Settler Colonial Urbanism: From Waawiyaataanong to Detroit at Little Caesars Arena
In the summer of 2017, the first section of a planned fifty-block development near downtown Detroit opened for business. Entitled “The District,” this development is intended to culminate in a vast complex of buildings rivaling the size of downtown Detroit itself. The District is the largest outcome to date of the destruction of the historic Cass Corridor neighborhood and its incorporation into “Midtown.” A real estate branding term circulating as a place name, “Midtown” is a spatial product qua urban neighborhood for the creative class professionals that the corporate interests, philanthro-capitalist foundations, and municipal officials leading Detroit’s planning see as vital to the city’s renewal.
The District’s first completed piece was Little Caesars Arena, a new stadium for Detroit’s professional hockey and basketball teams. The Ilitch family, the developers of The District, acquired its initial wealth through Little Caesar Enterprises, now the third-largest pizza franchise in the United States; in an act of conjoined corporate synergy and product placement, Little Caesars purchased the naming rights to the arena that the Ilitches created as real-estate developers. Little Caesars Arena includes the 1701 Pub, named for the year when French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established a trading post and fort at the place where the city of Detroit would subsequently develop. A map and plaque outside the pub describe, in word and image, how “the city of Detroit was founded in 1701 by European settlers and quickly became one of the industrial powerhouses of North America” (figure 1).
With its name, plaque, and map, the 1701 Pub explicitly refers to the violent colonization of Indigenous space—Waawiyaataanong in the Anishinaabemowin language spoken by many of the Three Fires people who traversed, inhabited, and sustained that space. In so doing, the pub implicitly connects the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous people by European and American settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the dispossession and displacement of Cass Corridor’s multi-racial working-class communities by real estate developers in the twenty-first century. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Cass Corridor was also the “Red Ghetto,” the site of the most well-known Native American community in Detroit. Not only is the Cass Corridor the site of multiple dispossessions of marginalized people, then, but it is also the site of repeated dispossessions of Indigenous peoples. At the 1701 Pub, then, Detroit’s present is enmeshed in the city’s colonial past in ways both avowed and disavowed.
In the last twenty years, the concept of “settler colonialism” has emerged as a name for a distinctive form of colonialism that develops in places where settlers permanently reside and assert sovereignty. The relationship between settler colonialism and capitalist urbanism that the 1701 Pub foregrounds has been centered in contemporary urban activism. Prompted by the violence that occurs in the course of what is typically euphemized as “gentrification,” right to the city, Indigenous, and Black liberation activists have vigorously framed contemporary urban displacement in the context of ongoing settler colonialism.
Scholars in urban studies, however, have been more circumspect in their attempts to understand if and how settler colonialism persists in contemporary urban contexts. In urban studies to date, more attention has been placed on differentiating the settler colonial city from cities of extractive or exploitive colonialism than on analyzing the former in the context of contemporary urbanism. And yet, as contemporary urban activism suggests, the concept of settler colonialism might offer ways to rethink not only the history of cities in settler colonial societies like the United States, but also the ongoing urban present of those cities. How does settler colonialism live on in U.S. cities? How might the processes and effects that are usually described as aspects of “gentrification” be better understood as aspects of ongoing settler colonialism? If, as Patrick Wolfe has famously claimed in “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event, what are the urban dimensions of that structure? The 1701 Pub in Little Caesars Arena could offer one way into an exploration of these and related questions.
In contemporary Detroit, where frenzied redevelopment is at once creating and extracting value from a new urban present, working-class Black communities and other communities of color no longer supply the reserve labor that once was necessary for the city’s now-departed industries to productively function. Instead, in a post-industrial city shifting towards a service-based economy, those communities are economically salient because they occupy land that can be profitably redeveloped. They are now displaced by real estate development rather than exploited by industrial labor. As such, communities of color in places like Detroit’s Cass Corridor occupy the position of Indigenous peoples in earlier stages of U.S. settler colonialism—the position of people to be removed so that the land they inhabit can be seized—and therefore become subject to logics and practices that emerged and developed in those stages. At the same time, because they are subject to these logics and practices, these communities are also leading the way towards imagining, designing, and producing different urban futures and a truly equitable city.
Scholars of the city might follow activists resisting ongoing settler colonialism by drawing out the relationship between settler colonialism on the historical “frontier” and real estate development in “frontier” conditions like those produced by disinvestment, austerity urbanism, and white supremacy in Detroit. If decolonization is to resist recuperation as a mere metaphor, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have compellingly insisted in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” then settler colonial urbanism might offer itself as a phenomenon of far more than merely historical interest.
Author’s note: a longer version of this text will appear in Between Catastrophe and Revolution: Essays in Honor of Mike Davis, ed. Daniel Bertrand Monk and Michael Sorkin.