“We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes”
The struggle we’re dealing with these days, which, I think, is part of what the 1960s represented, is how do we define our humanity?
—Grace Lee Boggs
An analysis based on my most recent sojourn in Detroit Michigan, September 2013
Dedicated to Dan Turner, another chapter in Our Book of Mysteries
Three power forces operate in Detroit: capitalist, mainly the resurgent auto industry and investment capital; grass-roots activism as exemplified by the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership; and an intermediate population that I’ve heard derisively termed the New Hipsters (aka, millennials, social entrepreneurs, bourgeois Bohemians, Bobo’s), people, mostly young, who have money but sometimes pretend they don’t. They might also be termed the Gentrifiers. This third force comprises elements of the other two—moneyed, perhaps from employment in the corporations, largely apathetic (with numerous exceptions), and with sympathies, maybe tenuous, with the grass-roots.
We must remember that the first two forces date back to nearly the beginning of 20th century Detroit, the city long a crossroads because of the Detroit River which connects Lakes Huron and Erie, later the international hub of the auto industry. Corporate power vs. worker power. Some of the first successful auto union actions were in Detroit. Did a third force operate then, similar to the New Hipsters or Gentrifiers?
Siege of Fort Detroit, by Frederic Remington
Detroit from Canada shore, steel engraving, 1872
1889, Calvert Lithographing Co.
Many realize Detroit suffers: one-third of the area is vacant; the population has shrunk to some 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million in the 1950s, with a consequent severe decline in tax revenues; Detroit is the most dangerous city in the United States based on violent crime statistics; city services like street lights, street maintenance, bus service, garbage pickup, parks, schools, and police and fire protection generally is dismal. (On my last trip there in September 2013, I feared bicycling at night, despite the wide streets and scant traffic—very few streetlights, long stretches of the equivalent of bumpy country lane.) Most importantly, the emergency financial manager, appointed by the right-wing Republican state government, under a recently passed controversial law, has filed for bankruptcy. This would be largest metropolitan bankruptcy in US history.
Michigan and Griswold, 1920 ca.
More bad news:
The city lost 40% of its manufacturing jobs in the 1960s; the unemployment rate for Detroit proper peaked at 24.9% in 2009 (now down to 16.3%), compared with the national average of 7.5%; Detroit and Las Vegas are among the emptiest cities; in 2010 the Motor City experienced vacancy rates of 20% for rentals, 4% for homes, and 30% for commercial properties, compared with the national average of 2.7% home vacancy for last 3 months of 2010 and 9.4% for rentals (downtown vacancy rates have dramatically risen, with corporations moving to this central location); personal wealth has moved to the suburbs, among the most affluent in the country; and Detroit is more than 80% African-American. To put Detroit into more context, half of all jobs lost in the entire United States over the past decade were lost in Michigan.
Moreover, relatively few (compared with the large number noticing Detroit’s economic decline) have remarked on perhaps a more ominous fact—the attack on democracy because of the emergency manager law. Curiously, candidates competed to become the next mayor while I was there. When I asked friends and other residents what’s the point of a mayoral campaign when the city is under complete control of the emergency manager, most shook their heads, unsure why there is an election. A few explained that the next mayor can influence daily decisions and the emergency manager’s 18-month term ends in September 2014, but the budget is completely controlled by the manager. For the record, Mike Duggan, who as the CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, the city’s largest employer, is credited with turning around its finances, was elected mayor in early November 2013, the first white mayor since 1974. Duggan beat Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon who is black.
Mike Duggan (left) & Benny Napoleon
From Wikipedia: The emergency management system and emergency financial manager (EFM) position was first created in Public Act 101 of 1988 only for the emergency in Hamtramck. Public Act 101 was amended by Public Act 72 of 1990 allowing an Emergency Financial Manager to be appointed for any local governmental unit. PA 72 in turn was replaced by Public Act 4 of 2011, which renamed the position to Emergency Manager (EM) and gave the Manager additional authority.
Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr (right) and former Detroit mayor Dave Bing
Eight other Michigan cities have been under the control of the act, most since 2010 and under the current governor Rick Snyder. An earlier form of the law was contested in the Michigan Supreme Court, and resulted in a revision, now the current law.
The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice leads a campaign, Democracy Emergency, to reverse this law and restore democracy to Detroit. In the announcement of their campaign they quote the State of Michigan itself who admitted in its own internal analysis of Public Act 4 that: “This bill allows the emergency managers too much power and control over local units of government. Emergency managers can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the local nut and will use the enhanced powers granted under this bill for their own gain. Stripping local officials of the powers is anti-democratic.”
Furthermore, Barbara Barefield, a Detroit-based activist, hopes “…that Duggan, who is extremely savvy and experienced, will have influence with the Emergency Manager and the bankruptcy proceedings. It is extraordinarily tough to see our city assets being robbed by consultants and bankruptcy attorneys; set up the city in a way to make Detroit a land grab for the wealthy; and privatize city services and weaken unions and destroy/eliminate services and departments within city government. But after the EM leaves, we need intelligent, experienced leaders ready to reassemble the city and attempt to reinstate democracy, work with unions, and turn things around.”
Contrasting with this dire picture, few seem to realize the influx of young people, artists, entrepreneurs, and urban agriculturalists among them, some or many in the realm of the so-called New Hipster. Much activity is centered in the cultural/midtown district, the base of Wayne State University. Detroit has become the center of urban agriculture, cleverly utilizing vacant lots, increasing food security, and fostering neighborhood peace center. On the Amtrak bus between Detroit and Toledo where I was to catch a train home to Boston, I met a young white woman who lives in a cooperative house in the heart of Detroit. With 2 PhD’s, one in social work, the other in political science, she is fluent in Creole and regularly works in Haiti. She teaches at a college in Ann Arbor, commuting between home and employment. Most importantly she lives in Detroit, with a group, in a black neighborhood, in a house they’ve renovated that was long owned by a prominent Detroit black family, the Nixon’s.
The organization Greening of Detroit oversees the development of the MGMGrand market garden on Plum Street near downtown Detroit.
Built on the former site of the historic Lafayette Building, Lafayette Greens is a nearly 3/4 acre garden space in Detroit’s downtown district. Organized by Compuware.
Numerous visionaries float proposals to encourage urban agriculture, the arts, education, rescuing homes, and renovating neighborhoods such as the Urban Innovation Exchange, “an initiative to showcase and advance Detroit’s growing social innovation movement.
Two examples of social innovation: “Ponyride is a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities. Using an ‘all boats rise with the tide’ rent subsidy, we are able to provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks. We purchased a 30,000 square-foot warehouse for $100,000 and offer space for $0.10-$0.20 per square-foot, which includes the cost of utilities.”
“An approach to designing a self-maintaining garden modeled after natural ecosystems, Permaculture maximizes the distribution of rainwater by aligning it with exposure to sun and wind.”
A center of this innovation is the midtown neighborhood, anchored by Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the main public library. From a recent analysis, “7.2 Sq Mi, a report on Greater Downtown Detroit“:
Like city-centers globally, downtowns are owned by everyone—welcoming residents, employees, visitors, and tourists. Greater Downtown contains high-rise and low-rise living, our richest cultural assets, the center of Detroit’s business world, the region’s sports and entertainment hub, some of the city’s most storied neighborhoods, and some of Southeast Michigan’s leading educational and medical institutions.
TO BE CONTINUED (FOR PART TWO OF TWO)
Images from a trip up Detroit’s infamous River Rouge, one of the most heavily industrialized rivers in the world, with writerJoel Thurtell and filmmaker Florent Tillon.