Green Detroit: Why the City Is Ground Zero for the Sustainability Movement

By Ron Williams, AlterNet

April 22, 2010

The vultures are picking at the bones again:

"Two French photographers immortalize the remains of the motor city on film".

That's how Time magazine describes a recent photo series by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre titled "Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline". (,29307,1882089,00.html) I'd like to know who appointed these editors coroner, anyway? Where I come from, which happens to be Detroit, anytime you are immortalizing somebody's remains, they are dead. In this case I find it odd to send in two French photographers to conduct the forensics and perform the cultural autopsy. Who are these guys? How long did they spend in the city? What do they even know about Detroit?

Their photograph of a grand old theatre with its roof collapsing is certainly striking. Only problem is that it could have been taken 25 years ago. In fact, it was. When I was the editor & publisher of the Metro Times in the 80's, we paid photographers to break into abandoned theatres across downtown to rally the community to save these civic treasures. Yes, we lost some like the United Artist and Michigan. But we also saved the Fox, the State, the Gem and the Grand Circus, all in the same neighborhood. If Time wanted to show the world some images of Detroit, maybe they could have contacted an actual local photographer. There are many great ones.

Take Bruce Giffin for example, whom I worked with for many years. Bruce's powerful, respectful photographs from the streets of the city are deeply moving. They are authentic-I doubt if he jumps on the first plane to Paris after a photo session. (

After all the political rhetoric, all the corporate funded white papers and messed up mainstream media coverage, Detroit is the truth. Detroit is the end result of a global economic system unfettered by labor or environmental standards. The city is the deadly consequence of capital freely moving across the planet, forever in search of a lower common denominator of working conditions, pollution and corruption.

Add an utter lack of vision (and too often integrity) on the part of the local business and political leadership and the result has been an urban implosion unmatched in scale and depth anywhere in the United States. The amount of suffering and heartbreak is so acute and so real that it can take your breath away. So does Detroit still matter? Or should we just bulldoze what is still standing and scatter the remaining residents across the country like the Bush administration did to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Blame it on the post-industrial hurricane called global free market capitalism.

Part of the answer lies in the city's history. Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the industrial age with people starting automobile companies in their garages instead of tech companies. The world may not have defeated fascism and genocide without the "Arsenal of Democracy" running full tilt with countless women doing the heavy lifting. It was the place, more than any other, that gave real power to working men and women through collective bargaining. It was a crucible of Black pride and Black political power. And Detroit is birthplace to some of the best R&B, blues, jazz, rock & roll and hip hop the world has ever heard.

DO NOT underestimate the capacity of this city to achieve great things. I would argue that Detroit not only still matters, but it is at this moment the single most important city in North America. Detroit is coming to a neighborhood near you-it is an early warning of what urban communities across the US and far beyond are facing as those post-industrial, peak oil hurricane winds gather strength. Thing is, there is a flip side to Detroit's devastation. With the disinvestment and abandonment of the city at such an extreme and criminal level, the usual entrenched interests are far weaker and less capable of controlling the landscape. Call it the VOID. No where else are the opportunities to re-invent, re-think, re-build and re-imagine a major American city greater than Detroit today. With the city's current leadership hypnotized by what they see as a civic death spiral, new leadership is coming from the place it always does in the end-from the bottom up. This new life cycle is a grassroots affair with an astonishing number of people fashioning solutions and affirming. There are now eight hundred community gardens on abandoned lots, peace zones for public safety, green retrofitting of empty houses, new open source media projects and an exploding hip hop and poetry scene. (

This June, as many as 10,000 people from around the world will be convening in Detroit for the US Social Forum. They are organizing around the statement: "Another Detroit is Happening." and have chosen the city because it is ground zero in today's global financial meltdown. (

As far as I'm concerned, Detroit is ground zero for the sustainability movement as well. Green celebrities, high-end eco fashion and $125,000 electric sports cars-they are all good. But today's hip "green lifestyle" is overwhelmingly a white, academic, upper middle class phenomenon. I honestly don't understand how so much passion and energy can yield so few results and be so disconnected from most people's lives.

The Green movement can never succeed without placing social justice at its very heart. Sustainability will never gain real traction in North America without coming to terms with how it can engage with communities of color, those with lower incomes and people who are struggling. How do we make sustainability relevant to those losing their jobs, losing their homes?

Eunice Photo: Bruce Giffin

What we need now is a collaborative effort that could echo around the world. An Urban Green Lab. What possible better stage than the 11th largest city in the United States which is experiencing Depression-level economic conditions? Let's take sustainability home. Collectively we have everything the people of Detroit need to build their city anew. Their solutions are likely to be the very same solutions every community will need in some form in the years ahead.

Can you imagine if the socially responsible business community via Social Venture Network, BALLE and SOCAP, powerful membership organizations such as the Sierra Club, NRDC, Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy, sustainable urban planning departments, student environmental organizations, activists in food security, renewable energy, green building, new media and alternative currencies, were to come together in a shared commitment to the people of the city?

The result would be a wonder to behold-a high profile act of justice and compassion and a powerful validation of the elusive promise the environmental movement has always held. A gift from our brains, our hands and our hearts.

Let's be clear: The people of Detroit don't need anyone to "save" them. But they sure could use a little help. Grassroots organizations such as Detroit Summer (, Friends of Detroit (, Michigan Welfare Rights (, Community Food Security Network (, Boggs Center (, 1515 Broadway, Earthworks Urban Farm (, Hush House (, Heidelberg Project ( and East Michigan Environmental Action ( are doing unbelievable things with few resources. To their credit, national organizations such as The Apollo Alliance, Green for All, Bioneers and the Green Party are all active in southeastern Michigan but none of them appear to fully grasp the opportunity in Detroit. Barack should come too. The world is going to wake up sooner than it realizes and find that it desperately needs an electric grid and transportation system that runs on renewable energy. From a karmic perspective as much as a practical one, what better place for the United States to take all that talk about building a green economy and put it into practice than the city that put the internal combustion engine on every street?

Ignore the mainstream media. Detroit is not about architectural ruins. The future of Detroit is happening in plain sight. The people of the D are re-imagining their lives and their city in fresh and courageous ways. They are on the front lines and there is a lot to learn from them.

Ron Williams is president of 3rdWhale Mobile and Chair of the Free Speech TV board of directors. He is the founder and former editor & publisher of Metro Times (Detroit), founder of Dragonfly Media, former board chair of the Independent Media Institute (AlterNet) and founder of 2010 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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