A Breath of Hope

FLYP Magazine is probably unlike any website you have experienced. This new online magazine integrates text, photos and videos using a cool page-turning effect and full-screen layout of rich graphics.

FLYP recently visited Detroit to document the new work and visions emerging from the ground up in this “near dead city.” The result is a triumphant vision, taking in the stories, sights and sounds of Detroit’s grassroots communities living the change they want to see in the world.

The text of the FLYP article is included below. But you should experience FLYP’s “A Breath of New Hope” in its remarkable multimedia format. Please share this story with others.

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A Breath of Hope
The people of Detroit are beginning to imagine a new life for their near-dead city.

By James R. Gaines (text) and Chris Bravo (video), FLYP Media

No American city ever rose so fast—from a trading post to the hub of global industry within a few decades—or fell so far. The last comparable collapse in the Americas came with the end of Mayan civilization, a thousand years ago. Large swaths of Detroit seem to have been hit by a neutron bomb. Sometimes a building will look entirely normal, even beautiful, until you come close enough to see that weeds and treelets—a species of Chinese plant that somehow got loose there—are growing out of its glassless windows. Some people call it “the ghetto palm,” others “the tree of heaven.”

The old Packard plant, built in 1906, stands as the ultimate ruins of a city and the idea that built it. On a cold sunny Sunday morning, a longtime UAW member named Rich Feldman stood in front of it and said, “I bring people here to see the pain and the hurt that are present in our city. It’s a breaking point, a way of saying we can never go back again. These 40 long-abandoned buildings represent a standard of living for working-class Americans beyond anything that anyone could have ever imagined, and it is gone.”

Feldman has been watching the collapse of his city for the last 20 years, during which officials have issued ten times more demolition permits than building permits. He has also seen something else.

MICHIGAN’S PHOENIX

Rising up from the ashes! Rising up from the ashes! It’s the title and refrain of a hip-hop CD documenting Detroit’s dropout population. That includes almost three quarters of all black students in the city.

Detroit is a gold mine for leaden statistics like that one: it’s the poorest big city in the U.S., with about a third of its residents living below the poverty line. There were 394 murders, 341 rapes and 6,575 robberies in the city last year, and almost 20,000 cars were stolen.

That is the Detroit story everybody knows. Feldman will tell you that another one is being written.

That CD, for example: it was made by Detroit kids, in a program called the Live Arts Media Project. Many of those kids were dropouts. Refusing to surrender to poverty and crime, Detroit is witnessing new community development programs that take aim at root causes and try to grow a new economy from the ground up. Many of these are independent of the government. All over town, people are opening stores and markets, starting businesses and small factories in their basements.

Urban gardens are springing up on the vacant lots. When people are hungry, the new gardens and their gardeners feed them.

Artists have remade whole blocks of ruined houses into a lively, tale-telling urban landscape, while hundreds of independent record labels incubate in bedrooms and garages that have been wired for high-speed Internet.

There is a live poetry reading somewhere in town virtually every night of the week.

ONE SMALL STEP FOR A MAN…

The collapse of Detroit parallels what is happening elsewhere in America. What happens next will depends on who comes by—or comes back, or stays around—to fix it.

“My American dream,” Feldman says, “is one that makes a strong distinction between the standard of living, which folks once thought was the answer to all concerns, and quality of life—the dignity of the lives of people.”

On the following pages are some of the people who are trying to make a new Detroit—and they believe, a new America.

Food: From urban rust to verdant green

With its 139 square miles, Detroit has one of America’s largest urban footprints. In 1950, that land held 2 million citizens, today there are less than half that. This fact, combined with homelessness, joblessness and falling incomes among working people, makes a compelling argument for urban agriculture and local businesses built around local food. Detroit has a lot of that already, and more is on the way.

  • Detroit Black Community Food Security Network: The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) was formed to create new jobs and support a new economy with the production of local food—and to keep the profits in Detroit’s black community.

  • EarthWorks Urban Farm: EarthWorks Urban Farm, an outgrowth of the Capuchin monks’ soup kitchen, now includes an apiary, kids’ classes and a mobile market.

The Arts: Imagining a new conversation

Above ground, Detroit’s symphony, museum, opera and theater are still thriving. Just a little deeper, down in the grassroots, there is a profusion of new growth—from hundreds of independent music labels and a vibrant new generation of performance poets to a new theatrical and visual vocabulary of the urban landscape. Detroit’s artists are inventing ways to make the city itself a work of art.

  • The Heidelberg Project: Named for its street, the work of artist Tyree Guyton has brought to light to what was among Detroit’s most benighted neighborhoods.

  • A Theater of Experience: Director Aku Kadogo, a Detroit native who returned after a long career abroad, teaches her drama students at Wayne State University how to draw from the legacy of African-American culture.
  • The Poem is the City: Like others in Detroit’s vibrant new poetry scene, Will Copeland finds his inspiration in the movement toward a new Detroit and a new urban America.

Beyond school: The textbook is life

In a city where the black dropout rate is almost 75 percent, the need for new approaches is obvious. Several organizations, including Detroit Summer and the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, have stepped into the breach with programs that teach kids about media, entrepreneurship, personal responsibility and the power of community. Their goal is a new economy and a newly empowered citizenry.

  • Detroit Summer: Started in the early 1990s, Detroit Summer has spawned a dozen projects for the city’s youth, including the Live Arts Media Project (LAMP).

  • East Michigan Environmental Action Council: EMEAC teaches kids how to use media to support environmental responsibility. The kids use what they’ve learned as they see fit.

Community: Hospitals for the soul

They are all in the work of community development, but that’s a fancy phrase for a lot of what they do. A young woman gets out of jail at 25, after ten years. What is she to make of the rest of her life? A family is evicted. Where do they go? A mother is addicted to crack with no husband and 11 children at home. As often as not, the work of community development is done one life at a time.

  • Hush House: Part safe house, part think tank, part publisher and part community center, Hush House is also a museum, a newspaper and an entrepreneurial collective.

  • Friends of Detroit & Tri-County: In a 23,000-foot former meat packing plant, Mike Wimberley houses a computer school, classes for sewing, a music studio and a licensed commercial kitchen.

—————-
“The world I grew up in as a radical was a world that thought of leadership in a very vertical way—leadership and followership. And I think that the world has changed so much that it’s possible to say, ‘we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

Grace Lee Boggs, the widow of autoworker-revolutionary Jimmy Boggs, runs the Boggs Center, which cultivates community leaders and is ground zero for much of the new thinking about Detroit’s future. Now 93, Boggs is a kind of hero to the reformers of Detroit, and to meet her is to know why.

Her perspective is far-sighted, backward and forward. “Detroit is the most striking example of the transition that cities all over the country are undergoing—from industrial society, which has collapsed or is sinking very fast, to post-industrial society.”

She sees the same thing happening in Akron and Oakland and Milwaukee and Buffalo—a transition she calls “as far-reaching as the one from hunting and gathering 11,000 years ago to agriculture. And from agriculture to industry 300 years ago.”

A political activist since the 1930s, she has no illusions that this transition will be easy. But, like her husband, she does not think progress can depend on help from on high or outside, whether from President Barack Obama or anybody else.

“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” she says.

Neither Boggs, nor the many other young and old activists who are trying to remake Detroit, pretend that utopia is at hand. But in the depths of post-industrial blight, they’re finding reasons for hope.

Who knows what may come of a thing like that?

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