THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Alternative Democratic Visions
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, March 28, 2010
Mayor Dave Bing and Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb are combining forces to turn the city over to private developers at the expense of Detroit’s citizens and our city’s future. Bobb is so anxious to move ahead with his schemes that he has already listed some of the prime school property up for sale.
This land grab drive by the Mayor and the Finance Manager is based on limited facts and even shorter vision. They are not only assaulting basic property rights, attacking the best efforts to develop our children. They are also attacking the very foundations of democratic decision-making.
They are trying to cover this up by foisting a series of myths on the public.
THE MYTH OF INEVITABILITY. Mayor Bing and FM Bobb are creating a heightened sense of crisis, saying we have to act now, and that their plan is the only one that makes “business sense.” Shrinking the city is “right-sizing,” they say.
This myth has a long history in relocation and privatization schemes. James Monroe said of the Indian Removal Act that forced the Cherokee people on the Trail of Tears, “There is no other solution.” As the Soviet Union collapsed, Margaret Thatcher, the privatizing Prime Minister of Great Britain, declared “There is no other alternative.” Such absolutist proclamations have never been anything more than propaganda designed to justify otherwise unjustifiable actions.
Detroit is one of the leading cities in the development of alternatives. The loss of population by older industrial centers is a global phenomenon. From Germany to South Africa, countries are experiencing this change. For every two cities globally that are growing, three are shrinking. Architects, urban planners, artists and artisans, concerned with this shrinking process, have been coming to Detroit for decades, learning not from city government or foundations, but from visionary local leadership.
New ideas, like the use of schools to engage young people in the challenge of redeveloping neighborhoods as they learn and move towards adulthood, are attracting international attention. One such school, slated not only for closure, but for immediate sale, is Catherine Ferguson Academy. CFA is the subject of a new award-winning film, Grown in Detroit, that documents the inventive curriculum, academic success and community-building vision of the school and its students.
There are many such schools and programs throughout the city whose efforts, like those of CFA, are more likely to find their way to stories in the UK Guardian, Oprah’s O Magazine or The New York Times, than our own media. Certainly they are neither celebrated nor understood by Bing-Bobb.
Likewise the growth of small, locally-owned businesses, often using locally-grown-and-produced products, are the only real hope of creating a vital economy in the city. Recent articles in the NYT have celebrated the unique spirit of cooperation that supports these business efforts.
Scores of urban planners, journalists, educators and civic leaders are not only projecting and creating alternatives, but see them emerging in Detroit. They have documented policy initiatives that would support these new kinds of life-affirming approaches to redevelopment. It is not surprising that none of these have been invited to speak at any of the now numerous public forums that the private foundations supporting Bing-Bobb are hosting throughout the city.
MYTH: DETROIT’S PROBLEM IS A LOSS OF POPULATION. Will Boisvert wrote recently in The Baffler, “Despite its ghost town image, Detroit’s population density is still actually rather high by American standards. The city is half again as dense as Portland, Oregon, substantially denser than the booming Sunbelt cities of Phoenix, Houston and Dallas, denser even than Pittsburgh—all places that adequately fund city services. Detroit’s problem is not under-population, but brute poverty.”
Bing-Bobb plans do nothing to address Detroit’s problems. They only undermine and assault the very real, nationally and internationally-recognized democratic efforts to create another way of living that are emerging at the neighborhood and community level.