The Common Good
May 2009

Resurrection City

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | May 2009

Auto idolatry and casino economics have left Detroit tottering on the brink. What will it take for Motown to rise again?

Kitty-corner from my church, St. Peter’s Episcopal, stand the remains of Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium. A new ballpark named after a bank—part of the run at the casino economy—is located in the new sports and entertainment district closer to downtown.

An attempt is ongoing to raise funds sufficient to save the historic field and clubhouse for a museum and playing field. Given the times, I wouldn’t bet on it. But I notice that the wound of demolition and removal of fully three-quarters of the old place is fresh enough that it still feels, every time I look, like a huge, gaping hole has opened up in the world.

That’s Detroit. Things coming down and spaces opening up. But open spaces mean possibility.

Thirty percent of Detroit is vacant land, nearly 40 square miles within the city limits. Google Earth that! Last year three farms and more than 200 school and community gardens bloomed in open spaces, plus nearly 400 family plots—and those are just the ones formally connected to Detroit’s Garden Resource Program Collaborative. Some of these are public school-based, such as Catherine Ferguson Academy, where pregnant teens and young mothers, in the shadow of a barn they themselves raised, each have an organic plot ringing the former football field (where horses now graze). Some are like the simple line of raised beds we constructed behind our church parking lot, a cooperative venture between congregants, neighbors, and soup kitchen participants.

Some agricultural projects aren’t properly gardens at all: Picture an east side community planting 170 fruit trees throughout their neighborhood. And some gardens spring up on vacant land, probably city-owned, but who knows? It feels like no one’s been in charge for a couple years, so people just seize the opportunity. But imagine if there actually were a programmatic city policy, with protected zoning for urban agriculture, or ways to legally get water from hydrants to vacant lots.

In fact, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has shepherded through the city council a substantial resolution laying out policy directions related to food access, malnutrition, the role of schools and institutions, and urban agriculture. It’s a beginning.

Do you know there’s not a single brand-name grocery store left in the city? The chains are gone. Neighborhood groceries remain, but the closest and easiest food sources tend to be dollar stores, gas stations, fast-food outlets, and party stores. Too many people have been trying to live on chips and pop. The United Food and Commercial Workers, who lost the union grocery jobs from the city, are facilitating conversations with community organizations about worker-owned stores that sell local food as a matter of policy. Perhaps more to the point, other conversations are in motion about a certified cannery where people could preserve and then sell their produce. A bigger operation could be making homegrown salsa, tomato sauce, and the like. Oh, there are bakeries of course—some amazing ones already, more planned. All feeding a budding system of small city farm markets.

The Cuba of the Rust Belt
Are these “green jobs?” Some of them are. And there would be more to speak of (including some stimulated by the green parts of the federal stimulus package). However, there’s something of a shift going on among us from thinking about “jobs” (certainly those provided by corporations or government) to more entrepreneurial and community-based “work.”

In fact, some of the jobs in gardening are more about community than employment. They revive elder wisdom not yet lost and create intergenerational relationships. They foster real relationship to place and to earth and even to the creatures in the living soil. They reclaim neighborhoods as public communal spaces, safe ones. They encourage an economy of giving and sharing. An economy more of grace than consumption. We’re actually talking about love and hope.

Currently there’s a film making the rounds in Detroit titled The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. Here’s the story: When the Cold War ended, Cuba’s oil spigot from the Eastern Bloc got shut off. Having once succumbed to petroleum-based, mechanized, Soviet-style agriculture, an island people, already under U.S. embargo, had to figure out urgently how to survive without oil and feed themselves.

Everybody lost 20 pounds. Bikes figured in, imported and newly produced. But above all, organic and community-based gardening carried the day. Gardens sprung up at first unbidden, by necessity, and then were supported by government policy. Today, half the food for Havana is grown in Havana! For smaller cities it’s more like 80 percent.

For the filmmakers it’s an edifying lesson in how to survive the pending global collapse from the peaking of oil supplies. Me and a bunch of other Detroiters? We’re thinking deindustrialization, and that Detroit could prove to be the Cuba of the rust belt.

In some way Detroit’s urban agriculture is a metaphor for a whole range of community-based creativity. Here’s another: With 18 percent of Detroit homes vacant or abandoned, Tyree Guyton, now an internationally famed artist, turns a burned-out block of homes into a canvas for his artistic landscape, the Heidelberg Project. Castoff appliances become found objects to be filled with other found objects. Vacuum cleaners line up like dominoes and wave their glove-hands at passers-by. Consumerism is mocked. Shopping carts hang upside down in the trees. Cars and car parts become something else altogether. Abandoned houses are covered with abandoned stuffed animals, or painted with polka dots, or glued with pennies. “God” and “war” are juxtaposed, brightly painted on TV screens or plywood sheets. It’s a riot of color and twisted street imagination.

Detroit grows culture. Someday the poetry scene will be bound and published and digitized, but for now you gotta listen live, somewhere in the city every night. Musically, there was jazz and funk, Detroit rock, and, of course, Motown. Now the best of the hip-hop and performance artists aren’t jockeying for major recording contracts—they are instead nurturing dozens of local labels in garages. These workers, like the gardeners, are growing a new urban culture.

Greening the Auto Powers?
Detroiters know that The Auto in large part created the American middle class. It built the city outward and out. And for some time we’ve seen the end of the line coming.

We witnessed the dismemberment of the industry, spinning off parts suppliers as a union-breaking tactic. And not just the big ones, such as Delphi bankrupting themselves out of union contracts, but a host of smaller ones that function as maquiladoras del norte. In the Detroit area undocumented workers make fly wheels, seat covers, LCD screens, safety systems, and the like for minimal wages and no benefits. In place of company thugs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement hovers ready to arrest and deport the wounded and malcontented.

Last December, when the auto industry loan was hanging in legislative balance and the U.S. Big Three chiefs jetted into D.C., a caravan of UAW workers drove from Detroit to Washington with a message: Stop the union concessions being built into the plan; provide universal health care instead of building it into the cost of cars; and (notice this one) convert shuttered auto plants to production of mass transit and light rail vehicles, or even alternative energy equipment such as wind turbines. Now there’s a worker vision.

Is this possible? I don’t know anyone with blueprints, but the precedent most often cited (for good or ill) is Detroit as the Arsenal of Democracy—when for three years during World War II industrial production in the city was quickly converted so that tanks, jeeps, and planes rather than cars rolled off the assembly lines. To connect the plants with the airfields, the first expressways in the country were built (which, of course, in turn hastened the altering architecture of the postwar urban landscape).

Presumably, such industrial greening would require a massive federal effort akin to a wartime mobilization—now, though, on behalf of humanity and the planet instead of death. The times and reason are surely urgent enough. But beyond that, it would virtually require an act of repentance on the part of the auto companies. Theologically, it would entail a renewal of their corporate vocations to serve human life rather than growth (or now mere survival), let alone market share or even profit. Is that possible?

Remember it was the auto corporations that were aggressively complicit in the destruction of public transportation—such as paving over the street-rail system in Detroit and other cities. It was they that joined in lobbying for the national fossil-fuel infrastructure of highways, cul-de-sacs, and sprawl, which we are even now tempted to renew. It was the American auto companies that found the way around emissions standards by inventing the SUV and manufacturing the desire for it through commercial advertising.

Once, with friends, I was treated to a guided tour by Pablo Davis of the stunning industrial murals of Diego Rivera, whom he assisted as a young painter. No tour of Detroit is complete without a long meditation in the Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Art, which depicts the assembly line of the Ford Rouge plant in the 1930s. Pablo asked us, “Do you see any cars in the mural?” We hunted the twisting motion of the line and its rich human narrative. Nary a one. Then he lifts his cane to point it out: dead center on the south wall, about two inches high at the vanishing point of the perspective. Here was the precise opposite of what Marx called commodity fetishization, where human value is projected onto a thing, inflating it in scale and import and summoning it into a life of its own. Rivera’s reduction marked the opposite of what the scriptures call idolatry. If Henry Ford had painted the mural (never mind had he understood it), the car would have been huge and the human beings miniscule cogs.

Greening auto jobs means more than planting grass on the roof of the Rouge Plant (yes, they have—and if not merely a public relations device, it’s a good and necessary model for others). Greening means more, good though it be, than converting the Poletown plant (which three decades ago used eminent domain to level a Detroit neighborhood) from Cadillac production to GM’s new electric car, the Volt. More than developing the big battery business in Michigan. It really means repenting the idolatry of the automobile. It means confessing that there’s no going back, and we shouldn’t even if we could. Can even the Angel of the Motor City face such a thing? It’s possible.

The Angel of Detroit
Twenty years ago in these pages, I wrote an article about my beloved city, attempting to get at its ethos and moment, its life and integrity as a spiritual power (“Discerning the Angel of Detroit,” October 1989). After the fashion of John’s letters to the angels of the seven churches in Revelation 2, it concluded with these portions of my own letter to Detroit’s Angel:

Die and arise. In your weakness is your hope. You are at an end and a beginning. Recollect your best history and come alive. You will do this if you set the lives of your people above your own. Attend to the least, the poorest, the homeless. Defend them from the ravages of corporation and economy. In their empowerment is your life. Cast off your bondages. (This too may feel like dying.) Begin with drugs and guns. Your people pray for this; join them in action. Instead of Murder Capital, become the city of nonviolence. It can be so.

Your industrial heyday has gone to rust. You will not see its like again. Now think small. En­courage the modest, an economy of creativity and self-reliance. Nour­ish the projects of human scale, the works of community and struggle. Let your emp­ty lots bloom green; you will find there a hidden economy all its own. Sit light upon the river, but not as real estate frontage for the rich. Be in right relationship to its life, and through it to the region, to earth itself. For your sins, enough. Now you have my blessing. Sing to glory and come to life.

That’s actually a good and true word. Truer even for now than then.

What if Detroit, the vacated and rusting shell of a deindustrialized city, turns out to be the hustling forefront of urban sustainability? Another city is possible in the shell of the old. For those with eyes to see, it’s actually happening.

In a certain sense Detroit has been living for decades with the implosion and collapse that is finally catching up with the rest of the country, and with the global system for that matter. In four decades we went from being the city with the highest rate of homeownership in the nation to being the city with the highest foreclosure rate. We lost a million people, mostly white folks. About a fifth of the homes in Detroit are vacant or abandoned. And still homeless people camp in parks and under bridges. As much as white flight, capital flight and job flight took their tolls. In the last decade nearly a quarter-million auto-related jobs disappeared in the metro area. Do you find the prospect of double-digit unemployment daunting? That we’ve had for a long time—percentage-wise we’re currently in the 20s.

And yet. As witnessed, the roots beneath are full of life. Amid signs of death an urban resurrection is afoot. In all these things are the openings and spaces for a whole new way of doing city life.

The Arsenal of Creativity
In summer 2010, the United States Social Forum is coming to Detroit. Some 15,000 activists from peoples’ movements around the country and world will pilgrimage to our city for open space sharing. They are coming to scope out what Jenny Lee of the Allied Media Con­ference calls the Arsenal of Creativity. They are coming be­cause they believe another world is possible, and another U.S. is necessary. They come to nourish the roots and taste the first fruits of the post-industrial city.

It all makes me think, and think biblically. When the He­brews walked out of slavery, out of Egypt, out of empire, they walked into the wilderness. That wilderness actually was the way out. The only way. The way out of no way.

In the wilderness they had to unlearn a few things—namely slavery, Egypt, and empire. That lesson began with manna, the flakey food God provided. They had to learn what was gift sufficient and gather just enough for today. (What they over-gathered and hoarded stunk to high heaven.) They learned to walk lightly upon the earth.

In our own wilderness, on the way out of industrialism, we’ve got some things to learn and unlearn too. It seems like for Detroit and Detroiters (and for all with the eyes to see), it begins with gathering what’s on the ground.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a Detroit activist and United Methodist pastor serving St. Peter’s, an Episcopal congregation. For more on Detroit’s pres­ent moment, he suggests Rebecca Solnit’s “Detroit Arcadia,” Harpers, July 2007, and Detroit City of Hope, www.DCOH.org.

Casino Economics and Phantom Wealth

“De troit” (the city by “the straights”), living in dire straights, has taken some detours. Casino economics has certainly been a temptation. Twenty-one years ago, a well-financed campaign to legalize casino gambling as a panacea for Detroit’s economic woes was defeated overwhelmingly at the polls. In an article at the time, I noted that the city’s working-class spirit was a collaborator in resisting the incursion of the high-glitz casino “industry.” If so, it eventually caved to the seductions of necessity, as it were, and the casinos made their incursion into the city in the mid-’90s.

At the peak of the struggle, Mayor Coleman Young challenged the resisters, community and religious, to come up with an economic alternative. That would prove a prophetic taunt.

Meanwhile, we currently suffer three permanent casinos, though one of them is about to throw in its cards and fold. They do provide a certain number of jobs. A couple years back 26,000 people lined up for 1,000 positions at the MGM Grand.

But is it an economy? Like Wall Street itself, it is an industry that produces nothing—unless you consider its addictive drug of choice, adrenaline, some sort of product. People drive off the expressway into day-lit parking structures and find themselves in self-enclosed worlds disconnected from the rest of the city, ones designed to suck money up and out. We’ve been ahead of the curve on this as well. It’s so like the other predatory economy, mortgage finance, which produces nothing but “phantom wealth,” as David Korten calls it. And people do lose their homes and cars to both.

For the last decade the casinos have regularly been a stop on the Detroit Catholic Worker’s Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk, which names the powers and places where crucifixion is happening today. “And they cast lots to divide his clothing” (Luke 23:34).

Men in white shirts detail casinos on city maps, razing this or that old structure to lay a new cornerstone, imagining in their hearts a new foundation for Detroit’s economy. In truth, this foundation is built upon sand. It would be constructed on nothing. Nothing but a lie, a conjurer’s trick. Nothing but addiction and corruption. Nothing but a compulsive wish, a well-marketed false hope. No goods would be produced. No true services rendered. No spirit would be nourished. No neighborhood or community would be served. And when the rains fall and the floods come and the winds beat against that house, not one stone would be left upon another. —BWK

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