April is MLK’s month
By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, in the middle of January, has been a national holiday since the mid-1990s.
Although Dr. King was born in January, April will always be MLK’s month for me because it is not only “the cruelest month,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his 1922 poem “The Wasteland,” it is also one of the most challenging.
April is the month of the Crucifixion. But it is also the month of the Resurrection.
It is the month when MLK was killed. But it’s also the month in 1967 when he shook the world with a new dream.
In the August 1963 March on Washington, MLK had only dreamed of Black and white children holding hands. In his April 1967 “Time to Break the Silence” speech, he advocated a Radical Revolution of Values not only against racism, but also against materialism and militarism. He dreamed of beloved communities based on persons and personal relationships instead of things.
In Detroit, over the last few decades, MLK’s dream of beloved communities has become increasingly real. As the city has been devastated by deindustrialization, neighbors have begun to rehab abandoned houses, to look out for one another, to exchange services (time-banking).
The imposition of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr by Gov, Rick Snyder has provided the opportunity and incentive for these neighborhood groups to begin viewing themselves as units of grassroots self-government.
In his new book “Revolution Detroit: Strategies for Urban Reinvention,” John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press columnist, calls it Hyperlocalism, a new model for services:
“One way we can improve municipal governance is to break off pieces of municipal government and send those tasks either ‘upstream; (as in the regional transportation authorities that operate city-and-suburban transit systems in many metro areas) or ‘downstream’ to neighborhood-level groups that can handle them better. And perhaps no downstream group shows the way better than University Circle Inc.
“The district takes it name not only from the universities that call it home but also from a traffic circle in the heart of it all. Located four miles east of downtown Cleveland, University Circle grew from the late 19th century onward from a small settlement into a world-class assemblage of education, health care and arts institutions.
“A dense concentration of Eds and Meds and Arts like this proves a boon to almost any city that enjoys it; look no farther than Detroit’s Midtown district to see how anchors employ thousands of smart, well-paid professionals who like to eat, shop, live and play in a walkable urban environment. University Circle Inc. itself grew from a philanthropic effort in 1950 into a quest to knit together the 34 different institutions in the district through better urban planning. That led to adoption in the late 1950s of the University Circle Master Plan, which, in broad terms, envisioned enhancing the parks and other public spaces while developing available land with a prudent eye toward the overall good of the district.
“This master plan set a goal to ‘establish a central organization to administer the plan and give it some real authority.’ That recommendation gave birth to the University Circle Development Foundation, which quickly formed a land bank to buy and hold available land until one or another institution needed it for expansion.
“Other services soon followed: police, parking, shuttle buses, architectural design review, landscaping of common areas. In 1970, the UCDF was reorganized as University Circle Inc. and charged by its directors to explore stronger relationships with surrounding neighborhoods, some of which were among the poorest in Ohio. By the 1970s, UCI was helping to found schools for Cleveland schoolchildren; by the ‘90s, it was morphing from a passive holder for the district’s excess land to a promoter, developer and catalyst for historic renovation and construction of commercial and residential properties.
“To me, the most striking illustration of how groups like UCI operate as what I might call ‘quasi-municipal entities’ came the day Chris Ronayne drove me around the district during a late 2011 visit. As Ronayne pointed out, the streets we drove on — the responsibility for which still rests with Cleveland’s city government — showed the most wear and tear, the pavement pitted, chipped or potholed in places, while everything else — maintained by UCI and its crews — presented a neat, trim, even immaculate appearance.
“Curb to curb on the streets, the realm of the underfunded municipal government, the urban environment might look rutted or uneven; but UCI, under contract with the city, kept everything else looking like a postcard image. ‘Why? Because if we didn’t do it, nobody would do it. That’s the truth in this town,’ Ronayne said.
“That’s the truth in so many towns. Perhaps the time has come to stop looking at groups like UCI as a backstop for weak or nonexistent city services and more as a model for a new way of governing urban places. These hyper-local, government-like bodies might be combined with regional entities — some of which may not even exist yet — to provide flexible, efficient delivery of services. Ronayne, for one, is already thinking along these lines:
“The new construct is less federal-state-local and more neighborhood-regional-global. I would envision a day when we’re given the rights to tamp potholes and maintain basic infrastructure, to plow streets. … You’re going to see groups like ours grow in municipal services. Now, some people argue that by providing the service, you’re giving the city an out. I don’t, as a former chief of staff, look at it that way. I look at it as somebody’s got to get the job done, and however it can get done most economically and efficiently, let’s do it.”
Contact Grace Lee Boggs at firstname.lastname@example.org