Reclaiming the City: Neoliberalism, Urban Renewal and Policing in Detroit, 1967-1977


On January 14, 1973, then Mayor of Detroit Roman Gribbs, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Renaissance Center, a series of interconnected skyscrapers on the riverfront of Detroit, remarked that the project represented the “beginning of a vast revitalization of our riverfront which will stretch from bridge to bridge (from Belle Isle to the east to the Bridge to Canada to the west).” Financed by the Ford Motor Company, the Renaissance Center was the largest privately funded construction project in history to that point, and the urban neoliberal impulses the project embodied generated similarly giddy responses amongst the region’s business elite. Developers were eager to invest in Detroit’s downtown at a discount, and notable investors like Max Fisher, Robert Surdam, and Henry Ford II, poured millions of dollars into the inner city.  A sense of revanchism boosted this jump on the vacuum of disinvestment and disarray left behind in postindustrial Detroit, and an idea to make the city anew with investments through private-public partnerships that emphasized massive downtown buildings as a form of revitalization. These men, their companies, and city officials consciously mapped out a different Detroit; a city not made for the hundreds of thousands of largely Black working-class residents, but for white collar professionals.

Armed with a rifle, picture of STRESS officer

As the private sector embarked on its plan for downtown redevelopment, the city instituted a series of police reforms that would turn the Detroit Police Department (DPD) into the most violent police force in the nation. By the early 1970s, for example, Detroit notoriously had the highest number of civilian killings by police per capita. The most infamous of these initiatives was Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS). STRESS utilized reviving law enforcement tactics such as foot patrol, constant surveillance, and decoy squads. This new method of policing was replicated in city after city across the country. By 1973 STRESS was responsible for 6,000 arrests, 24 murders, and nearly 5 years of hyper-intensified policing of the Black community. The creation of STRESS was the outgrowth of a more muscular and militaristic approach to urban policing that began in 1965 following the Watts Rebellion. President Lyndon Johnson responded to what was then the largest urban uprising of the decade by investing millions of federal dollars as well as military equipment into urban police departments. “Criminology” and “criminal justice” experts began gaining legitimacy during this era, and the technocratic practitioners of these fields gave rise to new ideas, theories, and tactics that permeated discussions and policies designed to reduce the ever-increasing crime rates and to establish “law and order.” These new methods of policing were directly aimed towards policing the inner city and corresponded with the latest effort to “revitalize” Detroit’s downtown. same time urban renewal begun in downtown Detroit. White collar suburbanites refused to work in areas that had high crime rates as well as a black majority. To entice white professionals to work in Detroit, the city utilized intensive policing to “reclaim” the city, sanitizing it for suburbanites and pushing black and poor working-class whites further into the margins. Using earlier policing and STRESS as a case study, this paper argues that intense policing tactics were directly linked to urban renewal in the 1970s and sought to reshape downtown Detroit to “make the city safe” for white collar workers and investment. This paper also tries to understand and emphasize the black community’s response to STRESS. The black community consciously understood that this was one of many efforts to stymy the shift of Detroit’s racial geography. Under the leadership of Marxist lawyer and Wayne State University Law School graduate, Kenneth Cockrel, a grassroots movement of Black activists established a powerful anti-STRESS campaign that attacked the racism of both the DPD as well as business elites designs to facilitate racial and spatial segregation via privatized urban renewal.