A city divided

Michigan Citizen, January 9-15, 2011

Detroit Mayor David Bing promises to move forward with his non-plans early in this New Year. He has been touting incentives to encourage people to move from one neighborhood to another.

Marja Winters, of Detroit Works, moved the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force meeting up a week with two agenda items. The group will preview of the “Case for Change Presentation” and review and discuss Phase 2 Civic Engagement Design. Without a hint of irony, Ms Winters notes, “this is a special meeting and as such, is not open to the public.”

This year also begins with a deepened awareness of tension in our city. Mainstream media are beginning to report hostility in the streets. The most vicious expression of this hostility has been directed at people who are homeless. And the most horrible expression of this hostility was the attack on Charles Duncan by Steve Diponio, his home-owning neighbor, who felt entitled to beat Mr. Duncan with a baseball bat and drag him behind a pick-up truck away from Diponio’s house.

What responsibility do Mayor Bing and his administration, with its ill-conceived planning process, have for this atmosphere? Are they fostering a way of thinking in the city that says some people are valuable and others not? Are they contributing to a “survival of the fittest mentality” that is unleashing a new kind of violence?

In exploring these questions a recent Crain’s article by WSU Law Professor John Mogk is helpful., “The root cause of Detroit’s redevelopment failures over the past 50 years,” Mogk begins, “has not been the absence of community involvement in the planning. It has consistently been the failure to implement whatever plan the community has agreed upon.”

Mogk then lists “the five major causes for this failure: underestimating the plan’s challenges, committing too few resources, lacking administrative capacity, failing to adopt a sense of urgency, and declining to set a firm date for completion.”

No doubt if the Mayor, the foundations or the Chamber read this article, they all came to the wrong conclusion. They probably view it as a justification for what they like to call swift, bold action.

In coming to this conclusion, they miss Mogk’s more troublesome point. Community planning is the base line for redevelopment in Detroit. It has been mandated by law since the 1960s. We experienced Model Cities, Citizen District Councils, Neighborhood Reinvestment Strategies and Empowerment Zone Projects.

None of these projects engendered the kind of hostility we see today. None raised the question of “winners and losers.” None rested on the assumption that some parts of the city were more valuable than others. All of them shared the idea that through imagination, political will and the garnering of resources, we could create a city where life for everyone would be better.

The Mayor has never articulated this simple idea, that Detroit should be a place for all who wish to live here.

The Model Cities Program, for all its limitations, began with the vision of ending poverty in America. It called for comprehensive urban planning with an eye toward saving all neighborhoods and providing services and support for keeping people in their homes.

The Mayor needs to do some serious soul-searching. He needs to make clear that he and we want a new Detroit that provides shelter for every human being. No one should be without the basic necessities for a dignified life.

Unless the Mayor recognizes that he has created the most divisive planning process in 50 years, Mr. Mogk’s next article will add reason number six to the failure of redevelopment, “Lack of real citizen engagement.” A city divided cannot stand.

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