Another Detroit is Happening—But Which One Do We Need?

At the U.S. Social Forum, thousands of activists are looking for answers to America’s biggest problems.

Paul Abowd

Bakers tend to La Gloria bakery in southwest Detroit. Behind them is the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, under renovation. (Photo by Paul Abowd)

Tens of thou­sands of activists have begun arriv­ing for the June 22 – 26 Unit­ed States Social Forum. Detroit is host­ing the sec­ond iter­a­tion of a glob­al jus­tice move­ment of move­ments” revival, bring­ing togeth­er near­ly every cause on the Amer­i­can left’s radar. But Forum-goers are also focused on the host city at a time when the event’s tagline – Anoth­er Detroit is Hap­pen­ing” – is both promis­ing and foreboding.

Soon after tak­ing office in 2009, Detroit’s new may­or, Dave Bing, assem­bled his cri­sis turn­around team,” a hand­picked col­lec­tion of exiled auto exec­u­tives, financiers, and PR peo­ple. The NBA hall-of-famer and steel exec­u­tive and his team have act­ed swift­ly to reshape a city they view as a clean slate, a city as vacant as post-Kat­ri­na New Orleans.

The new may­or is promis­ing to shrink Detroit and its infra­struc­ture, and has gath­ered the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty and sub­ur­ban phil­an­thropies to put down­pay­ments on a dream­scape: a down­town light rail line, a new hock­ey sta­di­um, shiny char­ter schools to com­ple­ment a slimmed down tra­di­tion­al” dis­trict, an indus­tri­al farm on the East side, and new hous­ing enclaves.

While the cor­po­rate class con­tem­plates new invest­ments, the com­mu­ni­ty has been remind­ing Bing that Detroit is no emp­ty city. I think we need to use the Social Forum as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to say to city offi­cials, look — you’re deal­ing with a pop­u­la­tion that can mobi­lize 20,000 peo­ple to come to Detroit,” says Lot­tie Spady, a food jus­tice orga­niz­er work­ing on the Forum. Out­side of a sport­ing event, when does that happen?”

Visions of Detroit con­sis­tent­ly refer to a sparkling time of indus­try, shop­ping, and peace that nev­er real­ly exist­ed. The Motor City’s avenues host­ed an eight-lane Amer­i­can dream cruise. And when it picked a free­way and left town, the city’s per­sis­tent class war­fare and racial seg­re­ga­tion came into stark relief. Shea How­ell says Bing envi­sions a city that would paper over the city’s long-stand­ing inequal­i­ty, not con­front it.

Their focal point is cre­at­ing these pro­tect­ed enclaves with good schools, good ser­vices, safe­ty; all those nice things that every­body wants. Only some peo­ple will be able to have them, and the rest of us will be on the out­side look­ing in,” says How­ell, a teacher, activist and colum­nist help­ing to orga­nize the Forum.

City plan­ning doc­u­ments bemoan city work­ers and their large num­ber of labor unions restrict­ing management’s abil­i­ty to prop­er­ly con­trol and dis­ci­pline the work­force.” Bing has demand­ed 10 per­cent wage cuts and an end to defined-ben­e­fit pen­sions for the next gen­er­a­tion of pub­lic employ­ees. Bing is also mov­ing to dis­con­tin­ue the Pub­lic Light­ing Depart­ment and sell oper­a­tions to DTE Ener­gy, a com­pa­ny noto­ri­ous for a string of fatal elec­tric­i­ty shut­offs in the city.

Today, much of what’s left of the proud auto work­er corps is either mak­ing close to non-union wages, work­ing non-union jobs, or out of work alto­geth­er. A four-month strike by work­ers at GM-sup­pli­er Amer­i­can Axle in 2008 was the rank-and-file’s last big stand before the Big 3’s gov­ern­ment-guid­ed implo­sion. Axle CEO Dick Dauch cut start­ing wages in half. Months lat­er, he picked up and moved the whole oper­a­tion to Mex­i­co. Two sta­di­ums, three casi­nos, and two med­ical cen­ters have strug­gled to fill the gaps, leav­ing thir­ty per­cent of res­i­dents with­out a job. That’s the offi­cial tally.

Rein­vest­ment and plans to shrink the city might be need­ed, says Bill Wylie-Keller­man, an orga­niz­er of the Forum’s Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty Com­mit­tee. But how do you do it in a way that isn’t high-hand­ed, that doesn’t write off people’s lives and com­mu­ni­ties?” asks Wylie-Keller­man, a pas­tor at St. Peter’s Epis­co­pal. How do we cre­ate demo­c­ra­t­ic involve­ment in the process of envi­sion­ing the new city?”

Orga­niz­ers are in town for the five-day Social Forum – which offers a series of work­shops, meet­ings, and action-ori­ent­ed People’s Move­ment Assem­blies” – to tack­le these ques­tions. Some vis­i­tors are past­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary lit­er­a­ture on tele­phone poles, oth­ers are jim­my­ing the lights in burned-out apart­ments. Tent cities on emp­ty lots and in parks are fill­ing up. Forum-goers will see that Detroit show­cas­es not only capitalism’s bru­tal­i­ty, but also a community’s resolve to face it.For a very long time, there’s been an under­ground, more sus­tain­able ver­sion of work being done that has come about out of neces­si­ty,” says Spady.

That nec­es­sary work pre­cedes the Forum, and will con­tin­ue when it’s over. Orga­niz­ers agree, though, that the June gath­er­ing is a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to solid­i­fy alter­na­tive visions of the city at a moment when Bing and com­pa­ny are advanc­ing a very dif­fer­ent idea about how Detroit’s schools, hous­ing, and emp­ty land should be lever­aged, and to whose benefit.

School­house rocked

State-appoint­ed schools man­ag­er Robert Bobb has run up against a legal chal­lenge and neigh­bor­hood resis­tance to his plan to shut­ter 45 dis­trict schools next year. He’s stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der with a foun­da­tion-fund­ed plan to replace, not reform” the pub­lic schools by open­ing 70 new char­ter schools by 2020 and hand­ing con­trol to May­or Bing much sooner.

After a stu­dent walk­out, teach­ers and alum­ni of North­west­ern High vowed to sit down, chain the doors, and pur­sue injunc­tions – what­ev­er was nec­es­sary – to keep the his­toric school open. Bobb kept 18 schools open, includ­ing North­west­ern, but vowed to shut­ter 45 schools by 2013 any­way – if a judge allows him to. Many remain­ing dis­trict schools, some put under pri­vate man­age­ment, will func­tion as mag­net schools, tak­ing select appli­cants, not all com­ers. Dis­trict schools will adopt the mod­el of their non-union, char­ter school coun­ter­parts, skim­ming the best and bright­est to raise test scores while push­ing com­mu­ni­ties of low-per­form­ing” stu­dents fur­ther to the margins.

Ismael Duran Gal­fano and Mary Duran say they won’t go along with Bobb’s plan for a K‑14 mega­cam­pus” that would con­sol­i­date three neigh­bor­hood schools into one con­tigu­ous cam­pus. Bobb asked the long-time res­i­dents in the grow­ing Lati­no neigh­bor­hood of South­west Detroit for some real estate, name­ly their home, which has been in Mary’s fam­i­ly since it was built in 1910. Gal­fano runs a com­mu­ni­ty arts cen­ter and Duran is retir­ing this year from 30 years of teach­ing in the Detroit Pub­lic schools. The two have lived in their home and tend­ed their gar­den there for three decades. Ismael says he didn’t leave Pinochet’s Chile to put up with more dic­ta­tor­ship in his back­yard. By email, he told his neigh­bors he wouldn’t be going with­out a fight.

Bobb had no idea this guy’s a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er – he’s going to know a thing or two about cre­at­ing resis­tance,” says How­ell. I think if they asked peo­ple to sit in on their prop­er­ty, they’d have a lot of us right there.”

Bobb even­tu­al­ly got the mes­sage, assur­ing the Duran fam­i­ly and their neigh­bors that no homes would be destroyed in the con­sol­i­da­tion that would bring six-year-olds onto cam­pus with 19-year-olds. The pro­pos­al is ques­tion­able, and has become the next focus of orga­niz­ing in the neighborhood.

World’s biggest urban farm?

Bing says he’ll demol­ish 10,000 homes dur­ing his term to ready for right­siz­ing. But even the may­or has switched up his plans, fir­ing a city plan­ner after her pro­pos­al to con­sol­i­date two East Side neigh­bor­hoods hit the press to bad reviews. The phrase emi­nent domain,” loaded in Detroit’s mind after a GM plant wiped out a Pol­ish enclave in 1981, dropped from Bing’s vocab­u­lary. His May invite-only land use sum­mit assem­bled foun­da­tions, investors, and city plan­ners, then prompt­ly went under­ground, promis­ing to return in 18 months with more details.

Orga­niz­ers for the USSF aren’t twid­dling their thumbs wait­ing for his re-emer­gence. Spady’s East Michi­gan Envi­ron­men­tal Action Coun­cil orga­nizes around air qual­i­ty and food jus­tice, engag­ing Detroit youth with par­tic­i­pa­to­ry envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion pro­grams that empha­size media mak­ing and civic action. EMEAC has linked with orga­ni­za­tions nation­wide, hatch­ing plans for a direct action against the city’s trash incin­er­a­tor. They’re also host­ing a youth-led film screen­ing with media-based envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice groups like the Green Gueril­las and Out­ta Your Back­pack Media.

EMEAC was part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort to estab­lish a Com­mu­ni­ty Food Jus­tice Task Force to exam­ine the entire food sys­tem and eval­u­ate where the com­mu­ni­ty can take own­er­ship to meet its needs, not mar­ket needs. While a grow­ing net­work of city gar­dens builds long-term toward a self-sus­tain­ing food sys­tem, a financier has tried to take Detroit’s urban agri­cul­ture phe­nom­e­non large scale. John Hantz has bought hun­dreds of acres of land on the East Side for what’s being called the cor­po­rate farm,” a year-round oper­a­tion pro­duc­ing for whole­sale mar­kets. But it’s far from a done deal. When peo­ple like Hantz want to come in and plunk down, we’re going to have an edu­cat­ed cit­i­zen­ry to say no no no, this is not what we need,” says Spady.

This week, United States Social Forum-goers will see that Detroit showcases not only capitalism's brutality, but also a community's resolve to face it.
Between us and homelessness

A 2010 land study shows that 95 per­cent of Detroit’s vacant sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes are still in live­able con­di­tion – that’s 218,000 homes suit­able for occu­pan­cy right now. Still, Detroit’s home­less pop­u­la­tion is among the high­est in the coun­try, and has been on a steady rise. Two major hous­ing projects near down­town have been torn down or vacat­ed in the last decade, their for­mer ten­ants re-assigned to mixed-income town­hous­es or dis­placed in the shuf­fle. Ball­parks and casi­nos now sit nearby.

Mau­reen Tay­lor, a Forum orga­niz­er and activist with Michi­gan Wel­fare Rights Orga­ni­za­tion, says the recent­ly demol­ished East Jef­fries projects were not only com­mu­ni­ties, but sol­id, well built hous­ing stock. MWRO fights for res­i­dents’ basic needs. Their hous­ing takeovers are fea­tured in Locusts,” a hip-hop doc­u­men­tary by Detroit’s own Invin­ci­ble and Finale. The video jumps around Detroit to show how space remains con­test­ed and cor­doned off, even in a city with so much of it.

We have peo­ple who need hous­ing, and we have avail­able hous­ing. So we got those peo­ple ready, and took them straight to those units, kicked in the door, got new locks on em,” says Tay­lor, in Locusts.” That’s direct action – there’s noth­ing else left between us and homelessness.”

Fresh off a month of action that fea­tured civ­il dis­obe­di­ence live-ins” at gov­ern­ment-owned or fore­closed homes in ten cities, Mia­mi-based Take Back the Land is in Detroit, join­ing efforts with MWRO and hous­ing rights groups from Chica­go and New Orleans at sev­er­al strat­e­gy sessions.

Mid­town, USA

Detroit’s Mid­town area, a con­stel­la­tion of six cen­tral-city neigh­bor­hoods, is one of the clear­est signs that rein­vest­ment is more than a board­room day­dream. The area bor­dered by four free­ways boasts near­ly $2 bil­lion in invest­ment in the last decade. Mid­town reach­es south to a stun­ning down­town sky­line, still blink­ing like a real cor­po­rate city. Downtown’s enter­tain­ment dis­trict reach­es back to meet it. In between sits the South Cass” Cor­ri­dor, a col­lec­tion of hand-paint­ed signs on bygone bars, ply­wood, and park­ing lots – as well as sev­er­al social ser­vice and home­less organizations.

Midtown’s chang­ing” neigh­bor­hood is rebuild­ing from the ground up, giv­ing rise to a small busi­ness bohemia. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is not an issue now, and it might nev­er be, says Sue Mosey. A long time Detroi­ter, Mosey heads up the Uni­ver­si­ty Cul­tur­al Cen­ter Asso­ci­a­tion, a non-prof­it head­ed up by local busi­ness own­ers and rede­vel­op­ers. UCCA has its hand in near­ly all things Mid­town, an idea more than a neigh­bor­hood radi­at­ing from the Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty campus.

Mosey lists off in rapid fire the projects that her non­prof­it has under­way. With a $5 mil­lion annu­al bud­get raised from local foun­da­tions, the group funds small busi­ness start-ups and façade improve­ment, street beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and urban gar­dens, and is plan­ning an arts dis­trict based around an auto deal­er­ship turned con­tem­po­rary art museum.

Then there’s real estate. UCCA owns, man­ages, and helps devel­op hous­ing for a mix of incomes – for now. We haven’t seen any­thing like oth­er mar­kets where peo­ple throw out low-income and go for lucra­tive high-end,” says Mosey. That’s not the mar­ket here, and that’s not what we’re going for.” All of the UCCA’s projects, she says, have tak­en place in vacant or aban­doned build­ings, and many have a green ethos.

While the Mid­town name imports its sta­tus from New York, the Cass Cor­ri­dor is unde­ni­ably Detroit. The Corridor’s lega­cy as home to a grit­ty arts com­mu­ni­ty is too famous to be erased. But its authen­tic­i­ty is becom­ing mar­ketable, too. We’re not about chang­ing neigh­bor­hood names,” says Mosey. But we are about brand­ing the big­ger neigh­bor­hood that encom­pass­es them all, and we call that Mid­town.” But slap­ping a brand on neigh­bor­hoods rais­es the ques­tion: can devel­op­ment be about more than just attract­ing new consumers?

A lit­tle gentrification’s good,” says Pat Dorn with a smile. But it was his con­cern that the whole neigh­bor­hood would go high-end that got Dorn into afford­able hous­ing work. The neigh­bor­hood was home to a size­able white, Appalachi­an auto work­er com­mu­ni­ty when he start­ed the Cass Cor­ri­dor Neigh­bor­hood Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion in 1982. Two blocks of Brainard Street in the heart of the Cor­ri­dor used to house thou­sands of peo­ple, but began clear­ing out when the Big 3 stopped hiring.

When CCNDC bought up the block for rede­vel­op­ment, it was a stretch of emp­ty lots and rub­ble. We want­ed to estab­lish a per­cent­age that would always remain afford­able,” says Dorn. So we took the cen­ter, and we ded­i­cat­ed some units to peo­ple who get pushed out. “

A devel­op­ing story

Mid­town and the Cor­ri­dor tout a grow­ing num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty-based projects. A local­ly-owned organ­ic bak­ery and health food store share a block. Around the cor­ner, there’s a neigh­bor­hood bike shop. Down Cass Avenue, across from the Man­darin sign­posts of old Chi­na­town, a recent­ly closed school hosts an inde­pen­dent movie the­ater and stu­dio space for artists and activists.

While anoth­er lay­er of life and cul­ture imprints itself on the city’s rapid­ly chang­ing palimpsest – a blend of decay and rebirth, exo­dus and return – Midtown’s hum­ble, vil­lage-like charm exists pre­car­i­ous­ly. Because Detroit has gone from major­i­ty white to major­i­ty black, from indus­tri­al pow­er­house to indus­tri­al grave­yard, in a rel­a­tive­ly short peri­od of time, no degree of trans­for­ma­tion seems unten­able. The cov­ered wag­on and the kib­butz set off larg­er process­es of set­tle­ment and takeover, and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, too, hap­pens in phas­es on the urban fron­tier. Larg­er com­mer­cial and real estate forces always hov­er, ready to cap­i­tal­ize on cool,” capa­ble of enact­ing large-scale trans­for­ma­tions in short peri­ods of time.

For now, there’s only one Star­bucks in Mid­town. And the high-end lofts that sit above it are half-emp­ty. Around the cor­ner, Cal­i­for­nia investors took out a $2 mil­lion mort­gage on the Hotel Eddy­s­tone. The pur­chase of the 13-sto­ry blown-out struc­ture comes after rumors that Detroit Red Wings own­er Mike Illitch is con­sid­er­ing the Cor­ri­dor site for a new hock­ey sta­di­um. A shred­ded Move in Now” ban­ner still hangs on the Eddystone’s win­dow­less shell, a reminder of a high­ly-tout­ed 2005 rede­vel­op­ment effort — one of many false starts that pre­cede the cur­rent attempt to trans­form one of the poor­est parts of the city.

Bing’s remap­ping efforts will con­tin­ue to bump up against per­va­sive inequal­i­ty in the city. The most tran­sient vis­i­tor, fun­neled from high­way off-ramp to casi­no park­ing garage, will still see peo­ple post­ed up on every cor­ner, ask­ing for change.

The tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors arriv­ing in Detroit for the five-day Forum will take on super­fi­cial renew­al” plans with skill-build­ing, strat­e­gy ses­sions, and direct action to shape com­mu­ni­ty-dri­ven solu­tions. They come togeth­er, how­ev­er, with an under­stand­ing that no num­ber of vis­i­tors can save the city in one week.It can’t be the end,” says Spady. We’ll have to come back out from it stronger. It’s got to be more of a beginning.”

A ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Truthout​.org

Paul Abowd lives in Detroit, where he writes for Crit­i­cal Moment mag­a­zine. His work has also appeared in Labor Notes, Z Mag­a­zine, Month­ly Review, Truthout, Coun­ter­punch and The Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da.
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