I read about Detroit’s new plan to scale back the city. With a
substantial population decline over the years, and the effects of
urban blight and abandoned buildings, the Motor City has a plan
to downsize. Specifically, there’s a plan afoot
to demolish the abandoned and unlivable parts of the city, and move
people to stronger parts of the city. Then, as much as a quarter
of the 139-square-mile city could become farmland. It is an idea
that is worth exploring, at least.
That we’ve reached the point of entertaining the idea—of
turning Detroit into a semi-rural city—reflects both a crisis of
failed urban policies, and an opportunity to rebuild from the ashes.
Detroit was at one time a potent symbol of American industry.
And its decline today, like that of America itself, seems to foreshadow
the future of the American urban center. Once boasting a population
of 2 million, Detroit now has less than half that amount. The once
titanic U.S. auto industry is a remnant of its former self. A casualty
of self-inflicted wounds and fierce competition, the U.S. auto makers
have relied of late on government largesse and taxpayer philanthropy.
In a former life, I lived in Detroit as an analyst in the
auto industry. It was the early nineties, my first three years
after college. I could not help but notice that a sparkling downtown
was surrounded by a no-man’s land— a forbidden zone, if you will,
of burned out, crumbling and otherwise vacated buildings. This
was a memorial of sorts, to white flight, to the riots of the sixties,
from which Motown never really recovered. The sprawling suburbs
prospered fabulously, as if they did not need the city, when they
were actually benefiting at the city’s expense. And a corrupt black
political leadership exploited the people, as pimps tend to do.
The region relied on one industry for its bread and butter,
and thought it was the center of the world. The big three auto
makers were sloppy and arrogant, producing shoddy gas guzzlers and
maintaining stifling, top-down, military-style bureaucracies that
killed good ideas and the spirits of even better people. But I
Detroit declined for the same reasons that other American
cities have met a similar fate, or are flirting with such a trajectory.
We have failed to invest in our cities, our people and communities,
our children’s education, and in infrastructure. We do invest in
prisons for black and Latino folks, though, breaking up their families
and breaking down their communities. The result is urban blight,
alongside the environmental effects of an industrialization, in
a society dependent on over consumption.
So, with that context in mind, it seems fitting that Detroit
attempt to restore itself to a more natural state. We cannot argue
that more cities should become greener places, where people rely
on localized agriculture. But I have some questions about the Detroit
First, there is the destruction of communities and the role
that ordinary people will have in any plan that is implemented.
What will happen to those who remain, and who decides this?
there is the issue of economic empowerment. Would the mostly African-American
population benefit from a new, rural Detroit, or would the lion’s
share of the agricultural profits benefit big agribusiness? In
a country with a long tradition of discrimination, history has not
been kind to the black farmer. A group of black farmers recently
reached a $1.25 billion settlement with the USDA. Yes, billion. These
farmers claimed, among other things, that the USDA systematically
denied loans and farm subsidies to them. In some cases, even when
they were awarded a loan, the agency dragged its feet in paying
out the money, so that farmers ran out of time to plant their crops
and repay their debts.
President Obama should be commended for doing the right thing
and committing his administration to civil rights enforcement.
At the same time, Black and Latino contractors have received a mere
1.1 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively, of the $46 billion in contracts from Obama’s
federal stimulus program. It should be no surprise that in this society, people
of color frequently seem to miss out when there are opportunities
to be had. The rewards always seem to go to those with the right
connection, not to mention the right complexion. Gender discrimination
finds its way in there, too. Why would Detroit Farms be any different?
The point I’m making here is that people seeking more sustainable
ways of living is a wonderful thing. But as society develops these
new ideas and structures, it cannot fall into the same patterns
of funky behavior, exclusion and injustice. Otherwise, the Detroits
of America are only setting themselves up for colossal failures
in the future. And all the green pastures in the world will be
unable to cover them up.
Executive Editor, David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human rights
advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to The Huffington
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times
and Philadelphia Independent
Media Center. He also blogs at davidalove.com,
and Open Salon.
to contact Mr. Love.