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Detroit’s bankruptcy and resilience

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs

By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Detroit’s financial bankruptcy didn’t happen overnight — or by accident. Racism played a huge role.

During World War II, great numbers of blacks migrated to Detroit and other northern cities because the March on Washington Movement led by A. Philip Randolph had forced President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industry.

After the war, whites migrated to the suburbs to get away from blacks in the cities, taking taxes, schools and businesses with them.

As a result, political difference between cities and suburbs escalated.

City populations became increasingly needy, and their city councils became increasingly progressive. At the same time, suburbs became increasingly prosperous. State legislatures became increasingly conservative, attacking unions, passing Stand Your Ground measures, strip-mining cities and, finally, appointing emergency managers to administer the financially-strapped predominantly black cities.

But while this is the end of one story, it is also the beginning of another.

Faced with devastation by deindustrialization, Detroit’s predominantly African American Detroit population did not give up. Instead, it began taking advantage of vacant lots to plant community gardens, developing a vibrant urban agricultural movement to feed itself and lay the foundation for a post-industrial city rooted in the neighborhoods.

That foundation has expanded and grown stronger every year  — until today. Assisted by the new mode of community production made possible by 3D printers, neighborhood organizations can replace city governments by providing the new model of service described by Detroit Free Press columnist John Gallagher in his book “Reimagining Detroit.”

In her column this week (see A1), Shea Howell explains this phenomenon:

“Detroiters have been in the forefront of developing new ways of living. Out of the abundance of land opened by the shrinking population, the world’s largest urban agricultural movement emerged, offering a new vision of local food production, self-sufficient, healthy communities and new opportunities to reconnect generations as they reclaim and care for land.

“Churches, synagogues, parks and schools establish gardens to feed the neighborhood and provide recreation. In a city where buses rarely run, let alone on time, bikes are becoming a more reliable way for many of us to get around.

“Recognizing that police rarely come, and often when they do, make matters worse, neighbors and community organizations are working to create peaceful solutions to disputes. Peace Zones, marches against violence and efforts to put the neighbor back in the hood, are emerging as people create new ways to solve problems together …

“ … Ask any Detroiter about the future and you are likely to hear two things. First, it’s clear to us that no one can save us, but us. If we are going to have a city that is productive, safe and joyful, it will emerge from the neighborhood level, as people struggle together to find new ways of living. We are learning to make a better way out of no way.

“Second, most people agree, mass employment is not coming back. We are at the end of the industrial job system and at the beginning of developing new kinds of work that enable us to produce goods and services for local needs. Ideas of new work and a new culture, rooted in local production and consumption, are emerging throughout the city …

“ … For many of us, this is a future.”

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