Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
February 8, 2015
As Mayor Mike Duggan prepares for his State of the City address on February 10th, the corporate elite are already celebrating him. A recent article in Crains asserts that in spite of operating with an Emergency Manager for most of his first year, Duggan has “earned high marks for style, speed and stability.” In a glowing description worthy of a super hero they claim, “he’s got the power to move the intractable, to make the impossible possible.”
Such uncritical praise seems to me not only overstated and unwarranted, but dangerous.
There is no doubt the Mayor is a good technocrat. He likes to act quickly and come up with solutions. But he has shown an astonishing unwillingness to work collaboratively with community groups, has favored programs that are more show than substance, and seems to have a lack of commitment to democratic processes. Even those who praise him note that he does not welcome criticism.
These concerns are more than character flaws. They stem from a fundamental refusal to acknowledge two critical elements of the reality of our city. The first is to understand that the depth of the crisis we face is not the result of sluggish bureaucracies or corrupt, inept leadership. Rather, Detroit is the leading edge of the transition from an industrial society to something very new. As philosopher activist Grace Lee Boggs like to say, this is a transition as great as that from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to industry.
These times of transition defy technocratic fixes. Such fixes only compound the problems and deepen the crisis.
For example, the Mayor launched an aggressive effort to deal with what he calls “blight.” This effort included a demolition plan, financed largely with federal dollars designated to help people stay in their homes, including helping with property taxes. Now, many of these same people from whom he took the needed dollars are facing tax foreclosures. So while fixing one problem, he exacerbates another.
He has a similar problem with his efforts to encourage people to move into houses. After a much publicized auction of homes, complete with TV cameras and tours, nearly 300 properties found their way to new owners. Within a few months, only half that number actually closed. Of the original 12 homes highlighted by the Mayor, only two have closed.
A second example is the inability of the Mayor to take seriously the issue of water as human right. He has refused to push for a true water affordability plan to protect people who are unable to pay. His efforts to provide charity are limited, demeaning, and insufficient. He has continued water shut off through the winter and the water bills, added to tax debt, have accelerated the foreclosure crisis.
The second critical flaw is his inability to recognize that the solutions to these problems require new thinking, imagination, and a willingness to engage those who are outside the established channels of power. In every instance the Mayor appears to fear real democratic engagement and prefer managed information. For example, he resists the thoughtful efforts of activists to establish a city wide policy of Community Benefit Agreements for developers who use public money. Such a policy has been proven effective around the country. Thus far it seems the only real objection the Mayor has to this is that it was generated by citizen activity and inquiry and makes the Chamber of Commerce nervous. What the mayor fails to grasp is that those in positions of power and privilege have created the crises we face. They are not likely to generate new solutions.
This is a time to think anew about basic questions of the kind of city we can create. We have the opportunity to develop ways of living based on justice, respect for one another and for our earth. Engaging together in answering these questions is the real challenge before us. It is not the job of technocrats.