The wheels on the bus
Despite what mainstream media says, Detroit is wealthy in a variety of ways. The city’s wealth in history, culture and self-determination is exhibited in its historic demographic shifts over time; resources, race, and relationships have been shoved into corners of this area in ways I’ve never seen before, and it is especially apparent in Detroit’s food and transportation systems.
Detroit is nationally considered a “food desert,” defined by the USDA as an area “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas…largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” Although parts of Hamtramck, Highland Park, and southwest Detroit are sprinkled in these so-called deserts, Detroiters have come up with alternatives. Detroit has over 500 community, school, and family gardens and hundreds of urban farms, having the most community gardens per square mile of any U.S. city. This cooperative effort to give Detroiters more access to healthy food has helped promote local garden markets and small food processing businesses, despite heavy public resistance to big business competitors.
As much as I have enjoyed this wealth of energy in this city, Detroit’s transportation system has failed me. People who use public transport here wait hours on end for buses we can’t be sure are coming at all. We stand on street corners and sometimes in the streets, looking miles down a road for any yellow-orange light resembling a number or blinking “transit” sign. We stand to face the elements, together in our anxiety, isolated in our circumstance, cursing the empty and full buses that pass us by.
One third of Detroit households are recorded by the census as not having a car, which means over 200,000 people within the city of Detroit are continually relying on the public transit system to get to work on time, to get to the hospital and the grocery store. Why has this problem persisted? If transportation is connected to health, employment, and wellbeing, why hasn’t something drastic been done to change it?
When I climb onto the bus after standing so long, my anger melts away the cold, but I am left frozen in indifference. After boarding the bus, my consciousness and compassion for those we knowingly pass — who look just the way we did minutes ago — is lost. I go on with my day because caring — really caring — for those folks ‘out there’ is something I don’t have the capacity to do.
I don’t have motivation to tell the bus driver to stop. I don’t have the energy to fight a city council or RTA about how unfair this all is. I lost that impulse of consciousness standing at the bus stop a few blocks back, when unemployment, staying put, and buying processed foods sounded better than waiting an hour in the cold to find alternatives.
A recent piece in the New York Times claimed the richer a person is, the less likely he/she would be to explicitly address the needs of the poor. University professors studied the connection between social power and empathy, finding the rich empathized less with the poor because of a growing social distance created by material wealth and experience.
Privilege allows people the choice to disengage from those deprived of basic essentials, the way I did when I finally got on the bus. Perhaps this is why more was not done by members of Congress to stop cuts in the food stamps program. Perhaps this is why it has taken the powers within the city so long to even consider reforming Detroit’s public transit system. Perhaps this is why more folks have not organized to fight a system that takes more than one third of its population for granted.
Transportation is connected to employment, civil harmony, and food access. It is up to us to demand the city provide equitable access to healthy food, and address an important component of its transportation. The city is putting millions into new transit systems that are less about the social equity and wellness of inner-city Detroiters, and more about future “economic development.”
It is going to take more than the already apathetic bus rider to speak up; it is going to take people who drive cars and ride bikes in this city, who may have more time, and relatively closer proximity to those in power, to address the needs of those still waiting for the bus.
Detroit is rich in its history of organizing and fighting for the rights of those most in need in the face of unjust and unconscious policies. I can only hope we continue to take on these fights, attending RTA meetings, organizing bus riders and consciously choosing not to take our wealth for granted.
Brenda Mutuma is an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center. She is working with the Detroit Food Policy Council until February 2014.