‘Detroit has the possibility of creating a new definition of city’

[From Boggs Educational Center]

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An Open Letter to Time Inc.
On the occasion of the first article reflecting your yearlong commitment in Detroit.
By SHEA HOWELL

I just read Daniel Okrent’s article “Detroit: the Death—and Possible Life—of a Great City.” If this is your best effort, you might as well sell the house and move back to New York. The article offers nothing new and is a recycling of stories already told. Moreover, it continues to perpetuate the myths that Detroit’s ills are because of myopic auto companies, self-interested unions, riots and racial tensions. While there are measures of truth in these images, they are caricatures of the people and events you chronicle. You don’t need to be in Detroit to drag up these tired images and superficial views.

For example, to characterize Coleman Young as a “black politician who cared more about retribution than about resurrection” or as someone who spent most of his time “insulting suburban political leasers and alienating most of the city’s remaining white residents,” is simply not true. Nor is your tying of the decline of Detroit’s population to the uprising in 1967. These are the tales told by some suburbanites to frighten their children away from the city. They are not be supported by any historical analysis of the Young administration or the decline of city and they miss the real issue. Young believed that the rebuilding of Detroit rested on the return of some single new industry or development. He was not alone in this. This belief was shared by most other mayors around the country and encouraged by federal and state policies. From the building of the Ren Cen to the opening of casinos, Young and subsequent administrations, like Okrent, were looking for the simple solution.

The story of Detroit’s decline, and its great gift to those of us who live here, is that as the epitome of American industry in the last century, we are the first to have to deal fundamentally with deindustrialization and all that entails.

Okrent makes much of his early memories of the city and uses them to legitimize his current perceptions, but he has done little to provide a matured understanding of the people of this city, who are nearly invisible in his account. Instead he looks to worn out ideas, arguing for “regional government,” “moving occupants,” and positioning us as one of the “cheapest” labor markets encouraged by the government to produce “hydrogen” autos. Urban farming, where Detroit leads the nation, gets one short sentence. Green belts get a clause, and the possibility of creating a new definition of city already in the making gets no mention at all.

The tragedy of this piece is that so many other journalists have done better. In addition to our own local papers that have chronicled much of the imaginative redevelopment in the city, Rebecca Solnit writing in Harpers presented a compelling picture of the new agricultural movement forming a basis for a new economy in “Detroit Arcadia.” Flypmedia.com did a wonderfully imaginative presentation of the emerging trends in the city in its “Breath of Hope.” Even Al Jazeera had a stronger picture of the possibilities of what cities can become in the 21st century, as they are turn toward local economic structures. Last week a former UM student, Diana Flora, writing in the Michigan Daly captured more of the city’s reality in her “Viewpoint: Two sides of the same Detroit” than Okrent.

Okrent has much to offer in both his capturing of the devastation of the city as a slow Katrina and his recognition that the rebuilding of Detroit is tied to the redefinition of America. But he and subsequent journalists in your series need to shed a lot of baggage to recognize that Detroit is not just a bombed out city. While you are busy thinking of us as Baghdad, and consulting that bureau for how to approach our city, many see much stronger parallels with Chiapas and the rising movements of the global south. If you’re not willing to explore something new, spare us the effort.

RICH FELDMAN responds to the Time Magazine article.

I just read Danny Okrent’s article in Time Magazine. I am disappointed at how little Danny has been able to reflect on his own history to provide any new insights into his home town. Danny was raised in Detroit, went to UM in the 1960s, and became a nationally known writer. I was raised in Brooklyn, went to UM in the 1960s and have engaged with Detroit for more than 30 years, much of that time in an assembly plant, learned from and listened to people on both sides of 8 Mile. I spent 20 years on the line and ten years as an elected Union Official. Since 1970 when 30 of my activist friends from Ann Arbor moved to Detroit, many of us have been involved in community and social movement activity. When I moved to Detroit in the 1960s, I was looking for a return of the union power of the 1930’s, Danny Okrent seems now in 2010 to be looking for signs of 1960s solution. He is 40 years out of date. The abandonment of Detroit is about much more than the structural economic crisis brought on by a one industry town surrounded by racist policies and attitudes. Detroit represents the end of the industrial epoch in human history and requires deep and new thinking and imagination to re-define, re-spirit and re-build our city from the ground up.

Danny missed the significance of Detroit’s great transformation. While on the surface it is about the auto industry, it is really the end of the economic American Dream and the birth of a 21 century American dream based upon local sustainable economics and community building. The crisis of Detroit wasn’t only about pursuing wrong strategies, it was a fundamental failure to recognize that for the first time in human history, people will not be needed in our country to produce and make goods. The new stage of technology, starting with automation, the rise of the global market and global sourcing, the rising global urbanization would create world wide permanent unemployment. In 1963, James Boggs wrote about the rise of the “outsiders” and “the permanent underclass” that would no longer be part of the success of the economic American Dream. Detroit is now faced with the questions of what are people for, if not to be cogs in mass production? What is the reason for cities? How and why should they be sustained?

Today 2 million people live in prisons in our country. Detroit, Rockford, Youngstown, Bessemer have been left behind almost 30 years. These people, deemed expendable by our society are, like the problems of Detroit, often hidden from view, but telling the tale of a deep transformation in our society.

The auto industry defined Detroit and America. Through it we have seen the slow transformation of most Americans from producers of goods and services to consumers. In this transformation, we lost more than the auto industry. As a people we came to value things more than people, profits more than communities. What was good for GM became the standard by which we judged what was good for America, and if it meant destroying whole communities quickly as in Poletown (something Danny doesn’t even mention) or through vast unemployment through automation and plant closings, no one objected.

It was this transformation to a “thing oriented society” that compelled Martin Luther King Jr. to talk about a radical revolution in values and the struggle against racism, materialism and militarism.

Danny defines the crisis in economic and mechanical terms. He gives your readers no sense of the spirit of the people and the dreams of dignity motivated both the Labor Movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements that shaped Detroit .

Danny is looking for economic answers and sees Detroit in economic terms. He holds onto the belief that the past will return and the middle class will be rebuilt, only greener. He cannot image the future except in terms of an economic standard of living. My own experience in the plant, working every day with folks trading lives for dollars and overtime, living on credit cards, believing that “a job was the answer” to all our problems has given me a much deeper understanding of today’s crisis. Simplistic formulations of the self-interest of labor, the bad decisions of management miss the challenge we all face to develop new ways of living that are sustainable, that develop local capacities and that encourage civic life.

Continued concerns about growing violence, totally failed educational systems, discussing and working for insurance reform rather than working to create healthy communities, continuing to rely on food sold in party stores or gas stations and a leadership with no vision are not the result of the auto industry failing, or the politicians and leaders not creating good strategies, but the failure to see Detroit as the canary in our country.

While Time seems to be missing it, many others are not. Next summer 30,000 people are coming to Detroit in June 2010 as part of the US Social Forum. The call for this historic gathering is: Another World is Possible!, Another US is Necessary! and Another Detroit is Happening! Most of these people, struggling with similar challenges as those we face in Detroit, see the city as a source of hope emerging at the grassroots as individuals and organizations create food security, new schools committed to community building, neighborhood based cultural centers and villages, urban gardens and farms with community mobile markets. Artists and activist bringing new life, creating new art forms, and offering visions in music, color and words in every neighborhood and community center across the city.

Danny needs to stop circulating the same old stories and take a look at what is emerging in the cracks of this city. Otherwise, Time will have missed one of the best stories of this new century.

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