Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 18 of the occupation
Aug 3-10 2013
Now that the emergency manager has filed for bankruptcy, the national media has become fascinated with Detroit. The city the mainstream media describes has little to do with the one most of us know and love. The New York Times portrays us as crime ridden, corrupt, unable to provide basic services, and on the brink of selling the family jewels to pay the bills.
Among the most disturbing articles was one from local commentator Charlie LeDuff. You get some idea of his perspective from the title of his recent book, “Detroit: An American Autopsy.”
A TV reporter and character about town, LeDuff’s book pronounced Detroit dead long before bankruptcy. His offering in the Times continues his fascination with dead things. He conjures pictures of dead air, dead bodies, rotting corpses, and burning buildings, surrounded by broken vehicles and abandoned people. LeDuff gives us graphic pictures of a city unable to get injured children to doctors.
Such portrayals may sell newspapers, but they do a tremendous disservice. They capture only a small slice of a much more complex and vital reality. They are yet another example of the kind of ruin porn business that is flourishing among many in the media.
They do nothing to help people understand that the choices facing Detroit, and the country, have little to do with debts, corruption, or pension funds. Rather we are all living in a moment of historic transformation, as we move from a dying Industrial Age to a still uncertain future. As local activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs reminds us, it is a transformation as great as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture, or from agriculture to industry.
In such a moment, however, Detroiters have been in the forefront of developing new ways of living. Out of the abundance of land opened by the shrinking population, the world’s largest urban agricultural movement emerged, offering a new vision of local food production, self-sufficient, healthy communities and new opportunities to reconnect generations as they reclaim and care for land.
Faced with declining public services for decades, Detroiters have been creating new means of exercising civic responsibility. Neighbors look after property abandoned by banks. Block clubs adopt parks. Churches, synagogues and schools establish gardens to feed the neighborhood and provide recreation. In a city where buses rarely run, let alone on time, bikes are becoming a more reliable way for many of us to get around.
Recognizing that police rarely come, and often when they do, make matters worse, neighbors and community organizations are working to create peaceful solutions to disputes. Peace Zones, marches against violence, and efforts to put the neighbor back in the hood, are emerging as people create new ways to solve problems together. Often these efforts are lead by women like Cora Mitchell or Metila Jones, who have transformed their own pain into a call for us to discover a deeper level of our own humanity.
Ask any Detroiter about the future and you are likely to hear two things. First, it’s clear to us that no one can save us, but us. If we are going to have a city that is productive, safe, and joyful, it will emerge from the neighborhood level, as people struggle together to find new ways of living. We are learning to make a better way out of no way.
Second, most people agree, mass employment is not coming back. We are at the end of the industrial job system and at the beginning of developing new kinds of work that enable us to produce goods and services for local needs. Ideas of new work and a new culture, rooted in local production and consumption, are emerging throughout the city.
LeDuff is right about one thing. He invites Americans to come to Detroit to “take a look at your future.” For many of us, this is a future full of promise.