Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
May 29, 2012
One of the strategies used by the business-government-foundation complex trying to reshape Detroit in its own image is to create a constant state of emergency. What ever they are after becomes cast in the most extreme, dysfunctional terms imaginable. So it is no surprise that the areas slated for “lights out” are now being described as “irretrievably blighted.” Medical terms are used to describe city policies, as though neighborhoods were riddled with disease or maimed by battlefield injuries. Newspapers write of a “defacto triage process” being guided by the Mayor’s office.
Such hysteria about neighborhoods is losing its power to persuade. For most Detroiters, who have been living with rolling blackouts of street lights since the days of Coleman Young, the threat of “turning off the lights” to drive people out of their homes evokes a shrug. According to Bloomberg News, a survey done in 2010 showed that 40% of the 88,000 streetlights were broken then. It is probably higher now.
Now democratic state legislators from Detroit are offering to push through legislation that will allow the creation of yet another state authority that will borrow $160 million that Detroiters will have to pay back, that will reduce the number of lights to areas slated for other developments, and that will privatize lighting services. It seems one of the ways our new financial authority plans to balance the city budget is to shift debt to newly created authorities and shift operations outside of public control. This slight of hand and shifting of control does nothing to address real structural change to improve Detroit’s financial condition.
More importantly it is continuing an old vision of the city, based on outdated ideas that have proven time and again to do nothing more than make a few people rich while impoverishing even more people.
This time, though, the government-foundation-complex may have made a big mistake. The huge chunk of the city that they have labeled blighted, diseased and beyond redemption coincides with some of the most vibrant, imaginative and visionary neighborhood organizing anywhere. Much of the urban agriculture that is reshaping Detroit and opening the imaginations of people around the world to new possibilities of urban living is concentrated on the very lands designated for “forced removal.”
In The Next American Revolution by Detroit activists Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige we find a very different description of this targeted section of the city. They write, “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living—ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.”
What the Mayor and media have labeled as a desolate area of the city is the spiritual home of the urban gardening movement. Today this movement is creating a new urban economy that has the potential to reshape city life. It is already doing so.
At the recent Detroit Food Policy Summit, Greening of Detroit documented more than 1,2000 urban gardens. We have more gardens per square mile and more per capita than any other city in the U.S.
Phil Jones, the president of the Council, talked about the complexity of the local food system noting it is an effort to bring “together food processing and distribution, culinary arts careers, restaurants, institutions such as hospitals and schools, markets, consumers and, well, farming and farming equipment. The food system encompasses everything that happens to food from growing to eating and even composting the remains.”
Unseen by the Mayor, the business elite and the foundations, the vast areas of so called blight are the very places where neighbors have decided to come together and create new, healthy and productive ways of living. This ways of living place process above product, growing people above profits and restoring community rather than flattening it. These values, rooted deep in Detroit soil, will not be uprooted easily.