On History’s Inability to Dictate Our Future

“History doesn’t repeat itself – at best, it sometimes rhymes.” – Mark Twain

The more I dive into this project and the more I begin to think about its far-reaching implications, the more I am both humbled and hardened by an ever-present fact: the Detroit diaspora is growing. As we filter through graduation season 2011, the numbers of high school and college graduates leaving the state continues to climb. But 18-to-20-somethings aren’t the only ones who are contributing to the increase.

During one of Borders’ recent store-closing fire sales, I picked up a copy of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock: a 1970 sociological text written to discuss how the increased rate of change in our world affects every level of our individual psychology. In short, it’s about how we cope with too much change in too short a period of time. Though over 40 years old, I was attracted to the book because given the rapid rate of change today – especially in technology – I was convinced that many of the major premises could and would still hold true today.

And when I got to a section entitled “The Homing Instinct,” history abruptly began to rhyme.

In Chapter 5, “Places: The New Nomads,” Toffler discusses how in today’s (i.e., the late 1960s) society places have become largely transient and interchangeable. We commute to school and work; we travel farther and at higher rates than ever before; and we relocate when job or opportunity dictates without much hesitation. In turn, for the most part, our ties and fidelity to places have been broken. While Toffler goes on to look at the toll this phenomenon takes on the humans involved (that is, how we lose our roots, or worse, we refuse to put any down wherever we may be – in effect becoming home-less), there is something to be said about the damning effect this increased mobility has on the cities involved. As people become increasingly mobile, cities are left to deal with the limited civic participation of its residents. In Toffler’s 1970 words:  “The movers boost a tax rate – but avoid paying the piper because they are no longer there. They help defeat a school bond issue – and leave the children of others to suffer the consequences.” Where have we seen this?

For decades, Detroit has been the proverbial child caught in the middle of an ugly divorce between its residents and its diasporans (this includes those who have moved to the city’s immediate suburbs). Hardly a fiscal quarter goes by without stories of city residents having to undo the political and social “mess” created by having to live with the decisions of voters (and politicians) no longer directly affiliated with the city. Whereas in more prosperous times people were willing to fight back against these external forces and ensure their voice be heard, what we now see is the pallor of disenchantment taking over. Once proud and steadfast in standing their ground, longtime city residents are becoming much quicker to abandon ship than ever before (the age-old “they did it, so why can’t I?” argument). The time afforded to the city to update, upgrade, and change is lessening; its residents are giving Detroit a much, much shorter leash to get its act together. We’re not just losing graduates. We’re losing everyone.

But that’s where we come in.

We see the fallacy in the prevailing circular logic that says “the city is dying because people are leaving because the city is dying.” We’re aware that, as fitting as they may be to describe 2011 Detroit, Alvin Toffler’s viewpoint can be flipped on its head and serve as a springboard for deeper investment in our city. We recognize that it is patently unfair to lose patience with the processes put in place to save what we have left. We know that it is never too late to reverse the thoughts, feelings, and actions people take toward Detroit. While everyone who has left has a story to tell, we have chosen to tell our stories to each other in hopes of coming together over commonalities and galvanizing one another to act. For every person who’s said that they would come back to Detroit once things were “better,” we are here to help hold them to their word. In fact, we are here to go one step further and call them to be a part of the upswing instead of simply waiting for things to plateau. We are choosing to enable accountability instead of be bound by the results.

We are not doomed to repeat history. We are not slaves to “historical implications” nor are we tied down by what we believe the past dictates. We are not simply defined by that which has already happened. Rather, “We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” As we bring those who have given up – tacitly or explicitly – back into the fold, we come closer to seeing our dreams become reality. One person who tells another becomes two people, poised to act. Seeds planted casually begin to grow collectively. Forward momentum produces results.

It’s time to get excited.

Stay active and encouraged,


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