the city, but as occupants whose presence only has meaning when put in relation to white flight; black existence in the city is narrated through white absence, or is not legible at all. A particularly convincing piece of evidence of this erasure is Vergana’s artist statement in which he recalls visiting a building that he proclaims dilapidated, despite being occupied. He said: “Left to decide whether or not the building was a ruin, I took another look at the faded gold star against the black polished stone and decided that it was” (quoted on p.58-59). The artist flippantly proclaimed the building a “ruin” and used his power of authorship to recast Detroit’s story by removing the lives and the livelihoods that persist, despite his insistence otherwise. In examining the narrative power of images in photographs, documentary films, and commercials, Kinney makes the case that rather than allow Detroiters to control their own representation, Vergana and others appear hell-bent on advancing their own interpretation of the city.

The final part of Beautiful Wasteland examines contemporary narratives that script places as devalued, risky, and yet ready to be discovered again. As part of this, Kinney examines the settler mentality that has narrated Detroit’s recent ascent. In these stories are echoes of other geographies and other recent histories–post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, or Pittsburgh and its neighboring town, Braddock. The idea that these places are frontiers or laboratories for social experiments is a pervasive fiction. These cities are seen to be hibernating, waiting, or even preparing themselves for pilot projects and innovation funds, as if they should be beckoning, calling out, and enticing capital with their concessions. In this framing, Detroit would not exist without visionaries, angel investors, and eager college students ready to cut their teeth as volunteers and underpaid interns–missionaries ready to save the city.

One such investor is mortgage tycoon and Detroit native son Dan Gilbert. In 2014 Gilbert moved his company, Quicken Loans, from metropolitan Detroit to downtown as part of his strategy to rebrand Detroit and develop its “symbolic economy”. Kinney briefly examines how Gilbert frames Detroit’s latent potential and questions his role at the helm of Detroit’s revival, including discussing how he has been gobbling up Detroit real estate at fire sale prices. The more significant point, for me at least, is how Quicken Loans, as one of the largest non-bank mortgage lenders in the United States, is fueling Detroit’s new economy on loan payments circulating back to the city from homeowners around the country. While Kinney begins to connect the “logics that financed racialized investment that enabled white suburbanization … and deemed primarily black Detroit as ‘too risky’ for investment” with the idea that Detroit is a good investment once again (p.128), she does not tease out the relationships between these historic dispossessions and contemporary practices of Quicken Loans, which has be criticized for its underwriting processes as well as using Federal Housing Administration insurance to shield itself from these risky lending practices (Creswell 2017). In order to broaden our understanding of capital’s return to Detroit, we need a more nuanced analysis of these interrelated processes. Indeed, the illusive and abstract world of finance should not be allowed to divorce the history of financial dispossession that Kinney documents in her book from the reality that the return of the American Dream to Detroit is likely being built on the backs of aspirational homeowners struggling to keep up with the untenable terms of their Quicken subprime mortgages.

While Kinney examines how the imaginary of Detroit’s past and future are scripting its redevelopment, this chapter would have benefited from a more active critique of the inequalities that exist and are being perpetuated in this seductive renewal. Relatedly, the subtext to this chapter is Kinney’s own apprehension about what this development means for her and others who stand to benefit from these changes–Kinney herself acknowledges that she is a customer of Whole Foods, despite critiquing its Detroit branding strategy in the pages of her book (p.140). Indeed, it seems impossible to critique urban amenities, creative city logics, and gentrified ideas of the good life as long as many academics are personally invested in and desire this version of the city. Perhaps it is this writerly tension that makes this chapter seem to be the most ambivalent, even as the contemporary moment is exactly when readers could mobilize Kinney’s analysis to contest Detroit’s representations in real time.

Kinney’s project is successful at documenting and describing the cultural logics and ideological formations that normalize racism and the workings of racial capitalism in Detroit. As such, Beautiful Wasteland offers an important reminder that we need scholarship that lays bare the co-constitutive forces of accumulation and dispossession, and offers counter-narratives that challenge the veneer of a coherent story to instead tell the intertwined, uneven, and contingent histories of those who are burdened and those who benefit. Left unresolved, however, are questions of how Detroit’s recent rise is particular, and how we might understand Detroit as part of larger, familiar processes of capital mobility, devaluation, speculation, and gentrification. In sidestepping these important questions, Beautiful Wasteland offers few directions for more overt political critique or action. That is, in relying so heavily on cultural analysis, the book functions mainly as an explication of Detroit’s myriad representations rather than offering a roadmap for interrupting these processes, in Detroit or elsewhere.

If our tools of critique are sharp enough to understand the power of representation and the endurance of narrative, so too should our actions be in reconfiguring their logics; the tools of cultural analysis that Kinney employs need to be marshaled in real time, alongside a keen attention to the workings of racial capitalism. Thankfully, radical and critical geographers have a long history of this type of praxis. Indeed, recent scholarship focused on the workings of racial capitalism (Derickson 2016, 2017; Gilmore 2007; McKittrick 2011; Ranganathan 2016; Roberts and Mahtani 2010; Roy 2016) provides a useful and important compliment to the cultural analysis advanced in Kinney’s book.

Jessa M. Loomis

Department of Geography

University of Kentucky

[email protected]

Review 3

The storefront window was peculiar. I encountered it in 2012 when I was conducting dissertation fieldwork in Detroit and was struck by the way it seemed to crystallize the deep racial antagonisms that accompanied the redevelopment of Detroit in an era of “late liberalism” (Povinelli 2011). At the center of the window a black arm tightens into a fist and hovers over Detroit’s skyline, which is lit up against a night sky. Seven watches, sold by a company called, encircle the arm. The arm is a replica of a sculpture in downtown Detroit called “The Fist” that was created as a tribute to Detroit-native heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and has long been a source of controversy (Gallagher and LaWare 2010). The trompe l’oeil graphic design technique that rendered the display three-dimensional conveyed a dreamlike quality and made the window stand out amidst the other dark and shuttered stores on Woodward Avenue. The display gave new meaning to the concept of window shopping. Ostensibly, the window was set up to sell watches but there was no physical store. Instead, shoppers were encouraged to use their smart phones and a QR code to make their purchases virtually. In reality, though, the elaborate display was less about getting passersby to shop than it was about conjuring a new Detroit. The window served as a simulacrum of a downtown economy that did not exist, at least not yet.

Beautiful Wasteland is a superb analysis of the role of popular culture in the production of Detroit as a “postindustrial frontier”. The window is not a focus of Rebecca Kinney’s Beautiful Wasteland. However, I begin this review with it because Beautiful Wasteland, in analyzing slices everyday life, signals how one object or exchange can reveal broader narratives, and it provoked me to reflect more deeply about why the window has lurked in my imagination for the past five years. The window represents how the emergence of Detroit as a new economic frontier, as Kinney shows, relies not only on surplus land and labor but also on the production of a symbolic economy.[1] Beautiful Wasteland, which sits at the intersection of and makes a rich contribution to geography, urban studies, cultural studies, and the growing field of Detroit studies, focuses specifically on how racial formation takes place within the symbolic economy to shift perceptions of Detroit as a place that was “too risky” to one that is “ready” for investment.

In this way, Kinney helped me to see how the window not only sought to invite capital to downtown but suggested that the city’s “comeback” required the revision of racial representations of Detroit and narratives that capitalism will heal racial injustice. When “The Fist” was first installed near Detroit’s riverfront, many people interpreted the 24-foot bronzed arm to be a symbol of black power and the city-suburban divide despite the arm’s horizontal rather than vertical orientation and the fact that its commissioning in the 1980s was part of a larger corporate development strategy whereby art was seen as a way to stimulate urban renewal. In 2004, two men from suburban Detroit painted “The Fist” with white paint; they left behind copied photographs of two white Detroit police officers who were supposedly killed by a black man and signed them “Courtesy of Fighting Whites”. This act of vandalism symbolized the fear of others within urban space as well as efforts to whitewash the city through redevelopment (Gallagher and LaWare 2010). Thus, it is poignant that in the window display 40 miniature fists positioned below “The Fist”, each donning a watch, were not black but various skin tones of white, black, and brown. The crowd of arms raised their fists upwards to support Detroit’s revitalized skyline and in doing so recast the symbolic imagery of “The Fist” and Detroit away from black power toward a celebration of multiculturalism.

Beautiful Wasteland contributes to a growing conversation in geography and urban studies around what Cedric Robinson (2002) called “racial capitalism”, the idea that racism is not a byproduct of capitalism but constituent to its logic. Kinney argues that the “concept of frontier operates in Detroit as a marker of anticipation of the city’s ascent … the underlying assumption is that space is being ‘underutilized’ but that with the right new people, or new ideas, or new infusion of cash, the city can be returned to its former productivity” (p.xx). In Kinney’s conceptualization of the frontier, she builds on Neil Smith’s argument that the urban frontier is advanced through the “collective owners of capital” (1996:xvi, quoted on p.xx) to show how the market is entangled with racially coded narratives that condition places for death and rebirth.

Beautiful Wasteland stems from Kinney trying to make sense of her own experience growing up in metropolitan Detroit. A Korean adoptee, Kinney was raised by a white family in Royal Oak, a predominantly white suburb directly north of Detroit. In an intensely segregated region where the black-white binary is pervasive, Kinney’s affective experience of racial difference led her at an early age to begin asking questions about the city-suburb divide and why the two communities were so different. When she left Detroit, she kept trying to make sense of the city’s segregated landscape. Her inquiry eventually led her to earn a doctorate in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, San Diego. Around the early 2000s, she noticed a change in the way people talked about Detroit. In casual conversation, when Kinney mentioned where she grew up, people began to respond enthusiastically: “I hear amazing things are happening in Detroit” (p.ix).

Beautiful Wasteland unpacks this shift in the cultural conversation through an analysis of “seemingly straightforward slices of everyday life”: a thread on the website called “I found my old house in Detroit”; the photographs of well-known social documentarian Camilo José Vergara; Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” commercial that played during the Super Bowl XLV in 2011; two documentary films, Daniel Falconer’s Deforce (2010) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia (2011); and, finally, how ideas of “hunger” underwrite the redevelopment of Detroit. The book’s chapters are organized around these “slices”; each stands in for a different cultural narrative that surrounds Detroit. The website is about narratives of exodus. Vergara’s photographs are about narratives of ruin. The Chrysler commercial, narratives of rebirth. Detropia and Deforce, narratives of possibility. And “hunger” is about Detroit’s rise. She analyzes each narrative for how the concept of frontier operates and racial formation happens.

A great strength of Beautiful Wasteland is the way Kinney’s selection and analysis of these everyday exchanges shows the complexity and multi-directional relationships among the past, present, and future of Detroit. The book begins by comparing two magazine cover photographs of the city from The New York Times Magazine in 1990 and Time Magazine in 2009 to capture the shift in the collective imaginary about Detroit and the ways anti-black racism shapes narratives of the city’s decline and recent renaissance. Throughout the book, Kinney is concerned with racial coding in popular culture, particularly how the concomitant return of white people to Detroit and disappearance of black people are represented in comeback narratives. Whereas the 1990 magazine image represents a city “marred by grotesque remains and pathological residents” (p.xv) the latter image dwells on the city’s emptiness and ruin–conjuring a “beautiful wasteland” (p.ix).

The anthropologist Anna Tsing encourages us to see frontiers not as places but as imaginative projects. She argues that the frontier asks “participants to see a landscape that doesn’t exist, at least not yet. It must continually erase old residents’ rights to create its wild and empty spaces where discovering resources, not stealing them, is possible. To do so, too, it must cover up the conditions of its own production” (2005:68). In this sense, then, Beautiful Wasteland does the critical work of uncovering: it uncovers how the market is entangled with cultural narratives that shape the “structures of value” that condition places for death and rebirth.

Kinney’s attention to the “structures of value”, a term she doesn’t explicitly theorize, shapes the way she reads the affective landscape in Detroit and her deft conveyance of the emotional power of cultural narratives. Kinney’s “structures of value” strikes me as akin to Raymond Williams’ (1977) “structure of feeling”, but racism is central for her. Whereas Williams developed the concept of “structure of feeling” to capture how meaning and values are lived and felt in ways that are simultaneously structured and fleeting, inevitably moving forward while always being historically and political informed, Kinney’s concern is with how societal values are structured by the history of racial formation and racism in the United States, how they evolve over time, and how racialized structures of value contribute to determinations about whether places are deemed wastelands or frontiers.

In the 1920s and 30s, Walter Benjamin became fascinated by the decline of the Paris arcades. The arcades were enclosed passageways between buildings that were retrofitted for merchants to sell industrial goods to a rising Parisian consumer class in the 19th century. For Benjamin (1999), the arcades embodied the industrial revolution, capitalism, progress, and modernity. They encouraged a new leisurely form of shopping determined more by desire than need (Friedberg 1993). With the rise of department stores, the arcades fell into disuse; Benjamin was interested in them as objects whose use had outrun the dream of their design.

While vacant windows in downtown Detroit suggest a city that has outrun the dream of its original design, the virtual window–with the multi-racial, watch-clad arms in black power salutes–is noteworthy because it signals the way capital flows are returning to stake a claim to Detroit by exploiting racial difference. The window display occupied 1528 Woodward Avenue, which had recently been acquired by Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and a real estate titan in Detroit. He bought 1528 Woodward and another building on the street that also housed a virtual window display from Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority for only $337,500 each, further solidifying his real estate holdings in downtown. The window illuminates how private investment in Detroit’s urban core, as Kinney argues, hinges on the production of a symbolic economy in which the disappearance of black bodies and the visibility of white (or multiracial) bodies is critical. As Kinney writes: “this shifting demographic profile, and its oft-touted manifestations–cool young urbanites and their DIY businesses–serve as the rationale for why Detroit is a ‘good’ investment” (p.128). Whereas the arcades drew the consumer’s gaze, the window does too; but like the examples Kinney offers, it is about more than getting people to desire the watch as commodity. It’s about desiring Detroit as commodity; it hails the viewer to gaze at the multiracial crowd lifting up a glistening skyline and imagine what Detroit could be.

Such a gaze is overdetermined by how Detroit has become an object of intense national and international fascination in the past decade. A number of scholars have critiqued dominant narratives about the city in terms of discourses of “ruin porn” and the “blank slate” as well as those that celebrate the city’s renaissance (see, for example, Apel 2015; Herron 2007; Leary 2011; Millington 2013; Safransky 2014). However, Kinney’s careful attention to narratives and popular culture as sites of racial formation adds something important to these discussions. She helps us to think critically not only about the images and stories that we see, hear, tell, and share about the city, but also about the ways racism is deployed and redeployed through them helping to give rise to uneven development–racially valued and racially devalued space–in an era of pervasive colorblindness.

As Kinney writes in the introduction, one of her primary motivations for writing Beautiful Wasteland was to dispel myths, which she often hears from her students, that racism is over. She accomplishes this goal and much more. Beautiful Wasteland is a theoretically sophisticated but readily accessible text that would be wonderful to teach in upper level undergraduate or graduate courses on a range of topics including urban studies, popular culture, and critical race studies. It could be paired with a variety of classroom activities that would lead to rich discussions; for example, students could watch the Chrysler commercial, conduct their own analysis it, and then read Kinney’s. But Beautiful Wasteland should not be confined to the university classroom. It will be of great interest to a general readership from Detroit enthusiasts to lay urban historians to those concerned with the state of race, racism, and inequality in America.

Sara Safransky

Department of Human and Organizational Development

Vanderbilt University

[email protected]

Review 4

In 1964 in one of the landmark studies in the emerging field of urban history, the British historian Asa Briggs argued that “every age has its shock city”: places that “the ‘clear-minded’ had to visit if they wished to understand the world” (1964: 56, 55). Briggs’s shock cities were those undergoing rapid growth: Manchester in the 1840s, Chicago in the 1890s, and Los Angeles in the 1930s. In these cities new forms of production, transportation, and culture were radically transforming urban life. Each of these cities called forth commentators, most famously Engels, who attempted to narrate and interpret what they meant for the course of world history.

Today, Detroit is the shock city of decline. Once the fourth largest city in the United States, the undisputed world center of car manufacturing, and, according to the editor of Time, the birthplace of industrialization and the American middle class (p.vii), it is now the central mooring point for our understanding of industrial and urban decline. In Beautiful Wasteland Rebecca Kinney cogently explores why a steady stream of people have traveled to Detroit to describe how this shock city rose and fell and to prescribe how it can rise again.

Beautiful Wasteland is a timely and thoughtful analysis of how many people–former Detroiters, filmmakers, advertisers, developers, photographers, and others–have used Detroit to make sense of the changing world. While it is based largely on close analysis of various texts, from internet posts to advertisements, that represent Detroit’s decline, Kinney keenly moves back and forth between representations of the city and the concrete ways decline and growth take place on the ground. She is not a geographer or historian, but she draws deeply from these fields and in turn makes meaningful contributions to both. Most importantly she shows how discourses of decline in Detroit create new opportunities for neoliberal urbanization and capitalist investment in the city.

Kinney centers her analysis on the role that race plays in producing discourses of decline. She brilliantly shows that many white interpreters narrate Detroit in a way that exculpates themselves, while assigning responsibility for decline to the city’s predominantly black population. This story masks the vast array of institutions and structures that subsidize the advantages of the white middle class, while locating the conditions that create decline within Detroit. To these purportedly race-blind white narrators, the condition of present-day Detroit is indicative of declining responsibility, work ethics, and morality. The resurrection of the city requires newcomers and returnees to resurrect these American ideals by transforming this post-industrial wasteland into a frontier.

In the first chapter of the book Kinney treads into the frightening world of internet commenters–a place few of us dare to go. She carefully unpacks the racially coded nostalgia that “former Detroiters” develop as they visit their old homes in the city and discuss them on online forums. I greatly enjoyed this chapter and I think the conclusions that Kinney reaches about whiteness and nostalgia have application well beyond the internet.

In White Diaspora Catherine Jurca (2001:4) notes that white suburbanites have long held a contradictory understanding of suburbs and whiteness as sites of both “advantage” and “abasement”. Suburbs represent the highest order of living, but are also conformist empty places devoted to mass consumption. Thus white suburbanites, including the “former Detroiters” that Kinney encounters on the internet, simultaneously see their suburban ways of life as superior and long for their old communities.

I have conducted nearly 50 oral histories with white suburbanites and nostalgia is an omnipresent theme, even despite my best efforts to not talk about it. What I have found is nearly everyone believes that life was better in the old neighborhood. People looked after each other, they worked harder, there was a meritocracy, the food was better, kids wore pants that fit, couples got married, etc.

Not just my interviewees have this predilection. Many years ago my grandpa and I visited the West Virginia coal town where he grew up. He began working in the mines as a teenager; it was not an easy life. Yet as we drove around a landscape marked by a personal history of exploitation and deprivation, he longingly described old girlfriends, mines, hunting spots, and gardens long vanished. Like many Appalachians, my grandpa left West Virginia for prosperity in the industrial North. In Akron he lived a long life, owned several homes and lots of Fords, had a wonderful partner, and raised a relatively happy family, but he always longed for West Virginia. This nostalgia was not limited to him either; we went to West Virginia because of my own, somewhat different nostalgia. I wanted to hear stories of strikes and mine disasters and the hard life that he endured there.

Beautiful Wasteland adds greatly to our understanding of why nostalgia is such a central part of how white working and middle class Americans construct their sense of self and the world. There are a few characteristics of this nostalgia that are of special interest to geographers. The first of these is that nostalgia is always rooted in both mythical time and space. The manufacture of nostalgic space-times helps maintain the notion that a better life is and was possible. The second is that this nostalgia obscures the frequent misery of white working and middle class life. Nostalgia separates white Americans’ unpleasant circumstances from those of black and brown people. In turn nostalgia neatly partitions the conditions and people that created times of American greatness from those that are responsible for the present crisis. The third, and I think the most interesting conclusion that Kinney continually raises, is that Detroit is not just a place of individual longing, but of national and even global nostalgia. You do not need to have ever set foot in Detroit to feel nostalgic for its past.

By recounting Detroit’s rise as the shock city of decline and the nostalgia that accompanies it, Kinney exposes some of the broader contours of how we use cities to narrate the course of history and progress. Why are people on both the right and the left (see many recent forays to Dubai) so inclined to make cities the lens through which we come to terms with our place in the world? What understandings of growth and decline do such narratives produce? How do these narrative often help to reproduce and/or mask the very conditions that caused decline in the first place?

I am very interested in these questions in part because I study Pittsburgh–a former industrial city that commentators offer as a contrast to Detroit. In present-day mythology Pittsburgh represents the possibility to remake an industrial city into a booming center of the post-industrial economy. Happy cyclists ply riverside trails, housing developments fill brownfields, robotic cars roam the streets, and neighborhoods bustle with medical researchers, artists, and computer scientists drawn to a city that frees them to unleash their creative energies (see, for example, Thrush 2014). At the height of the financial crisis when journalists headed to Detroit in droves to document the decline of American greatness, they turned to Pittsburgh for a story of hopeful transformation. In 2009, the Obama administration hosted the G20 conference in Pittsburgh: “both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work”(Obama 2009a). On the final day of the conference Obama told a story of Pittsburgh that contrasts markedly with that typically told about Detroit. After “hard times”, he said:

Pittsburgh picked itself up, and dusted itself off, and is making the transition to job-creating industries of the future … It serves as a model for turning the page to a 21st century economy, and a reminder that the key to our future prosperity lies not just in New York or Los Angeles or Washington–but in places like Pittsburgh. (Obama 2009b)

It is striking that two very similar cities have such different stories told about them. Both have experienced steady population decline. Both have entrenched unemployment and poverty. Both are starkly segregated. Both have crumbling infrastructure that endangers public health. Both are important centers of the post-industrial economy, including education, medicine, research, finance, and corporate administration.

The two primary differences between the regions are simple and help explain the contrast in their stories. The first difference is that most manufacturing (and deindustrialization) in the Pittsburgh region took place in the suburbs not the city. If you travel a few miles outside Pittsburgh to Clairton, Duquesne, or Aliquippa you see Detroit-like levels of disinvestment and abandonment, but these industrial suburbs are not where narrators go to tell the story of urban renaissance or decline. The second and probably more important difference is that Detroit is a majority black city and Pittsburgh is a majority white city. As a result Pittsburgh never experienced the same levels of disinvestment. Pittsburgh’s leaders have always been dutifully loyal to investors and the region’s elite. The discourse of Detroit’s ruin that Kinney carefully unpacks is part of a longer project of sabotaging black political power in the city. In this regard the narrative of Detroit’s decline is exceptional, rather than “parallel” to the standard accounts of industrial cities (p.xxv).

To return to my earlier question: what are the characteristics of narratives of urban decline? One is that they tend to render cities as homogenous and static things. Decline is occurring in the city, a concrete place with defined boundaries. As thingification tends to do, this focuses attention on the thing itself rather than the processes that produce it. As Kinney explains we look at Detroit and see prairies and abandoned houses, not the flight of capital from the city, institutional racism, or speculative investment that fosters and maintains high levels of vacancy (see Akers 2013). Focusing on the thing itself masks the uneven development that links the city to the region and the world.

Narratives of decline also allow the lessons of one city to apply to all. What is true of Detroit and Pittsburgh is also true of Evansville, Lowell, and every other industrial city. This prevents us from thinking through a key difference between massive industrial cities, such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, and smaller industrial towns. The decline that occurs in regions near the top of the urban hierarchy is often cannibalistic as local investors move assets from one place or activity to another. In these regions, decline is simply the other side of growth. This is markedly different than the many small industrial towns that dot the Rustbelt. These were never places where economic power was concentrated and it is here, as we were reminded in November 2016, that narratives of decline have been most politically potent.

Narratives of urban growth and decline emerge, as Briggs argued, in times of rupture. One of the key characters in 19th century literary depictions of industrial cities was the person who moves to the city to make it big. We see these hard strivers most notably in Horatio Alger, but also in the work of Dickens, Howells, and Dreiser. It is usually impossible to disentangle the lives of these characters from the cities where they live. The same character re-emerges in the early 1980s, the height of deindustrialization, in the form of Rocky or Alex, the protagonist in Flashdance. In both the 1880s and the 1980s, the city was the stage for aspirational individual narratives that construct human beings as free liberal subjects whose choices ultimately determine their destiny. The production of these subjects and the city exist in tandem. Today is no different and it is telling that Kinney’s book ends with Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and his attempt to restore Detroit to greatness. As Kinney notes, Gilbert and Michigan leaders are concerned with attracting “New Detroiters” to the city (p.129). This is a fitting end to the book. Having shown how narratives of decline render a still very populated Detroit empty and mask the conditions that produced its abandonment, we finally meet Detroit’s savior: a figure that represents the exact forces that decimated it in the first place.


Patrick Vitale

Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Geography

Eastern Connecticut State University

[email protected]

Author’s reply

Thank you to Joshua Akers for organizing an “Author Meets Critics” session for Beautiful Wasteland at the 2017 AAG. I am grateful to Josh, along with Katherine Hankins, Jessa Loomis, Sara Safransky, and Patrick Vitale for offering such rich and generative critique at the AAG and in their written comments. I am thankful to Antipode for publishing these five reviews and providing me space to respond.

My response is structured around three primary themes that the critiques collectively raised: 1) the role of cultural representations in the production of space and, in particular, the ways in which these representations are framed in ethnic studies and cultural geography; 2) the presumed absence of what my readers term “actual”, “everyday”, or “street” Detroiters, and what is revealed by their desires for the presence of the preceding; and 3) the presumed absence of resistance in my book and what is revealed by my readers’ desires for resistance.

Beautiful Wasteland is an interdisciplinary project of ethnic studies, urban studies, and cultural geography that locates culture as a site to understand how an enduring investment in racialized space created and continues the national myth of rise, decline, and rise. Safransky situates the book at the intersections of these fields and how this location illuminates its focus “on how racial formation takes place within the symbolic economy”. Loomis also sees the interdisciplinary work at hand when she writes: “In excavating the racialized logics and narratives that underpin the rise, decline, and rise again of Detroit, Kinney’s book makes an important step in suturing the whitewashed history of Detroit to the practices, policies, and people that are so often absent from official and vernacular narratives of the city”. Vitale notes that “[Kinney] is not a geographer or a historian, but she draws deeply from both fields”. The value Vitale finds in this is that Beautiful Wasteland counters “thingification”, disallowing one to “look at Detroit and see prairies and abandoned houses, not the flight of capital from the city, institutional racism, or speculative investment”, which recalls Laura Pulido’s assertion that “abandonment is not produced solely by capital flight, but depends upon culture and ideology” (2016: 8).

Yet, as a study rooted in ethnic studies, the primary ambition of Beautiful Wasteland is to show how institutional racism remains invisible, and most often to and for those who stand to benefit from it. Rather than “a place-based study” as Hankins situates it, or a Detroit project about race, Beautiful Wasteland is a book about race with Detroit as its case study. As I will discuss below, the central work of the book is to analyze how white privilege and systemic racism are operationalized in the cultural narratives we tell. Although Beautiful Wasteland is part of what Safransky calls “the growing field of ‘Detroit Studies’”, I urge readers to see its primary work as an exploration of the production and reproduction of “the white spatial imaginary” through cultural narratives of place, an exploration that reveals the ways in which “racism takes place” through interconnections between discursive and material productions of place (Lipsitz 2011).

As the readers of Antipode are undoubtedly aware, the disciplinary relationships of geography to ethnic studies and ethnic studies to geography are, as Pulido once suggested, relationships in which we “are largely talking past one another” (2002: 44). In the 15 years since Pulido voiced this concern, there is much work that suggests the disciplines have become more in tune, as Loomis and Safranksy point to, through the theoretical framework of “racial capitalism”. Although I don’t explicitly engage Cedric Robinson’s framing, Loomis and Safransky both read Beautiful Wasteland alongside Robinson’s idea that as “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racist directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism” (2000: 2). However, as this idea is being widely embraced across the disciplines, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017) cautions that “‘racial capitalism’ can be misunderstood as about what happens when capitalism encounters Black people”; similarly, Laura Pulido warns that “conceptualizing racism as a material/discursive formation that produces differential human value and is embedded in the global landscape, is quite distinct from conceptualizing it as additive” (2016: 7). Rooted in the Black Radical Tradition, “racial capitalism” reveals the logics of systemic racism as an organizing principle of capitalism and colonization (Da Silva 2001; Kelley 2017; Robinson 2002). Beautiful Wasteland engages Jodi Melamed’s (2011) framing of “new racial capitalism” which is key to showing the ways in which official anti-racisms have been adopted into the project of racial capitalism in the post-WWII liberal world order. This frame is important as the case studies of the book show how, through culture, the persistence of institutional, cultural, and systemic racism operates, even in the period after racism is officially “over”.

By analyzing an internet web board alongside the existing historical data about race-based exclusion to home ownership, my point was not to show that certain users are incorrect in their nostalgia, but rather how the invisibility of “whiteness as property” persists both in law and cultural narratives (Harris 1993). Geographers and ethnic studies scholars alike would agree that space is produced materially, in cultural representation, and in practice, its representations and productions should be understood as conjoined (Lefebvre 1991). Yet, as Sherene Razack cautioned, there is risk in doing interdisciplinary work as it necessarily means “a partial and incomplete access to each discipline” (2002: 7). However, since race and place are material and discursive co-productions (Voyles 2015) and racial projects “come into being and are sustained through a wide number of practices” their study demands interdisciplinary inquiry (Razack 2002: 7).

In Beautiful Wasteland I suggest that culture is a place to locate contradictions that arise in both the production of space as well as in the most prominent critique my critics here wage. Akers writes that Beautiful Wasteland, as “a work of cultural studies, […] is an analysis that primarily dwells on the representation of space rather than its production”. By situating the book as such, however, Akers misses my larger point that culture and cultural representations of space are central to the discursive and material production of space. I see this as a moment that demonstrates geography’s sometimes overdetermined emphasis on the materiality of place. Or, as Katherine McKittrick states, “[g]eography’s discursive attachment to stasis and physicality, the idea that space ‘just is’, and that space and place are merely containers for human complexities and social relations, is terribly seductive” (2006: xi). Razack further explains the hazard of an overly material focus as it suggests that “the attraction to the concrete is also bound up with the hope that we can pin down something about racialization processes that are directly experienced as spatial” (2002: 5-6). Drawing from McKittrick and Razack I suggest the seduction or attraction of the materiality of space enables the idea of a spatial, rather than systemic fix to racism. A geographic desire for emplacement incorrectly fixes the complexity of the discursive production of space. Therefore, to suggest that dwelling on the representation of space is not part of the production of space is to miss the fundamental work of the book: that the representation of space is central to its production.

But this is a critique that Akers is not alone in waging. Akers, Hankins, and to a lesser extent Loomis seem to be looking for more than “cultural studies”. Indeed, perhaps this is one of the disciplinary differences enacted in these reviews: that the importance of “culture” in the production of material place is not adequately addressed in Beautiful Wasteland. Hankins asks: “What, exactly, is a productive representation of Detroit? What could satisfy Kinney’s desire to see the complexity of race and class and place depicted in popular media?” Such questions miss the point of my critique, which is to suggest that all cultural representations are both productive for what they reveal and challenge about cultural narratives and inadequate to changing systemic inequities. The cultural productions I engage in the book are important because of their banality and ubiquity. The point is that these slices of everyday life and conversation are precisely the non-exceptional ways in which narratives of institutional racism are carried forth as “just is” and solidify as dominant narratives. My point is not to suggest that a two-minute commercial is an archetypal example of Detroit or that its depiction is “right” or “wrong”; rather my analysis of this and other cultural narratives illustrate Helen Heran Jun’s suggestion that “irrespective of intention and impulse, every text can be read for the inevitable contradictions it attempts to manage or reconcile” (2011: 5). These stories are created by people–anonymous web posters, photographers, advertising copywriters, filmmakers, journalists, and many others. These are the narratives the continually circulate in our everyday lives. Although the national narrative suggests that the law is the ultimate arbiter of inclusion, as Lisa Lowe reminds us, “culture powerfully shapes who the citizenry is, where they dwell, what they remember, and what they forget” (1996: 2). Therefore culture opens up a place to see what cannot be accounted for in the spaces of law, to show for example how exclusion continues even when it is no longer legal to discriminate in housing.

I now turn to the presumed absence and expectations of representations of what are termed by my readers as “actual”, “everyday”, or “street” Detroiters, and what is revealed by their desires for the presence of the preceding. Akers writes: “The minimal number of Detroiters, or actual Detroit residents, is the most striking.” Hankins asks: “What could reasonably be expected of everyday Detroiters to understand their own role in institutionalized racism and racialized capitalism?”; and continues: “what are the reasonable expectations of the political subjectivity of street Detroiters?” First, I remind readers that “actual” Detroiters do appear in each and every chapter of the book. I suggest this misremembering reflects expectations about who counts and does not count as “Detroiters”, “actual Detroit residents”, “everyday Detroiters”, or “street Detroiters”. When my readers claim that these categories of people are minimally represented in Beautiful Wasteland, I want to know specifically who and what these imagined subjects are. Indeed, while Detroiters like Eminem, Dan Gilbert, Mike Ilitch, and Charlie LeDuff do not count as “everyday Detroiters” to Akers and Hankins, they are all Detroiters and/or metro Detroiters and appear in the chapters of the book.[2] Moreover, the people who participate in the web board, or in the documentary films, or in the Chrysler commercial, or in Vergara’s images and narrative are also Detroiters. Part of the work of the book is to show how the narrative power structure of the city unfolds through the stories by and of these Detroiters, both the exceptional and the everyday. Akers suggests Beautiful Wasteland falls into the trap of seeing the city and suburbs as two distinctly separate regions, even as I actually seek to disrupt this binary, showing in particular the porousness of the metro region for those with mobility and whiteness. Here, too, I suggest that there is also a false binary in the suggestion that an archetypal “everyday” Detroiter exists. Perhaps the desire for “actual”, “everyday”, or “street” Detroiters on the part of some readers of Beautiful Wasteland mediates a desire for Black Detroiters, and/or poor Detroiters, and/or activist Detroiters. If this is true, then this desire is one that the book interrogates insofar as it argues that the dominant and widely disseminated narratives of the city are narratives about the possessive investment in the invisibility of whiteness and institutional racism in Detroit, both by outsiders and Detroiters who most benefit from the legacy of systemic racism.

More specifically, I would ask Hankins to articulate what she is signaling by the idea of “street Detroiters”: is this a variation of “everyday Detroiters”? In both cases, I want Akers and Hankins to more clearly render the subject they are producing/referring to. If, as I have suggested, this subject is the non-elite, black or brown, working-class, poor, or activist Detroiter, I would push back that no Detroiter is accountable to me or anyone else’s expectation of political subjectivity. Although I agree with Hankins that it takes some of our students “a semester or more of intensive reading […] to begin to comprehend the structural forces of institutionalized racism and its imbrication with capitalism”, the incredulity with which she lobs the question “What could reasonably be expected of everyday Detroiters to understand their own role in institutionalized racism and racialized capitalism?” is patronizing at best. Even as some (but not all) “actual”, “everyday”, or “street” people don’t use academic jargon, countless work by our colleagues proves again and again that marginalized people not only articulate the systems of their oppression (Escobar 2016; Eubanks 2011; Smith 1999) and in Detroit specifically (Boggs and Boggs 1974; Boggs with Kurashige 2011; Montgomery 2016; Quizar 2014; Safransky 2014; Ward 2016; We the People of Detroit 2016), but also have rehearsed this articulation again and again across all registers of knowledge–in homes, schools, shop floors, union halls, social organizations, planning meetings, community centers, all levels of government, and to academics for purposes of their scholarly research. Indeed one of the most internationally respected black radical philosophers of the 20th century, James Boggs, was himself what Hankins might be pointing to as a “street Detroiter”: a black, southern, working-class, high school graduate, who migrated north riding the rails in the 1930s (Ward 2016: 307-310, 25-27). While Boggs was an exceptional individual, it is clear from the work he engaged in and the legacy of five decades of theoretically rich writing and place-based activism that he and Grace Lee Boggs created in Detroit with other “street” Detroiters and intellectuals alike that everyday people can and do articulate their political subjectivities.

A number of the reviews also mention my own autobiographical relationship to Detroit. In the introduction to Beautiful Wasteland I purposefully claim my legacy as a “metro Detroiter” (n.b. not a “native” Detroiter as Hankins misquotes). I claim this identity not because this gives me expert status, but because of the very real fact that I, a working-class Asian American woman, grew up as an adoptee in a white working-class family that very much benefited from its whiteness as a form of property (Harris 1993). Although my individual experience is not typical, my family’s experience forms a variation of the widely experienced subsidization and mobility of whiteness. For me, the term “metro Detroiter” purposefully highlights the material benefits of whiteness through access to federally-backed racially-exclusionary suburbanization. Akers suggests that the claiming of a “right to the city” or the “legacy of belonging” by those who reside outside of the city is a disingenuous claim to the land, even as he simultaneously critiques the urban/metro binary. This suggestion misses my point that white metro Detroiters (and the media and culture industries that market to these same consumers) have had an outsized role in shaping the narrative of Detroit as “not about race” precisely when race means whiteness. In this way, Hankins’ and Akers’ insistence that the book omits and/or desires too much from “real” Detroiters is a symptom of this pattern of the invisibility of whiteness.

This invisibility of mobility of white Detroiters, as both settlers of racially-exclusionary suburban and urban space in both cultural and material discourse links as well to the final critique I address here, the presumed absence of resistance in my book and what my readers’ desires for resistance reveals. Hankins asks: “Are there activist groups or ‘right to the city’ campaigns in Detroit?” that would yield “the moments of resistance or counternarratives or even everydayness […] that might offer yet a different, more socially just or hopeful version of Detroit.” Loomis suggests that, “in relying so heavily on cultural analysis, the book functions mainly as an explication of Detroit’s myriad representations rather than offering a roadmap for interrupting these processes, in Detroit or elsewhere”. Indeed, there are, as Loomis points out, organizations and groups and critical geographic practices at play that clearly highlight this work, and as I mentioned above, “everyday street Detroiters” are producing their subjectivities in vivid, collective, and politically productive forms. However, Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us that activism and research “exist as different activities, undertaken by different kinds of people employing different tools for different kinds of ends” (1999: 217). And although there are examples of successful models of activism and research co-locating, this is not the purpose of Beautiful Wasteland. The call for the inclusion of examples of resistance or activism in a book about the conditions that necessitate these actions primarily serves the purpose of ameliorating the discomfort that the narration of this condition solicits. For me, to represent the work of resistance, given the frame of the book would have appeared tokenistic, mere mollification, or what Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) situate as a “settler move to innocence”. Indeed, Tuck and Yang remind us that anti-racist or social justice oriented logic often calls for the redistribution of land to people of color, which suggests that equity comes through equality in the investment and benefits of settler colonialism. And, this is where a possibility for more robust engagement in Indigenous Studies emerges in my work and in the work of geography.

Loomis and Akers both suggest that the frontier is not robustly theorized enough for a geography audience. I agree that there is much more space for the frontier to be theorized; even as I critique the discursive rhetoric of the frontier and its operationalization, I do so without engagement to the work of Indigenous Studies. As Andrea Riley Mukavetz suggests, American Indian Studies “provide research models that do not end with deconstruction. In fact, these research models privilege a language of critique that reconstructs or makes and creates space for present and future generations of knowledge makers” (2014: 110). So rather than a “roadmap” as Loomis suggests, or a deeper explication of the mapping of the city and its suburbs as Akers suggests, perhaps we should heed the call of Razack for an “unmapping” which “is intended to undermine the idea of white settler innocence and to uncover the ideologies and practices of conquest and domination” (2002: 5). It is through an interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological approach that we might together begin to unmap the city and our disciplines.

Beautiful Wasteland unpacks how racism operates, and the insidiousness of the rhetoric that “this is not about race” even as there are countless counter narratives in the historical and cultural record. In the work here, I am looking at the ways culture operationalizes the narratives of settlement. That the imaginary of Detroit results in the idea that Detroit is up for grabs. While geography is the discipline where spatiality comes into focus most clearly, making visible how social relations are materialized, Beautiful Wasteland opens up a space to see how race and place are co-produced discursively and materially. I am thankful for the engagement and constructive criticism with which my critics approached Beautiful Wasteland. Even more, I am gratified that Beautiful Wasteland opens up many possible avenues of further inquiry; that it may serve as a location to think and question and analyze how white privilege and systemic racism are operationalized in the cultural narratives we tell about place.

Rebecca J. Kinney

School of Cultural and Critical Studies

Bowling Green State University

[email protected]


[1] Kinney borrows the term “symbolic economy” from Sharon Zukin to describe “the intertwining of cultural symbols and entrepreneurial capital” (1995:3, quoted on p.127).

[2] The idea of “metro Detroiter” links to the idea of the metropolitan region, outside the city of Detroit. When I was growing up, metro Detroit was used to reference the primarily white and more affluent Detroit suburbs, drawing a distinction between Detroit city and the Detroit metropolitan region. In a local context this distinction codes for suburban/city location. The murky designation of what the metropolitan region is has different “official” meanings, but is primarily used to refer to the three-counties–Wayne, Oakland, Macomb–that includes the suburban communities within about a 35 mile radius to the city of Detroit. Detroit is part of Wayne County, Michigan.


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