One Thing Leads to Another:
Cooperative Developments in Urban Communities
By Grace Lee Boggs
Keynote, Michigan Alliance of Cooperatives
E.Lansing, Michigan, October 20, 2000

I am going to talk about Detroit this morning not only because it is the urban community that I know best but because over the years the hopes and fears of Americans all over this country have been closely tied to the rise and fall of the city that has been my home for most of my adult life. Detroit isn't just any American city. As Jerry Herron, head of the Wayne State University American Studies Department, put it at last weekend's meeting of the American Studies Association, "Washington, D.C. is the capital of American government, but the capital of American culture is Detroit."

Up to a generation ago Detroit was a shining example of the success of American capitalism, encouraging and reinforcing the conventional wisdom that technological progress is the key to social progress. By utilizing the new techniques of mass production, manufacturers like Ford Motor Co., GM, Chrysler, U.S. Rubber and Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals were able to attract hundreds of thousands of workers to Detroit from Europe and other parts of the United States. From the labor of these workers came the wealth that enabled the upper classes to build mansions for themselves and world-class symphony orchestras and museums for the public And it was not only the bourgeoisie who flourished. A mode of production that concentrated thousands under a single roof made it possible for workers to create the great social movement of the 1930s that established the dignity of labor. During World War II Detroit was the "Arsenal of Democracy." After the war Detroiters could boast that they were living in a city with the largest number of working class homeowners north of the Ohio River.

In the last twenty-five years, however, as global corporations have moved overseas or to the South where they can make more profit with cheaper labor, Detroit has become a wasteland. For the media it has become the symbol of the coming collapse of American urban civilization - "the first domino to fall" as Diane Sawyer put it on a national network special ten years ago. Detroit's population which was 2 million in the l950s now hovers around or below the million mark. Physically the city is more devastated than Dresden, Berlin and Tokyo after the massive bombings of World War II. Buildings that were once architectural marvels, like the Statler Hilton and the Book Cadillac hotels, Union Station and the Michigan Theatre, lie in ruins, earmarks like the Roman Colosseum of the decline of an empire. On city planning maps white spaces now outnumber black ones, reminders of the hundreds of thousands of housing units that have vanished in the last thirty years. Many of the institutional structures that remain are fenced in or gated and in most neighborhoods people live behind triple locked doors and barred windows.

Under these circumstances, it would be easy to abandon all hope for Detroit's future - or to be satisfied with pseudo-solutions like casinos and luxury sports stadia. Yet precisely because physical devastation on such a huge scale boggles the mind, it also frees the imagination, especially of activists/artists/artisans, to perceive reality anew; to see vacant lots not as eyesores but as empty spaces inviting the viewer to fill them in with other forms, other structures that presage a new kind of city which will embody and nurture new life-affirming values in sharp contrast to the values of Materialism, Individualism and Competition that have brought us to this denouement.

This new kind of city can't be built overnight. To create it is going to take time and struggle, including political struggles over opposing policies and directions. It can't be built from the top down by politicians reacting to crises or by developers seizing opportunities to make megaprofits. It must emerge organically from the initiative, imagination, commitment, passions and cooperation of a lot of different people with diverse skills and gifts, putting their hearts, heads and hands together to make a difference. I can't predict the process by which this new kind of city will become strong and stable enough to be a recognizable social formation, but I suspect that it will be something like the one by which over the last four hundred years capitalism slowly but steadily began to take root in Europe and from there spread to the rest of the world because it met deep-seated human or spiritual needs for the individuality and freedoms that had been repressed by feudalism. Analogously, as we enter the third millennium, capitalism's destruction of community and of the biosphere, its denial of social justice and its consumerist monoculture are creating spiritual and material needs for a new culture based on new human values. The movement to create this new culture is emerging organically in Detroit because its physical devastation not only challenges us to begin thinking differently about who we are and how we want to live but also frees up space for new beginnings.

Perhaps the best way for me to convey what I mean by "emerging organically" is to describe how my own thinking and activities as a Movement activist have evolved over the last nearly fifty years through my immersion in the community in close partnership with my husband, Jimmy Boggs, until his death in July 1993.

I came to Detroit in the early 1950s because as a Marxist I wanted to be part of an American revolution in which the workers in the auto factories would take the struggles of the 1930s to a higher level by struggling for workers control of production in the plant. My main difference with traditional Marxists was my belief that blacks, women and young people, and not only workers, would play pivotal roles in this revolution.

Living with Jimmy who was active both in the Chrysler Jefferson plant and in the community, it wasn't long before I realized that my ideas had come mostly out of books and that my expectations had little or no relationship to the reality that was rapidly changing all around me. The work force in the factories, instead of expanding and becoming more centralized, was being decimated by automation and decentralized by plant relocations. At the same time Detroit itself was becoming predominantly black as middle and working class whites fled to the suburbs, aided and abetted by a federal government providing FHA mortgages and spending billions of tax dollars on freeway construction to help the auto industry expand. As a result, the predominantly white police force began to act like an occupation army and the white city government began to resemble a colonial administration, setting the stage for the Black Power movement which we began organizing in Detroit in the early 1960s, long before Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael raised their fists and the Black Power slogan on the March through Mississippi in l966.

As we struggled for Black Political Power in Detroit in the 1960s, we were not thinking about how we would organize or reorganize the economy. Our main concern was the racism of the white power structure. When whites asked us how Black Power would differ from white power, our reply was usually a superficial "It couldn't be any worse."

Therefore, when the 1967 rebellion made Black Power inevitable by making it impossible for whites to continue governing Detroit, Coleman Young, our first black mayor, was completely unprepared for the ruthlessness with which multinational corporations were de-industrializing the city. Taking office in 1974, Young could attack racism by desegregating the police and fire departments. But he had no idea how to deal with the massive export of jobs overseas that was making it impossible for young people to leave school in the ninth grade and get a job in the plant making enough money to get married and raise a family. All he could do was react - trying desperately to repla ce the jobs that had left Detroit - by any means necessary. Hence his decision to bulldoze the Poletown community in 1980, over the protests of residents, destroying 1500 homes, 600 businesses, and six churches, in order to build a GM plant that was supposed to provide 6000 jobs but has never provided more than 3000, a fraction of those lost by GM's simultaneous shutdown of the Fisher Body and the Cadillac plants.

Hence also his attempts to bring Casino Gambling to Detroit. It was an "industry," he insisted, that would create 50,000 jobs.

To defeat Coleman's Casino Gambling initiative, we formed Detroiters Uniting - a "coalition of community groups - blue collar, white collar, and cultural workers; clergy, political leaders and professionals - who together embody the rich ethnic and social diversity of our city."

"Our concern," we said, "is with how our city has been disintegrating socially, economically, politically, morally and ethnically....We are convinced that we cannot depend upon one industry or one large corporation to provide us with jobs. It is now up to us - the citizens of Detroit - to put our hearts, our imaginations, our minds, and our hands together to create a vision and project concrete programs for developing the kinds of local enterprises that will provide meaningful jobs and income for all citizens."

During the 1960s, Jimmy Boggs had anticipated some of the economic challenges that Black Political Power would face. "The ability of capitalists today to produce in abundance," he wrote in Black Power: A Scientific Concept Whose Time Has Come, "has brought the U.S technologically to the threshold of a society where each can have according to his needs...Therefore black political power will have to decide on...the aims and direction of the economy for the people."

Now watching the desperate efforts of Young to create jobs by means that were not only manifestly parasitic and anti-human but ultimately futile, Jimmy began envisioning a Detroit founded on different principles. In a 1985 speech he said we need to go where we have never gone before and focus on "Creating Communities." In 1988, in a debate on Casino Gambling, he projected a vision of a new kind of city whose foundation would be people living in communities and citizens who take responsibility for decisions about their city instead of leaving these to politicians or to the market place and who create small enterprises that emphasize the preservation of skills and produce goods and services for the local community.

In pursuit of this vision, we organized a Peoples Festival of community organizations in November 1991, describing it as "A multigenerational, multicultural celebration of Detroiters, putting our hearts, minds, hands and imagination together to redefine and recreate a city of Community, Compassion, Cooperation, Participation and Enterprise in harmony with the Earth."

A few months later, to engage young people in the movement to create this new kind of city, we founded Detroit Summer as a Multicultural, Intergenerational Youth Program/Movement to rebuild, redefine and respirit Detroit from the ground up. Detroit Summer, which completed its ninth season last summer, involves youth volunteers in planting community gardens, rehabbing houses and painting public murals, while also expanding their minds and imaginations through workshops and intergenerational dialogues on how to rebuild Detroit.

Detroit Summer brought us into contact with the Gardening Angels, a loose network of mainly African American southern-born elders, who plant gardens not only to produce healthier food for themselves and their neighbors but to instill respect for nature and process in young people. Getting starter kits of seeds and tilling services from the city's Farm-a-Lot program (started by Coleman Young) these elders work closely with 4H youth involving them in all aspects of gardening, nutrition and food preservation.

The Gardening Angels stay active and in touch with one another mainly through the volunteer efforts of Gerald Hairston, a master gardener, former auto worker and passionate environmentalist/intergenerationalist whose love for the Land, for oldsters and for youngsters is all of one piece. Gerald has helped countless groups and individuals all over the city to start gardens: neighborhood gardens, youth gardens, church gardens, school gardens, hospital gardens, senior Independence gardens, Wellness gardens, Hope Takes Root gardens, Kwanzaa gardens. He also has close ties with the National and local Black Farmers movement which spreads the good news that "we cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves," i.e., it is only when we can provide for our own basic needs that we are empowered to make our own choices.

About 5 years ago with the help of the Hunger Action Coalition of Michigan and Michigan Integrated Food & Farming Systems (MIFFS), people from these gardens came together to form the Detroit Agricultural Network with the aim of promoting urban agriculture as a way of growing people and communities. In turn, the Detroit Agricultural Network has inspired the formation of another coalition, consisting of health providers, emergency food providers, church representatives, and university researchers who are working on a Food Security Plan that will combine urban agriculture, food cooperative development in local congregations and youth training programs in agriculture and quality marketing, so that Detroit can develop food self-reliance, create community wealth, better community health and keep dollars circulating locally.

The members of the Detroit Agricultural Network and the Food Security Coalition are ethnically and socially diverse. One of the most versatile is Paul Weertz who teaches science at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school on the west side for predominantly African American teen-aged mothers. Paul is a jack of all trades, an urban farmer, and a housebuilder who has no use for schooling that is divorced from life. In the deteriorating neighborhood on the east side where he lives, he has remodeled a block of houses and created a Hay and Honey farm. At the Catherine Ferguson Academy, which is surrounded by more vacant lots than houses, he has organized a college prep curriculum which teaches math and science through home repair, small animal husbandry and agriscience. Students landscape, raise vegetables and fruit trees, and plant, harvest and bale a two acre alfalfa field in back of the school to feed the small animals that provide eggs, meat, milk and cheese for the school community. Last year Weertz' home repair class spent every day of a whole quarter clearing out a five-bedroom house across the street and worked towards acquiring the site for emergency student housing.

The community gardening movement keeps expanding. Just the other day I read an article about a group of mostly young Detroiters on the east side, calling itself the Green Team, that has bought four parcels of city owned land (the city owns approximately 40,000 usable parcels) at a cost of $100-$200 a lot, with the aim of "turning them into vibrant gathering places that provide a haven for children, fresh food for nearby residents and beauty where there was an eyesore." Community gardens also revive neighborhood organizations. For example, the garden that Ashley Klyber, University of Detroit Mercy landscape architect, designed for the Detroit Agricultural Network on the three acres surrounding Genesis Lutheran Church at the corner of Mack Ave and E. Grand Boulevard just up the street from my house, has re-energized Mack Alive, the organization formed by City Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Williams that had become dormant in the last few years.

In the last few years, word of Detroit's community gardening movement has spread. Journalists from other countries and cities who come to Detroit to report on its decline go away renewed after being driven around Detroit by Gerald who has given guided tours to countless student, youth and church groups from Detroit and other cities. As a result, two years ago Kyong Park, internationally known Architectural and Urban Theorist who is a frequent Visiting Lecturer in the University of Detroit Mercy Architectural School, decided to move to Detroit to establish the International Center for Urban Ecology (ICUE) in Paul Weertz' neighborhood.

In the summer of 1999 ICUE brought together students, architects and artists in a seminar to explore what an Architecture of Resurrection would look like. Among the participants were Mel Chin from North Carolina and Deborah Grotfeldt from Houston. Mel Chin is a Chinese American sculptor internationally known for his public art works that address issues of habitat devastation, restoration and sustaining the planet's diversity, especially for his "Revival Fields" project which uses the biomass of plants to extract heavy metals from a Minneapolis brownfield so that the land can be re-used. PBS will be doing a special on him this year.

Deborah Grotfeldt is an artist and administrator who, with African American artist/activist Rick Lowe, co-founded the award-winning Project Row Houses in one of the poorest African American neighborhoods in Houston, Texas, transforming an historic l-1/2 block site of 22 abandoned shotgun houses into a center that has become a model for a holistic approach to cultural, educational, economic and social needs. Some houses, for example, are used for artists installations, others for children's after school programs and still others for young single mothers and their children.

Because she was so impressed with the movement already underway in the city Deborah moved to Detroit a couple of months ago to spend a year organizing a project similar to Project Rowhouses in the Catherine Ferguson Academy (CFA) neighborhood. The CFA project will include two houses rehabbed with reusable materials and volunteer labor and a new house, designed by a UDM School of Architecture studio, for mothers and children who need emergency or long-term housing. Also in the works are an art garden and space for revolving public art projects by local, national and international artists in a residency program. Mel Chin, who has agreed to be the first artist in residence, has designed a gourmet mushroom/worm growing enterprise to be installed in an abandoned house in the neighborhood.

A studio of Kyong Park's UDM architectural students at UDM has also created a vision of how a five square mile area on the east side of Detroit can be developed into a self-reliant community with a vegetable farm to produce food, a tree farm and a sawmill to produce lumber, schools which include community-building as part of the curriculum, and co-housing as well as individual housing. I have seen the 2-hour visual of this Studio several times and am looking forward to showing it to community groups to broaden their imaginations on how they can rebuild and respirit their communities.

I hope I have said enough to give you an idea of the movement that is emerging in Detroit so that you will want to support it, join it, expand it, emulate it, innovate it - because that is what movements are for - to move people.

In conclusion, I need to give you a sense of the political struggle that is heating up in Detroit.

As Dennis Archer enters the final year of his second term as Mayor, it is becoming clear to a growing number of citizens that he is trying to build what he calls a world class city at the expense of Detroit's people and communities. He has used eminent domain to remove long-time working class residents from desirable locations (like Graimark and Brush Park) to make room for upscale housing, in the process enriching developers who include members of his family. He is committing the obscenity of building $200,000 condominiums and half-million dollar McMansions in a city where half the population lives below the poverty level, while at the same time forcing the working poor into the ranks of the homeless by demolishing buildings that could be rehabbed to provide low income housing. He has transformed city government into a deep pocket for private interests and connived with Engler to remove the democratically-elected school board and replace it with hand-picked appointees. He is so determined to deface the east Riverfront with three gambling casinos that he has sued to try to prevent residents in the area from exercising their constitutional right to submit petitions they have gathered to block this assault on our senses and on our quality of life. Finally, by these repeated injuries and usurpations he has created an overall climate of such contempt for ordinary citiizens that Detroit police now kill people at a higher rate than in any other big U.S. city.

Meanwhile, the majority of the City Council, most of whom have accepted contributions from casino interests, has made these crimes against the people of Detroit possible by their continuing support of Archer's policies.

That is why some of the most respected activists and representatives of community organizations in the city have come together to form the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit. We plan to run a slate of candidates in next year's City Council elections on a program of resisting Archer's community-destroying policies and supporting community-building as the key to the resurrection of Detroit. One of the main criteria for being on the CPR slate will be refusal to accept corporate campaign contributions. We are running to win, but our main objective is to create a movement so that even if we don't win we will have created something - at this point I don't know what to call it - that will provide Detroiters with an alternative way of thinking and acting to rebuild the city that all of us are proud to call our own.