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Oct. 28, 2015

Carl Taylor: Living in the Third City-Nation

Oct. 28, 2015

Carl Taylor is a professor in the Department of Sociology, senior fellow in University Outreach and Engagement and an affiliate of the Global Urban Studies Program. Taylor has extensive experience in field research aimed at the reduction of violence involving American youth.

My field studies of urban America have been anchored in my birthplace, Detroit, Michigan. I am fortunate to have been part of research that is both transitional and transformational. Postindustrial Michigan includes Detroit and the great contributions that Southeastern Michigan has made over the last century. As an urban ethnographer, I have used meta-analysis to observe and participate in this social phenomenon. Michigan has experienced the transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial one that produced massive employment and created a powerful working middle class.

Today, my observation has become bifocal as Detroit reconstructs itself. The social structures as the city rebuilds reveal an improved means of living, working, and growing – a new Detroit, so to speak. Yet the old maze of neighborhoods outside of the city center is under a painful transformation that is the antithesis of the renovated downtown region. My work today consists of understanding the new age of technology and the information industry. How will all the people accustomed to non-skilled labor jobs evolve and ready themselves to partake in this sector? The necessary skill sets to compete in the job market demand a solid education and training that my exploration over the past decades has found lacking. The Third City-Nation is about survival, habilitation, and adaption to live through this challenge of a new day.

My investigation over the past four decades has observed and participated in the decaying ruins of what was once prosperous – in the sense of both people and places. This is where we measure the decline that manifested itself in Detroit during the insurrection of July 23, 1967. I have studied the aftermath of postindustrial Michigan. It is not simply the one dimension of destroyed communities in Detroit. Previously, people in Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw, along with other Michigan cities, found employment within the non-skilled pools of the almighty automobile manufacturing commerce. The arrival of competition, namely from Asia, unsettled the invincible “Big Three” automakers. The once powerful labor unions rooted in Michigan history began to come up against difficulties when Japanese companies started opening factories on U.S. shores, specifically in states with right-to-work laws. Their presence threatened to end the progress made over decades for the average worker within the auto industry.

The fallout and changes hit Detroit hard. A city of close to two million residents in 1951 has lost over one million people and become the poorest big city in the Union. Therein lies my analysis, which I have called the Third City-Nation. It is where the government, public education and employment have disconnected. It represents the place where an anomic breakdown of the traditional lifestyle and the oft-promised American Dream that many immigrants and migrants from the Jim Crow South chased. The infusion of the underground socioeconomics and underworld lure creates a world unknown to most.

My research team observes that children not in school, blocks that have no streetlights, and disconnection from the mainstream society contribute to the trials and tribulations of urban America that go unseen by the more prosperous world. Poor or no public services, lackluster public education, and faith-based institutions have retreated. The Third City-Nation is where I find people who are part of the working-poor struggling to survive on a daily basis. Abandoned stores, homes, and apartment buildings filled by squatters constitute part of this existence – no jobs and hopelessness are not part of the new Detroit, but they thrive outside of it. The normalization of ignorance and violence in these areas is rooted in an unspoken truth about Michigan – prison costs hold the number one slot in the state fiscal budget. This aspect of social science intersections gives way to an abandoned humanity including towards domestic animals. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets like something from the Lord of The Rings. The old Detroit is finding Mother Nature returning, with weeds breaking through the unkempt concrete sidewalks. These formerly strong neighborhoods have become nearly deserted, leaving only small bands of diehard citizens trying to still live their lives in the city as if it were 1965.

There is much to study in this once great city that is successfully reconstructing itself for the new era. My life’s work reminds me that my scholarship includes a comprehensive survey of urban America. I study what crime does and how that impacts our communities, nation and world. The understanding of poverty and human capital is just as important as other dynamics of reconstruction in our urban communities.

Photo by Derrick L. Turner