Development and Democracy

By Shea Howell

Michigsn Citizen, March 14-20, 2010

Advocates of downsizing say that Detroit has "vacant land," whole sections of the city are "empty" and "nothing is there."

These are the same words used by the first Europeans to come to these shores, unable to see the people already living here or the land and life that supported them. It is the same blindness that shaped the disastrous Zionist move into Palestine, expressed in the slogan "A land without a people, a people without a land."

If the pain and misery created by those two moments of history are not enough to give pause to the Mayor, he should consider more recent history. Black Bottom. Paradise Valley, Chinatown. Hastings Street. Poletown, Graymark. In every case "Eminent domain " was sold as public good. In every case a few people made a lot of money and a lot of people endured misery. In every case the promises of a better city failed to materialize.

Now, in spite of all of this history, all this collective recognition that "Urban Renewal" meant "Negro Removal," we are being asked again to believe that a Mayor who could not even reorganize bus routes can redevelop a city.

The corporate interests behind this scheme are rushing to tell us how "courageous" Mayor Bing is. None have yet ventured a comment on his competence.

In fact, even if Bing were the most visionary person around, the redevelopment of Detroit cannot happen from the top down. It has to begin from the bottom up. Detroit is not vacant. Across the city for more than three decades, people have been reimagining and redeveloping their neighborhoods. Hundreds of urban gardens are flourishing, parks are maintained by block clubs and informal neighborhood groups, small businesses and artist enclaves are emerging, community projects are being run out of garages and reclaimed houses.

The reconstruction of urban life in life-affirming ways begins with the energies that are already emerging in the city.

Bing is moving in the wrong direction. Instead of closing Neighborhood City Halls, he should be enlivening them as neighborhood centers of conversation about the direction of the city. Instead of giving money to developers to "clear cut" neighborhoods," he should be proposing legislation to give that money to community groups to decide which houses and structures to remove or renovate, and pay them to do it. That way money and materials can be used to enrich the city rather than line the pockets of demolition companies.

Bing and the City Council should organize public discussions at the neighorhood level inviting citizens to discuss different proposals for redeveloping their area, including resurrecting the Community Reinvestment Strategies and those being proposed by various non-profits like the recently released plan from the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD).

Likewise those organizations that have been in the forefront of visionary change including the Black Security Food Network, Detroit Agricultural Network, Greening of Detroit, University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, and Marygrove College should be invited to lead discussions and conversations in libraries, schools community centers and churches.

The real problem with the proposal for shrinking Detroit is that it is being presented as though public officials just discovered that we have lost half our population. Most people in Detroit have been wrestling with this reality for years. Many have developed ideas and practices that are inspiring people around the world.

Pretending that these don't exist is taking Detroit down the road to disaster. Real leadership is not coming up with schemes that ensure short-term corporate profit. It is based on what people are already doing and engaging them in discussions and making decisions that will lead to real change because they come from the ground up. We have the opportunity not only to redevelop our city but to develop a new and vibrant democracy in the process.

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