[URBANTH-L]NEWS: 'As Detroit Goes' by Micele Gibbs
jancius3022 at comcast.net
Thu Sep 24 11:57:25 EDT 2009
>From the Field
"As Detroit Goes"
Occasional Paper No. 7 - Fall 2009
By Michele Gibbs
In the wake of 9/11/01, it was common to hear black
Detroiters say the only reason Detroit wasn't attacked
is that from the air, it looked bombed-out already.
This was a reality produced by policies of aggressive
`urban removal' begun in the late 1980's which gutted
the historic core black neighborhoods to build freeways
to new sports stadiums and casinos (the hallmarks of
`revitalization") while allowing city services to
residents to deteriorate. Outsourcing and
international competition shrank the job market.
Predatory lending flourished alongside redlining. And
with charter schools siphoning off many of the best
students, teachers, and curricular models,public
education languished, putting a whole generation in
peril of marginalization for life.
This `state of emergency' has been black Detroit's
condition for at least the past decade. Only now, the
industry built on its back has crashed, making a
chronic condition acute for the working poor and
sending shockwaves through the destabilized black
Look at the statistical picture:
- Detroit's population is 85% black.
- Unemployment is over 30%, the highest in the nation.
Most of these job losses are long-term and will not
- Detroit's foreclosure rate is the highest in the
- 40% of its people live in poverty.
- The Standard & Poors credit rating for Detroit
property is "junk," for the first time ever.
Combine that with an unprecedented scale of crime and
malfeasance by public officials with recent convictions
of former Mayor Kilpatrick, some city council members,
down to Detroit Public Schools staff embezzling money
and stealing school equipment (eg, computers, lab
supplies, etc) meant for classrooms amounting to
millions of dollars in `lost revenue' and black
Detroiters are outraged. They are also energized.
There are many layers to this energy. Although the
system is decrepit, bankrupt, and broken down, lights
dim and roof leaking, from years of experience we know
how to see in the dark.
Consider the crisis in public transportation. I, like
100's of thousands of Detroiters, depend on the bus on
a daily basis. When I arrived for my yearly visit this
mid-August, the mayor, Dave Bing, elected to finish out
the former mayor's term, announced his plan to
eliminate bus service on weekends, cut back several key
routes, and lay off a minimum of 100 drivers. This
caused a predictable uproar at the street level which
grew through a series of neighborhood city hall
The mayor's justification was `economic'. The
translation for folks was "You don't have jobs, anyway,
so stay home. You don't need to go anywhere." This
callous indifference, adding insult to injury, was the
most galling of all. At the Wayne County Community
College town hall meeting there was standing room only,
with an estimated 400 in attendance. Hear them:
"I've been a job developer for 11 years," said Shirley
Jackson Carter. I've placed thousands of workers at
area hotels and worked with many new businesses
including locations in the suburbs. Most job
applications require you to have transportation.
Everybody knows that."
Audrey Taylor works at the Detroit Public Library. She
says,"Our staff gets out at 6pm and we work Saturdays
and Sundays,"'We've had cases of workers being raped
waiting for a ride when the buses don't come, and
lately they're transferring us all over the place so
carpooling won't work, We need the buses."
Senior citizens condemned the cuts. Josie Hughey said,
"As an 83-year-old who has paid taxes all my life, I
say this is like scraping the bone before you cut the
fat. Bing and his executives have cars and chauffeurs.
They need to confiscate all those cars, sell them and
save the insurance. Stop taking from the poor to give
to the rich."
Angeline Holmes was so angry that tears streamed down
her face: "All my life I've been riding the bus, worn
out my shoes. Dave Bing, have you ever walked in our
shoes? My father had an eighth grade education; my
mother never went to school because she had to raise
nine brothers and sisters. I've worked all over this
city as a cleaner; all days and hours. Everybody
knows the Grand Belt line is essential. You can't cut
it. I've been to the mountain and I'm not going to the
back of the bus again."
Ministers pointed out that cutting weekend service
would mean elderly people won't be able to get to
church. Melody Currie, director of the Kelly-Morang
Senior Center, said only one worker has a car and all
the seniors using the center take the bus.
A 21 year-old college student said,"I'm just now
getting my life back on track and you're not going to
take it back. Young Brothers United has helped save
countless lives with HIV awareness sessions and our
biggest day is Sunday."
Others said massive closings have eliminated
neighborhood schools in walking distance and the cuts
would have a major impact on the mobility of students
and the disabled.
"The money is there," said DOT driver Curtis Ray."DOT
got $37.5 million in economic stimulus funds. We're
the people that make this city run. We can do without
the mayor; but we can't do without the workers."
The next day, as I boarded the Woodward Ave. bus on my
way downtown, the driver put his hand over the fare-box
and said,"That's alright. Take a seat." I did; and
asked the sister next to me,"Is he just being nice or
is this normal?" She responded, "Both, The boxes or
something else break down all the time. But he's not
pulling over, either."
Before getting off, I asked the driver,"When is your
shift over?" He said, "6 o'clock." It was noon. I
asked,"Going to finish your shift like this?" He
smiled, "Yes, maam." I smiled back, "Ride on."
By the end of two weeks of public pressure, Mayor Bing
was forced to withdraw the proposal for "further
And what of veteran auto workers who still have their
Bill is 49 and has worked on the line at the GM Warren
Ave Truck plant making transmissions for 25 years. His
family moved to Detroit from Cincinnati in 1968, when
that period's Viet Nam war spiked production needs.
>From a workforce of 4000 in the mid-80's, this plant
now only employs 500. Bill is one of them, and glad to
be. When I ask him about the future, he laughs and
says he knows the old jobs won't come back again but he
hopes to make his 30 and out. "Of course, he says,
"they're working those of us who are there like there's
no tomorrow, with 14hour back to back shifts. I'm just
taking it one hour at a time."
He is a calm man, for whom pacing is important. These
next five years are particularly critical since they
also coincide with his 14 year-old son's high school
and emerging adult years. He would like them to be as
stable as possible. Commenting on the current economic
situation, he says," In order to see reality, sometimes
you have to feel pain. This is a wake-up call to us.
In the old days, you'd have a job; jou were in the
union; that meant something. Not to say you didn't
have to fight for your rights; but at least you could.
Not now. Take the most recent contract: we had one
day to vote. One day. No discussion. The biggest
change was that up `til now, the person working next to
you on the line must get the same pay as you. The
union had fought for that principle foryears. Now new
hires only get half. If you get $28 an hour, they get
$14 with no benefits, health insurance, or pension. And
for senior workers like myself , every wage increase
and cost of living benefit has been rescinded and
health care costs for retirees will be paid for in the
form of stock, not cash, Who knows what that will be
"As for management, I see the `new GM' still making a
lot of the old GM mistakes. For example, we operate on
a `team'concept, the whole point being, as I see it,
that team leaders should replace the need for
`supervision.' But we are still top heavy. Also, the
basic plant equipment has long exceeded its `life
expectancy' already, causing more breakdowns and
injuries, especially to new workers."
"What I have learned is that we can't rely on the
system; we need to take care of each other. When I was
a child, my mother raising me as a single parent, used
to spend a lot of her time working a stall at the Flea
Markets that were common in Detroit then. I used to be
ashamed. Now I understand. Then I didn't even get
what she was actually providing. That was her way of
hustling for an independent living and creating a
support network, too. Through one of her contacts, a
woman at GM's human resources division, I got hired at
GM and have been there ever since. Now yard sales are
coming back. People are learning how to make what they
have go farther."
He continues,"Your immediate community allows you to
have and do certain things. It decides what amount of
damage you can cause and how to correct that damage. I
need the person on the corner to peep out the window or
come on the porch, to be there for the block. Constant
back up, for when a sewer line collapses or a tire gets
"Living off the land should always be something we do.
Produce. Grow things. We used to call the `plant'
the' plantation'. We forgot that even under slavery we
maintained an independent subsistence economy. Well,
we're remembering now how important that is to
Bill is not alone in reaching these conclusions. On
Detroit's Eastside, Mark Covington, 37, started by
cleaning the garbage off three lots adjacent to his
home. A married father of eight, he decided it was a
good time and place to begin gardening. This native
Detroiter, who was an environmental service technician
cleaning oil refineries in Toledo and other Midwestern
cities until he lost his job in Dec. 2007, now is an
urban farmer. He says, "This is now my full-time job.
I grow produce on ten lots and people are welcome to
come and take what they need - for free. I help out
with The Greening of Detroit (a non-profit that helps
11,000 people in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck
build and maintain 800 gardens) which pays me to till
gardens. It's all about self-sustainability. The goal
with current gardens is to provide the community with
68 year old Cornelius Williams is owner of Vandalia
Gardens Urban Farmers LLC, building gardens for people
from Detroit to Grand Rapids. He grows collards,
cucumbers lettuce, kale, squash and other vegetables in
100 garden beds in Detroit alone. Sometimes people
tell him his approach is a `step backward.' He
recalls,"Somebody asked me if gardening wasn't
reverting back to slavery. I said,"I ain't growing
On the Northwest side of town black educator Malik
Yakini's Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
is taking root on 2 acres in Rouge Park allocated by
the city council for urban farming projects. "Gardens
enable us to become producers rather than consumers,"
says Yakini. Volunteers there cultivate organic
vegetables, two beehives, a composting operation and
hoop house for year-round food production. Produce is
sold at the growing number of farmers' markets in the
metro area. In the summer, a city-initiated jobs for
youth program places over 45,000 highschool age youth
in these agricultural projects.
The examples multiply and more vacant lots become
garden plots. Adjacent to them, the foreclosed brick
homes that used to be valued at $200,000 are now going
at auction for $5,000. And they are being bought - not
by speculators to flip for profit, but by families to
rebuild and live in for posterity.
Fortunately, there is one person in city government who
has seen the significance of the current structural
crisis and been heartened by the activity of Detroit's
people at the grassroots. Her name is JoAnn Watson.
She is President pro-tem of Detroit's Common Council.
And in addition to hope and faith, which she has in
abundance, she has a plan..
It is 8:30 am on a typical workday. JoAnn Watson has
already been at her desk working for an hour. Her staff
is on duty and her phones are answered by a human being
who knows her schedule. As we sit having coffee and
our conversation opens, she says, "The post-mortems
that the white racist media is pronouncing on Detroit
do not define us. We are not pitiful, poor, or
powerless. We just don't know, or forgot, what to do
with the resources we have. Wind, water, arable land.
Now that the manufacturing system has completrely
crashed, we have an unprecedented opportunity to start
over." "That is why I authored the Resolution passed by
Common Council a year ago to bail out Detroit. Since
then I have been working with Dr.Soji Adelaja, Director
of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State Univ.,
to develop a new green direction for the rebuilding of
our local economy. Identifying regional natural assets
on which to base the plan is critical. The expertise of
Dr. Adelaja and his team has been invaluable. The
political argument is obvious: "How do you bail out
the auto industry and not the workers? Come on, now.
You can't bypass Detroit." But, more importantly, we
realize that a whole new economic paradigm is needed.
Not bandaids for the old one. And this is what we call
Detroit's Marshall Plan and what we have received
approval for at the gubernatorial level and pursued
just last month with a presentation to Pres. Obama's
Urban Policy and Affairs staff. That presentation by
the Michigan Delegation was very positively received
and it was praised for being highly consistent with
their emerging national policy on how to revitalize
major metropolitan areas. So, we are "on the table"
for further discussion."
She continues,"I am not worried. The epicenter of the
movement for social change has been Detroit from the
Abolitionist Mvt., the rise of organized labor, Black
Consciousness from Civil Rights to Reparations, to
"What's Goin' On' and having been touched and shaped by
many currents of that movement from the age of 14, I
feel it in my soul." "I know the richness of our
history and the energy of our community when it pulls
together.as it does in times of crisis, as it has
always done." "We have the knowledge and the physical
capacity to create a healthy future here if we only
have the political will."
One test of Detroit's political will is in the offing
next summer, as it prepares to host the U.S. Social
Forum from June 22-26,2010. At that time between
30,000 and 35,000 activists from all over the nation
are expected to convene to discuss labor rights, social
justice issues, new economic strategies, and
participate in a schedule of educational tours and
cultural events. The five anchor groups charged with
the planning and implementation of this major event are
Michigan Water Rights Org, Jobs With Justice, Centro
Obrero, East Michigan Enviromental Council, and
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
I attended a planning meeting of these organizers which
takes place every two weeks at Central Methodist Church
in downtown Detroit and is open to the public.
Committee reports concerned everything from checking
total handicapped accessability of conference meeting
and living accomodations to how neighborhoods would be
chosen for murals being planned by the youth. All
committee members: old and young, black, latino, and
anglo, male and female, addressed their issues and each
other with calm good nature, united in a common effort.
After the meeting, Elena Herrada, Director of Centro
Obrero (a legal and educational organization that
serves Detroit's Latino community) remarked,"It's
exciting. The old road has ended and we're making a
new one. We've been looted of all resources here and
we have to start over together. We've gotta do
something. People are being forced into transformative
postures. We want the U./S. Social Forum to be a
channel for that energy."
This year in Detroit, I saw signs everywhere of the
energy generated when people rally in defense of each
other and their own best interests.
If the future is in these hands, I'm not worried,
May the detritus not trip us. Stay tuned.
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