REBUILDING DETROIT: AN ALTERNATIVE TO CASINO GAMBLING
By James Boggs
Public Speakout, 1st Unitarian-Universalist Church
Friday, June 24, 1988
Monday night I went to the graduation for one of my grandsons in Ford Auditorium at which Mayor Young was the main speaker. The student who introduced Young said, with a smile, that he was the only Mayor she had ever known. Young then said in the same joking vein that maybe some students should come back in ten years and run for Mayor because by then he would probably have retired. Everyone laughed, but it is no joking matter. The sad truth is that his honor has been Mayor for so long he thinks he owns the town and seems to have forgotten that the people elected him and may one day retire him before his vision of Detroit leads us into even deeper chaos.
Coleman Young was elected Mayor of Detroit fifteen years ago because the city was majority black and the time had come for a black mayor. Also blacks were furious with STRESS, the decoy system that the Gribbs administration had created to catch street criminals. When he was elected, Young had no program for stopping crime. All he could propose in his inaugural speech was that the criminals should hit 8 Mile road. But he did have a dream, the dream that he could get the corporations to stay in Detroit by bribing them with tax abatements.
Today Young’s dream has turned into a nightmare. Crime has not hit 8 Mile road, but industry has. Parke-Davis, Strohs, the Mack Ave. Chrysler plant are all gone. Young promised us 6000 jobs if we allowed him to bulldoze 1500 homes, 600 businesses and 6 churches for a new GM plant in Poletown. Today our taxes are still going to pay for Poletown, but there have never been more than 2500 workers at the Poletown plant and most of those are from GM plants which have been closed down in other parts of the city, creating a wasteland in once thriving communities, especially on the southwest side of the city. At the same time the east side around the Chrysler Jefferson plants has been bulldozed so that it looks like a moonscape. Despite protests small businesses have been forced to leave, as in Poletown.
The reason Coleman Young’s dream has turned into a nightmare is that it was based on the illusion that we can bring back the good old days when Detroit was the auto capital of the world and hundreds of thousands of workers came to the city to do manufacturing jobs at the decent pay which had been won though the organization of the union. But today cars are being built all over the world, not only in Japan and West Germany but in South Korea and Yugoslavia, and multinational corporations have exported manufacturing jobs to the Third World where they can make more profit through cheaper labor. Coleman Young knows, as we all do, that large-scale industry is not coming back to Detroit. That’s why he is now calling casinos gambling an “industry” and trying to force it down our throats, promising us it will bring 50,000 to 80,000 jobs as the auto industry once did.
The workers, who came to Detroit during World War II, particularly from the South, had a lot of hope. They also brought with them a sense of family and a sense of community or of people living in harmony with one another. Working in the plant, they developed a sense of solidarity, at the same time earning enough money to buy homes and raise their families. As a result, Detroit became known as one of the best organized and disciplined cities in the United States, with the highest percent of working class homeowners north of the Mason Dixon line.
Today, however, the great majority of Detroiters no longer have any hope or solidarity with one another. Born and raised in the city, they have no experience of the culture which was second nature to those who had lived close to the land in small Southern communities. At the same time, they can no longer look forward to the well-paying manufacturing jobs which enabled their parents and grandparents to buy their own homes and raise their families. So rather than accept the minimum wage jobs which offer no hope for the future, an increasing number of our youth are attracted to the fast money and big bucks which come from selling dope. The result is that instead of being the auto capital of the world, Detroit has become the murder capital of the world.
However, instead of calling upon Detroiters to embark on a collective reassessment and exploration of how to rebuild Detroit, Young is becoming more arrogant and more stubborn every day. We, the people, he is convinced are too dumb to know what’s good for us. So he set up a commission stacked with his friends and appointees to study casino gambling. Unable to win a majority in the city for casino gambling, he created his own majority.
Today a person has to be really socially-conscious and farsighted to care about the people of Detroit or for that matter the people of any of our big cities. I emphasize this because we are living today in a society where most people only care about the here and now. To rebuild Detroit we need a long-range perspective and not just a quick-fix solution. We need to think of human beings as more than just bodies to be clothed and housed or bellies to be filled. Most of all, we need a philosophy which gives young people the basis for the kind of hope that their grandparents had: the philosophy that people and the relationships between people are more important than material things and instant self-gratification and the confidence that we can create a better tomorrow if we live by this philosophy. We know that the welfare state has failed to give them this perspective. We also know that big industry is not coming back, and that from now on, large-scale industrial jobs will be done in the developing countries or the Third World.
Historically, capitalism has always made sure that the people on the bottom get the leavings, and in this day and age the large-scale industrial jobs are the leavings and the people in the Third World are at the bottom. We also know that a free marketplace economy only serves the interests of the capitalists and that the capitalists are in business not to serve the human needs of working people but to make profit. Therefore when we think about rebuilding Detroit, we have to think of a new model of production which is based upon serving human needs and the needs of the community and not any get-rich-quick schemes.
The question which Detroit and other industrial cities are now facing is “What is the purpose of a city?” Up to now, because it has been our historical experience for the last 75 years, most Americans have thought of the city as a place to which you go for a job after you have been driven off the land by mechanization. But now we know that the large industrial corporations are not going to provide those jobs in our cities.
What then is going to happen to the one million people who still live in Detroit, half of them on some form of public assistance; not only blacks but Chicanos, Arab-Americans, Asian and poor whites? For most of them, Detroit is the end of the rainbow. They can’t go back to the farms from which their parents and grandparents came because these have been wiped out by agribusiness. There are no new industries coming for Detroiters. So if we are going to create hope especially for our young people, we are going to have to break with most of the ideas about cities that we have accepted in the past and start with new basic principles.
To begin with, we have to stop seeing the city as just a place to which you come to get a job or to make a living, and start seeing it as the place where the humanity of people is enriched because they have the opportunity to live with people of many different ethnic and social backgrounds. In other words, we have to see that our capital is in the people and not see people as existing to make capital for production or dependent on capital to live.
The foundation of our city has to be people living in communities who realize that their human identity or their love and respect for self is based on love and respect for others and who have also learned from experiences that they can no longer leave the decision as to their present and their future to the market place, to corporations or to capitalist politicians, regardless of ethnic background. We, the people, have to see ourselves as responsible for our city and for each other, and especially for making sure that our children are raised to place more value on social ties than on material wealth.
We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market. Actually, our experiences over the last 75 years has demonstrated that large-scale production, because it is based on a huge separation between production and consumption, makes both producer and consumer into faceless masses who are alienated from one another and at the mercy of economic forces and the mass media. Instead, we have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city. Instead of destroying the skills of workers, which is what large-scale industry does, these small enterprises will combine craftsmanship, or the preservation and enhancement of human skills, with the new technologies which make possible flexible production and constant readjustment to serve the needs of local consumers.
In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the resources of our area and the existing and potential skills of Detroiters.
Detroit itself is in the Great Lakes region, so we should think of how we can take advantage of this resource. We can start by developing a fishing fleet. This would mean training young people to fish for a living as they do in New England and along the West and East coasts. It would also mean building docks and cleaning facilities along the river bank in order to supply fresh fish for the whole area.
Michigan also has the best sand in the world. In the past this sand has been used mostly in foundries. We can use it to produce glass; glass to replace the broken windows that we see all around us; glass for the storm windows which will enable us to save energy and use the sun to heat our homes and our water. We can also use glass for greenhouses all over the city, so that we can grow vegetables for the local market all year round. During the spring and the summer we should “Green Detroit” by planting gardens in the thousands of vacant lots all over the city.
Every day on the expressway we see hundreds of trucks and vans equipped with ladder, electrical tools and lumber, bringing carpenters electricians and other skilled workers into Detroit to do the work of repairing Detroit homes. Meanwhile, inner city youth, black and white, stand around doing nothing and waiting for the dope man. Our community colleges should be organizing crash programs to train our youth to use their hands and heads so that they can be doing this work to improve our communities and our city instead of depending on suburbanites.
Detroit has raised many talented clothes designers, but they have all left for New York or California because we have only been able to think in terms of large-scale industry and haven’t recognized that Detroit could become a clothes-producing center for the state of Michigan.
Over the years Detroiters have become locked into the mentality that a party store is the only small business that the average person can create and that shopping malls in the suburbs are where you go to buy most things. We need to be creating all kinds of locally-owned stores in our communities so that we can not only buy our necessities locally but so that our young people can see stores not just as places where you spend money to buy what you want but as places where people are working to meet the needs of the community. In every neighborhood there should be a bakery where families can purchase freshly baked bread and children can stop by after school to buy their sweets. In every neighborhood there should also be food shops where working people can purchase whole meals to take home to eat together, instead of living off McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. This has been a common practice in other countries.
We also need a fundamental change in our concept of schools. Since the World War II our schools have been transformed into custodial institutions where our children are warehoused for 12 years, with no function except to study and get good grades so that they can win the certificate that will enable them to get a job. What kids learn from books in school has little if any relationship to their daily lives. While they are growing up, they are like parasites doing no socially useful work, spending their time playing and watching TV. Then when they become teenagers, we blame them because they have no sense of social responsibility. We have to create schools which are an integral part of the community, in which young people naturally and normally do social necessary and meaningful work for the community, for example, keeping the school grounds and the neighborhood clean and attractive, taking care of younger children, growing gardens which provide food for the community, etc. etc. Connections should be created between schools and local enterprises so that young people see these as an integral part of their present and future. Our goal should be to make Detroit the first city in the nation to use our schools to support the community rather than as places where our young people are upgraded to leave the community.
Because of our declining population many school buildings in Detroit have been abandoned or are about to be abandoned. These schools can be turned into day care centers to care for the children of working mothers and fathers. They can be developed into political and cultural centers for the community; the place for town meetings or for a local museum where the arts and crafts are proudly exhibited.
These are only a few examples of the kinds of things we can do to rebuild Detroit once we realize that we can no longer depend upon the corporations or the politicians to save us and begin thinking for ourselves about what we can do and must do. At this point, what we need to do is to begin discussing how we are going to rebuild our city, in every block club, every church, every school, every organization and every home --because for the rest of this century and most of the next, the major question in this country is going to be "How will we live in the city?" Up to now we have come to the city expecting somebody else, meaning the corporation, to provide us with a livelihood. Now we are stuck here and we can't run or hide anymore. We can't go back to the farms, we can't keep running from city to city. We must put down our roots where we are and put our hearts, imagination, minds and hands to work, so that we can empower ourselves and one another to create an alternative to casino gambling. Coleman Young's crisis is our opportunity. Let us start the discussion here tonight.