THINKING FOR OURSELVES
A New Beginning
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Jan 17, 2010
The new Detroit Mayor and City Council got down to work this week. At the ceremonial inauguration at the Fox Theater, Mayor Dave Bing pledged, “We will no longer be defined by the failures, divisiveness and self-serving actions of the past.” Incoming Council President Charles Pugh brought down the house with his comment: “On behalf of all my colleagues, let me boldly say all the madness of the past ends today.”
In spite of all the problems facing our city, the desire for effective, adult, ethical government is palpable. After years of dysfunction and disappointment, Detroiters are looking forward to a new beginning. Many of us are putting our hopes in the City Council.
Given the last few years, it is easy to forget that the Detroit City Council has often been one of the most imaginative, far thinking and humane government bodies anywhere in the country. In our effort to distance ourselves from the most recent embarrassment, we should remind the new council that they are capable of more than civility and finding unity. The recent passing of Erma Henderson has helped remind all Detroiters of the kind of dignity and heart that was once characteristic of much of our council.
With the election of Coleman Young in the wake of emerging Black Power, Detroiters voted in a succession of city councils that helped create a vibrant civic life. Council President Henderson was able to translate her tremendous heart into concrete policies and programs. In 1975 she took on the racism and greed of banks and helped forge the state’s anti red-lining law, one of the most advanced in the country.
More importantly, she used her office and public profile to develop the people of the city. Her Women’s Conference of Concerns touched the lives of more than 250,000 women, emphasizing ideas, discussions and social action. Her work, and that of many of her colleagues on the council, including Maryann Mahaffey, Ken Cockrel Sr., Mel Ravitz, Nicholas Hood II, Carl Levin and Clyde Cleveland, often resulted in policies that addressed the concerns of the most vulnerable among us. And they stretched our vision beyond the city to struggles against apartheid in South Africa, Nuclear Disarmament, and the global condition of women.
One of the most striking elements of earlier councils was their imagination. Facing a city of abandoned houses and vacant lots, council members created a program to allow neighbors to acquire adjacent properties for a dollar. As cold weather endangered the lives of citizens, they established a moratorium on shutoffs. These measures not only made an immediate difference in the lives of people; they helped the whole city think about our obligations to one another.
We hope this new City Council can draw on some of this spirit. Today, as Detroiters are dying in homes made vulnerable by shutoffs, it seems time to establish that heat and water are basic human rights to be protected and provided to all. As we see almost 1/3 of the city abandoned, engaging neighborhood groups and non-profit organizations in dismantling abandoned homes would be a vehicle to revitalize neighbors and neighborhoods instead of putting monies and materials in the hands of suburban demolition companies. Expanding our efforts to sister cities in Michigan could help set a model for respectful international relationships that other governments could follow.
In these ways, large and small, many Detroiters, including the more than 200 who ran for City Council and Charter Commission, can all contribute ideas that combine imagination with concern for our future.
We welcome the new City Council and Mayor and hope they will take this opportunity to create new ways to re-engage the people of our city in solving our problems together.