Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
October 6-13, 2012
Almost every day Detroiters are confronted with some new effort to redevelop land. Most of these efforts are met with wide spread suspicion, usually founded on bitter experiences of previous “development efforts. ” Time and again we have seen a few people get rich while leaving the rest of us to deal with the pieces of shattered promises. Frequently these schemes have been destructive to many of the most vulnerable in our community. Hastings Street, the Brewster Projects, Poletown, Virginia Park, New Center and the fiasco of the riverfront casinos all promised “rebirth” of one kind or another.
The power of this experience shapes how many of us judge any claim for restoring our city. What the corporate-foundation-government elite label “dysfunction” and “naysaying” is generally a thoughtful, considered response born out of these experiences. It is also a recognition that we in Detroit have the opportunity to develop a very different kind of urban life. Our unique history and resources give us the possibility of creating the first self sustaining city of the 21st Century, a city that values all of its people, cherishes is resources and culture, and offers a vision of new, productive work that develops people while protecting the natural world.
This vision is best expressed in the urban agricultural movement. It is because of the power of this vision that many of us find the narrow development schemes of projects like Hantz Farms so objectionable. Public relations slogans like turning “blight to beauty” ring hollow next to their oft-repeated desire to “create land scarcity.” Our experience tells us where this kind of scheme will lead.
Experience also teaches us that Detroit is developing something new. One of the most interesting examples of this is the work being done by SHAR (Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation) and its Recovery Park project. Like Hantz Farms (or woods, as they now are proposing), Recovery Park envisions large scale urban agriculture. They have proposed using almost 2,400 acres of land on the East side for indoor urban farms, tilapia fish farming, orchards, and an equestrian stable.
Over the last two years I have been to community meetings where both Mike Score of Hantz Farms and Gary Wozniak of Recovery Park have made presentations. Mike Score frequently tells the story of his personal conversion experience in his commitment to developing the east side. While the story is no doubt sincere, it is never accompanied by any concrete representation of what Hantz Farms intends to actually do. I have never been in a meeting where a map, brochure or even flyer was handed out.
In contrast, Gary Wozniak brings maps, images, flyers, figures and charts. Recently Recovery Park issued a newsletter that draws a sharp contrast between their efforts and other development efforts. The August edition begins with the statement of values for Recovery Park. They note, “Values define what an organization aspires to. They are the filter through which decisions are made. They set the standard for all to see. They are a measurement tool to assess success and determine shortcomings for improvement. Team RecoveryPark have been working hard to craft our values. This is our first “unveiling” to a broader audience. We want your feedback! Open ended – please give us your candid comments, suggestions, ideas: email@example.com.”
The values they list are: Social Responsibility, Environmental Stewardship, Different Types of Finance, Active learning, Intentional Technology, Small, Nimble and Close, Local and Live.
More recent newsletters encourage people to attend meetings about the Urban Agricultural policy and welcome further comments.
This kind of value-based, participatory effort at development offers the best potential for moving us forward as a city. It draws upon the strengths of our people to think in new, imaginative ways about what we can become.