By Tom Stephens
September 24, 2010
“We inherited a hell hole.” – Mayor Dave Bing
Between September 14 and 22, 2010, Detroit experienced five extraordinary, well-attended public meetings on the subject of land use and related public policy issues.
Mayor Dave Bing, Kresge Foundation-funded Team Leader Toni Griffin, Co-Team Leader (and Deputy Director of the Planning and Development Department) Marja Winters, Group Executive Karla Henderson and their legions of well-paid consultants hosted thousands of ordinary Detroiters at sites around the city. Their endlessly repeated mantra: “There is no plan.”
Detroiters have decades of hard experience in corporate-driven back room deals and “crony capitalist” scams – in the face of growing poverty for the city’s working class majority – from “Negro removal” in the sixties through the Poletown eminent domain neighborhood land grab in the eighties, to Kwame Kilpatrick’s ongoing ethical bonfires. Mayor Bing’s administration and the foundations funding “Detroit Works” are understandably concerned that we would reject any “plan” provided as a fait accompli to us by the NBA Hall of Fame businessman and his “business community” supporters. Therefore, the sponsors of the “Detroit Works” project bent over backwards to deny any and all such schemes.
But in their fear of real Detroiters, the organizers failed to offer any concrete ideas about community economic development and land, democracy and planning, environment, economy or justice – or indeed, any substantive ideas about much of anything. Therefore, these huge and – for Detroit – virtually unprecedented gatherings shed little light. Residents mostly registered well-justified complaints about poor city services and quality of life. A few activists were able to raise legitimate process concerns. Not much was accomplished, in spite of the enormous pent-up pain that brought so many people out. On the whole, it was a series of missed opportunities for demonstrating vision, leadership, courage and imagination.
The first event at Greater Grace Temple on the northwest side on Tuesday, September 14 was an utter fiasco, disintegrating in poor organization, loud recriminations and incoherent miscommunication. After the hour-long forum, facilitator Kirk Mayes told the Michigan Citizen newspaper that “The purpose of the forum was to pull people out of the complaining format and get them to creatively discuss problems.”
Another thousand or so people showed up for the second meeting two days later at the Serbian Community Hall on the east side. While procedurally calmer, the promised “facilitated discussion” with Detroiters was not really either facilitated or a true discussion. People in the crowd were called on, and they made their points. Ms. Winters or Ms. Henderson then called on the next speaker, and so on. Again, the organizers’ fear of the accusation that “the fix is in” paralyzed them from even articulating any provocative ideas to frame a coherent dialog, or engaging in any meaningful or authentic way with the many Detroiters who came hoping for effective leadership and real change.
The third meeting, on Saturday morning, September 18 (the only one not held in the evening), was a semi-historic occasion: For the first time Dave Bing – at least in terms of his demeanor, if not the content of what he said – sounded more like the mayor of a city than a motivational speaker rehashing his sports and business careers. He began by repeating the line he used, and the corporate media picked up, at the Serbian Community Hall two nights previously: When his administration entered office, “We inherited a hell hole.” The continuing maintenance of absolute control over the proceedings, patronizing Detroiters and withholding any indication of administration thinking about key issues, again severely limited the usefulness of the event, although the Saturday morning crowd seemed to feature a higher mix of seasoned activists, community leaders and high-ranking city officials, who would have been especially well-prepared to kick off an effective community visioning process that will be essential to Detroit’s future prosperity, if Detroit’s leaders ever decide to commit to it.
The Detroit News perfectly captured the shortcomings of the proceedings in the first two sentences of its story about this meeting: “Residents talked Saturday about weeds outside their homes, long waits for police, rundown homes that need to be torn down, and the school board being controlled by the mayor. The only thing they didn’t discuss at length was a plan to reshape the city, which was the point of the community forum at Whittier Manor.”
The slightly smaller third meeting on Tuesday, September 21, at Western High School on the city’s shamefully neglected, but dynamic southwest side, maintained the identical format and content-free presentation. “Detroit Works” confirmed finally and irrefutably that its highly-regarded authors tragically believe that real Detroiters have nothing of value to say, can offer no credible ideas, and are basically worthless except to complain about inadequate police, fire and sanitation services. Introduced as “The Visionary” by Marja Winters, Dave Bing admitted that “I had no idea what I was getting into when I ran for mayor.” Confronted by a Detroiter in the audience about the absence of any authentic dialog, he stated that “With 7 or 800 people it’s almost impossible to have dialog.” By their own admission the meetings failed to achieve the stated purpose “to pull people out of the complaining format and get them to creatively discuss problems.”
The final well-attended meeting at Detroit’s magnificent African American History museum in the cultural center, completed the administration and their consultants’ attempted public relations rehabilitation. For whatever reason (fatigue?), Toni Griffin changed the central verbal mantra. Instead of denying the existence of any plan at this time, she said “We’re not gonna share a plan with you tonight, this month or next month.” Like other speakers, Dave Bing praised the significant turnouts at these meetings. He said “A lot of people think nobody cares about this city.” Perhaps a lot of the strange dynamics in evidence are explained by this fact: the mayor spends too much time with people who are uninformed about Detroit, including people who falsely believe nobody cares about the city.