Old Visions Create Old Fights, New Visions Create Hope and New Conversations
by RICH FELDMAN, March 21, 2009
The Cobo Hall expansion and the Detroit City Council are discussed on talk radio every morning and afternoon on my way to and from work. If I listen to Mildred Gaddis, I hear about the history of racism, the power of the suburbs and the possibility that Joe Louis, the Water Board and the remaining “jewels” of Detroit will be stolen. People regret Coleman Young had not been successful when he put forward the idea that Detroit should be its own county. The current Mayor is called out for “selling out the city.” If I listen to 760 AM, I hear Paul W. Smith, L. Brooks Patterson, Robert Ficano and Mitch Album calling for regional cooperation. They claim that there is no racism involved yet do little more than ridicule the personalities, passions and ideas of the Detroit City Council.
Yesterday, I gave an out-of-town friend a tour of Detroit. I showed him the 1907 abandoned Packard Plant on Mt Elliot. I stopped in front of the Poletown Plant on I-94 and I-75 which had an empty parking lot. We drove downtown past the Casinos, near Cobo Hall, the Stadiums and the GM HQ at the Renaissance Center. Today I had a meeting in an office building that was half empty in Southfield.
It has been more than 50 years since the expressways were built, communities’ destroyed, and suburbs and shopping malls emerged. It has been more than 40 years since the 1967 Detroit Rebellion and more than 30 years since thousands upon thousands of Detroiters stood on cheese lines, and have since routinely watch unemployment numbers reach beyond 20-25% in Detroit, as well as Pontiac, and Flint.
Whether folks are racist or defending black history, whether folks support the Cobo agreement or fight for a better deal so more Detroiters are working on the expansion and insuring that Detroit is not stuck with the cost over-runs and future liabilities, whether folks in the suburbs want Detroit to be a thriving city again or they believe that they can have a secure future without Detroit, it is becoming clear to me that no one in this debate is offering a vision for the future. The economic titans and political leaders are continuing to travel down a dead end road. They are all on a bridge to nowhere. They are on a collision course with the future because their vision for Detroit is stuck at the Packard Plant, the Casinos, the Stadiums, the often empty parking lot of the GM Poletown Plant and Renaissance Center where daily victims of GM layoffs are carrying boxes from their office.
Since the creation of the Renaissance Corporation, leaders have focused on downtown expansion and suburban sprawl. Suburbanites (black and white), often working for the auto industry, in hi-tech jobs, health care industry or education, have enjoyed the city as an entertainment center with the new restaurants and social venues. Driving in and out on the expressways, they avoid the reality of the city.
Trade Agreements and Nafta have lead to increased bridge and tunnel traffic, so another neighborhood will be wiped out like the Poletown Community in Detroit-Hamtramck was so the GM plant could be built. It is time for a new vision for Detroit and for the region, a vision that stimulates the rebuilding of communities by creating meaningful work through enterprises in the communities based upon the principles of food security, neighborhood work projects, reclaiming and recycling the waste of bygone industry.
On a small scale people with imagination and vision are already bringing this new vision to life. Cass Community Services is turning tires into rubber mats, Avalon International Breads is a thriving bakery, the Hope District on Forest and VanDyke , is creating a sewing business and growing food and selling it at outdoor markets as is Earthworks on Mt Elliot and Jefferson. Hush House in the North Goldberg Area, is insulating abandoned homes for people who are currently homeless. There are over 300 small music production companies in the city and artists are gathering to restore buildings and create commercial areas. All of this activity is virtually ignored by the media. We should support the efforts of organizations that are working to establish worker-owned, community run community grocery stores that will have locally grown produce and goods.
Instead, the generals of our media, our government and our economy are fighting 20th century battles and regardless of which side wins, everyone looses. They create intense levels of anger and racism by fueling visions of the past when the world has changed. Cobo Hall needs to become a new center, but does anyone really think showcasing the auto industry will restore our city? We need a center to showcase the future, not the past. Cobo could become a place for new high tech urban farming, new clothes factories and businesses meeting local needs from shoes to glass. The GM Poletown Plant could become one of the nation’s first green, Mass Transit Bus factories.
I lived in Detroit for 20 years, now though I live in south Oakland County, I commit much of my energy to working with individuals and community organizations that are rebuilding, re-spiriting and re-defining Detroit from the bottom up and from the community. There will not be any regional cooperation until we get unstuck form the past. Stuck in the big quick fix. First it was the Ren Cen, then Poletown which destroyed 1500 homes, businesses and churches, then Casinos and Stadiums, now it is another bridge or the expansion of Cobo Hall.
We keep having the same discussions and arguments because we have the same old 20th century vision. Detroit in the 1980s was the canary in the coal mines for our country. It could now become a beacon of the 21st century city. By creatively restoring the life of our communities we can develop an exciting future for our neighborhoods, our cities and our region.
Listen and support the communities and the people throughout Detroit and Southeast Michigan who are working for a new local sustainable economy. It is time for every institution in Michigan to buy products made in Michigan and for every Detroit institution (Universities, Hospitals, Factories and Office buildings) to buy goods, services and food produced and raised in Detroit. We need to begin to care for each other in our city and in our state.
Rich Feldman is on the board of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.
See also: “Beyond Divas & Demagogues” by Shea Howell.