An analysis based on my most recent sojourn in Detroit Michigan, September 2013
Dedicated to Dan Turner, another chapter in our Book of Mysteries
After an arduous bicycle ride into Detroit’s East Side (equivalent to Chicago’s South Side where I grew up?) of more than one hour, I found the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (a title which cogently summarizes the Center’s mission). No markings of any sort. Residential neighborhood. Ordinary house. No one outside. Searching around back I saw a political sign inside on a porch and guessed I’d found the correct spot. Rich Feldman, a community activist and board member of the Boggs Center, arrived, greeted me warmly, and invited me in for a quick look around. Other people appeared, including the founders of the Freedom Freedom farm. Succulent odors of food drifted from the kitchen. The meeting space is on the 2nd floor, Grace lives on the 1st.
Boggs Center (right) This set of photos courtesy of On Being, a radio show
James Boggs, Grace’s late husband, was the cofounder of the Boggs Center
I was impressed with the diversity of the people assembling for a meeting—ethnicity, age, gender, perhaps a cross-section of Detroit activists. Some of the principles of the Center are reimagining work (the difference between a job which is often low paid, dead-end, and boring, and work which meets societal needs and is meaningful for the worker), converting war zones to peace zones (often thru urban agriculture), redefining education (basing it more on indigenous cultures rather than white traditions), building the Beloved Communities (that Martin Luther King Jr advocated) and Cities of Hope, and fostering the Next American (R)evolution (a revolution of values, again from the teaching of King). Grace in her astute analysis which combines the teachings of Marx, King, and Malcolm X with grass-roots, multi-faceted activism. She offers an overarching view of conditions not only in Detroit and post-industrial USA, but generally in the world. This leads the Center to propose a shift of strategy from overturning political leadership to transforming the system, beginning with one’s own consciousness: toward love, away from raw political power.
A few years earlier I heard from Grace Lee Boggs herself during a panel discussion about the Next American Revolution at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2011. Grace Lee Boggs and Vincent Harding in a video from the Allied Media Conference, The New Positive, the New America.
Here’s another example of grass-roots activism:
At St Peter’s church in the gentrifying Corktown I attended a class or meeting about colonialism, education the main topic this time. About 10 people, including Bill Wylie-Kellerman, the church’s pastor, attended. (Later I noticed 2 other meetings in process. A busy church community center.) Antonio ran the meeting and had designed the curriculum. The week before immigration was the topic, next week the students will discuss activism. Two guests presented on the topic—an older, gray-haired Black woman, veteran of many Detroit movements, on the folly of EAA, the Educational Achievement Authority, which runs many of Detroit’s schools. A Black man with graying dreads followed with a slide show on the values of Afro-centric education.
Antonio opened with a statement he read from his computer screen and then, using popular education pedagogy, he asked a question: what were our best and worst educational experiences. One man had only bad formal education experiences, graduating from high school; he had no further formal education. Some spoke of field experiences as their best time educationally. (I said my worst was Catholic catechism when I was forced to memorize Catholic doctrine and my best was probably my first trip to Israel-Palestine in 2003.) I prefaced my statement with an observation that most any experience I could recall had good and bad aspects. Catechism led me to Buddhism and Quakerism, and the Israel-Palestine trip showed me suffering and injustice, horrifying observations. His closing question—requiring writing which we handed in—was: describe an experience of educational colonization, and one of decolonization.
Some speculate that Detroit (and Ann Arbor, its neighbor less than 50 miles away, home of the University of Michigan) could become the Silicon Valley of the Midwest because of the high-tech nature of modern automobiles. Will employees be drawn from the local population? Unlikely, given the poor state of the current school system. Even if this Silicon Valley speculation proves false, the industry is clearly rebounding. Which means money. Which means investment. Which means influence.
I experienced more than 200 of what some might term the New Hipsters on a mass bike ride, held every Monday evening during the summer. Titled Slow Roll, I joined one evening. Noticing the high heel shoes, party dresses, and tuxedos, I puzzled that maybe this is the new biking style of the New Hipsters. Only to learn later that each week has a different theme and this one’s was Prom.
I might make it back to Detroit for the North American Bicycle week beginning March 27, 2014.
Big money, the third force, is highly active. Beyond Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, as of 2012 Quicken moved its corporate headquarters from the Detroit suburbs to downtown. Compuware established a new large campus in Detroit. Ilitch Holdings announced new plans for a large-scale project that would develop a new entertainment district. Included in this $650 million development would be a new sports arena as well as residential, retail and office space. They’ve also invested money in Comerica Park, Motor City Casino and Fox Theatre which they claim has made Detroit a destination for play over the past decade.
Some analyze urban evolution using the model of FIRE: finance, insurance, and real estate. And feel this complex rules cities, shifting emphasis from production to financial services. Might be, might be in Detroit. (Paradoxically, fire often rages in Detroit, consuming abandoned buildings, frustrating the declining number of firefighters who because of budget restrictions are poorly equipped.)
Oil refineries illustrate one remnant of the old production model. When attending the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2010 I learned to my dismay that Marathon was renovating their distillation facility to process the most destructive and expensive form of energy, tar sands, from Alberta Canada. Horrified, I periodically scouted the refinery district to photograph it and visit the neighborhoods in southwest Detroit most affected by the process.
Canadian and US oil pipelines (including a pipe branch to Detroit) Click image for enlargement
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Recycling bricks from a demolished house in a neighborhood near refineries
Marathon refinery during the upgrade to process tar sands oil, 2010
Obviously the major question is what next? How will these 3 forces—capital, grass-roots, and a middle segment, Gentrifiers—compete and perhaps destroy each other and the city, or hopefully but less likely, synergize and lead to Detroit resurrection. I hope to interpret this photographically in the upcoming years of struggle.
As Grace Lee Boggs stated, “Every day, we endure attacks from a corporate elite determined to remake our city into a place where the wealthy can live, work, play, and be served by the rest of us.” She counters with this vision: “In order to grapple with the interacting and seemingly intractable questions of today’s society, we need to see ourselves not mainly as victims but as new men and women who, recognizing the sacredness in ourselves and in others, can view love and compassion not as some ‘sentimental weakness but as the key that somehow unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.’ (Martin Luther King)”
Grace Lee Boggs interviewed for On Being, a radio show. Photo courtesy of On Being.
Or wisdom from Rebecca Solnit, one of our most visionary authors, from “Detroit Arcadia”:
A pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street…is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is also a stronghold of possibility.
Steve’s Place by Lucille Nawara
Requiem for Detroit? a movie by the BBC in 2010
“A Lifelong Search for Real Education” (Grace Lee Boggs’ views about education) by Julia Putnam
“From Devils Night to Movement City and Bioneers,” by Grace Lee Boggs Nov. 2-9, 2013
“EMU education dean leaving EAA board” by Shawn D. Lewis, December 3, 2013
“Detroit’s Grassroots Economies,” by Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd, March 2011