Building on wisdom By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Building on wisdom

By Shea Howell

January 12-19 2013

As the Mayor and the City Council begin their new legislative session they have the opportunity to reflect on an unusually active and engaged series of recent public sessions. It should be abundantly clear that more and more citizens are concerned about the direction the Mayor and Council majority are trying to take the city. Slowly but surely people are organizing to pose a very different alternative set of values for the kind of city we want to become.

These values are rooted in the African American character and movement history of our city. They were fully and often eloquently spoken of in the battle over the Hantz Farms/Woodlands, the efforts to privatize the water department, and to turn over Belle Isle to the State.

The City Council should explore the kinds of values and ideas that would represent a much broader view of development than the one they seem to uphold at the moment. The current view is that the city can no longer impose any publicly responsible policies for development. It will sell land below market value, just so someone else can cut the grass. It will give away tax breaks, just to entice businesses to set up shop, and it will turn over long supported public resources in exchange for basic maintenance. Following this path, pushed by forces that have never had the interests of Detroit at heart, will diminish all of us.

Instead of going blindly down the road being drummed into them as they only alternative, the Council should look at some of the values and policy suggestions that emerged in the course of these recent struggles.

The single most important concern in the community is that development within neighborhoods should protect the people who are living there now. Most people believe that those who have stayed in neighborhoods as others left should be honored and respected. On street after street in Detroit, these are the people who have mowed the lawns of abandoned houses, taken over empty land for gardens and play areas, shoveled snow, and planted flowers. They have organized block clubs, established churches, opened small businesses, and built a home and life that they would like to pass on to their children.

Everyone knows that Detroit, like all major cities, has a history of plowing these neighborhoods under in the name of development. In a recent article in the Detroit Free Press that misrepresents the opposition to Hantz Farms/Woodlands, even the author John Mogk acknowledges this:

“Lower-income African Americans in particular have suffered from these actions taken by leaders seemingly to further the public good. Lofty public goals were behind actions taken by the city’s leaders to build the I-75 corridor and Lafayette Park, which wiped out the center of African-American community life in Detroit.”

Curiously Mogk labels this assessment of an historical reality as “mistrust.” Such a label is only possible if you are writing from the perspective of the developers.

Another framing would be wisdom, based on experience and observation. From Black Bottom to the transformation of the Cass Corridor to Midtown, it is obvious that the current models of development drive people out of neighborhoods they have long lived in and cared for.

So instead of mischaracterizing opposition as” mistrust,” the City Council should enact policies building on the wisdom of the people to protect folks where they are.

For example, as the Council reflects on a differential tax structure for the city, they need to freeze the property taxes of those home-owners effected by development. Second, they need to enact some form of rent control throughout the city.

These are not new or radical ideas. But they are essential if we are to build a city with and for all of our people.