by Alex Wilf
In the past months, I have attended two mini-lectures about the quality of life in Detroit, put on by the “Lunch with Honors” program here at the University of Michigan. Though the lectures focused on different aspects of living in the city, they each caused me to stop and reflect on whether citizens of Detroit are really receiving the benefits of the American promise we all tout. “Work hard, move up” is often said to be our country’s motto, but I’ve been learning more about how the cards seem to be stacked against the citizens of Detroit, and I find it difficult to see that the equality of opportunity we espouse is being provided, at least in this city.
The first lecture I attended was with Abdul El-Sayed, an alumnus of the university, and the executive director of public health for the city of Detroit.
El-Sayed showed a map of the city, dotted with red points that ceased at a horizontal parallel about two thirds of the way up the map. After unsuccessfully attempting to elicit a correct guess from the audience, El-Sayed explained that the map represented the density of “Mom and Pop” convenience stores, which mainly sell unhealthy packaged foods, and that the line was 8 mile road, above which were wealthier neighborhoods.
Only 40% of Detroit residents have cars, he said, and since the city is so spread out (its area is greater than that of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined), it is cost ineffective for large grocery stores to locate in Detroit. “It was a city built on cars” he said, and that the wealthy and politically influential automotive industry had effectively crippled any chances the city could have had at an efficient public transportation network.
The effects of this influence have been disastrous. El-Sayed showed graphs, pie charts, and data sets, comparing the rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition related illnesses between the residents on either side of 8 mile road, and the difference was shocking.
When El-Sayed finished his lecture, I was left with the sound impression that people in Detroit do not have the same access to quality nutrition that I grew up with, and that unsettled me. Already thinking about these issues, I went to a second lecture, featuring Lyell Dungy, former sergeant in the Detroit police force, and Elizabeth Tarnak, another alumnus specializing in using data to prevent crimes.
Dungy and Tarnak spoke about targeting trends in behavior on social media to aid in predictive policing. In their talk, they brought up many examples of the gang violence plaguing the city’s youth, and showed examples of their triumphs in bringing offenders to justice. Though their intentions were noble, and their work may in fact be necessary, it left me with the feeling that the people of Detroit, especially the youth, were being closed in on from all sides—from gangs attempting to enlist them, to police attempting to catch them, to their health slowly eating away at them in numbers.
I don’t have an idea of how to tackle these issues yet, but I can say with certainty that the kind of freedom and equality I grew up believing in is not the same as the one people growing up have, only a few dozen miles from where I enjoy a world-class higher education. There is a problem here. If one group’s freedom is abridged, that threatens the stability of our whole system of government. As El-Sayed said, “Detroit is the canary in the coalmine.” Freedom implies equality. It is the founding principle of our nation, and it is not being fulfilled, in at least one place.