Memory and Democracy By Shea Howell – Week twenty-five of the occupation

Thinking for ourselves

Memory and Democracy

By Shea Howell

Week twenty-five of the occupation

September 17, 2013

shea 2Just as the mainstream media rushed to foster myths and misinformation to justify the state takeover of Detroit, it is rushing to rewrite current history. We are being told that all elected city government was incompetent and bureaucratic. Hantz Farms/Woodlands is the prime example used by the mainstream media to illustrate bureaucratic delay. In a recent article extolling the virtues of an Emergency Management turnaround toward efficiency we find this description: “Hantz Woodlands greening and agricultural project took nearly for years” to gain approval. Thus the mainstream media denies democratic development and obliterates people’s struggle.

The four year delay was one of the most productive democratic moments in recent memory. First, the Hantz project was substantially modified in the course of contentious public debate over this development scheme. In the opening of year one, John Hantz wanted 10,000 acres of mostly publicly owned property. In the end, he got less than 2,000 lots. In the beginning he proposed massive industrial production of vegetables in closed systems, posing serious environmental questions about such facilities located on the edge of the Great Lakes.

In the course of discussions about the selling of public lands at bargain basement prices, residents raised the question of why one man, John Hantz, should have access to land when they didn’t. Many residents told stories at city council meetings and public hearings about their thwarted efforts to purchase land. In the end, the Hantz agreement with the city included the right of residents to purchase land at the same price as Hantz.

Further, these public debates raised fundamental questions of land ownership, land use, public trust, progressive development, the distinction between urban agriculture and industrial farming, and the role of land speculation in our city. Throughout all of this discussion, people educated themselves and one another and argued in public spaces over values, direction, and decisions.

This process of public dialogue is the heart of democracy. It is precisely what we have lost under emergency management. Streamlined, efficient development decisions destroy the capacity to engage in basic questions of fairness, suggestions of alternative perspectives, modifying plans to meet community needs while satisfying individual goals, and thinking deeply about the implications of actions on people and place.

Through the public struggle over Hantz Farms/Woodlands, the entire community benefitted. Along with questions of fairness and land use, people began to suggest alternative processes for development.

The first of these was the use of Community Benefit Agreements. Through these agreements private developers and corporate citizens agree to certain commitments that will be included in any development project. These agreements are negotiated in public, with long standing community representatives and have the force of law. Such agreements should become a standard process any time an corporation requests public lands or subsidies for their private projects.

Second, people began to discuss the importance of Community Land Trusts. These efforts, to remove land from speculation and hold it in trust for community use, offer a way to protect the most vulnerable in our city from development schemes.

The controversy of Hantz also revealed the limitations of some of our public officials. In spite of guarantees that no decision would be made about Hantz purchase of land until after an urban agricultural policy was in place, city development and some council members rushed to a vote on the project. In this rush to vote, the contempt for public processes was starkly revealed for all of us to see.

Public discussion takes time. It is often contentious and heated. But it is the way we clarify basic ideas of public good and common life. To reduce such processes to phrases like “bureaucratic delay” is a violation of the basic principles of a democracy. These days, we have to not only resist the stealing of public lands but the destruction of public memory.