The Structural Readjustment of Detroit

“We inherited a hell hole.” – Mayor Dave Bing

Between September 14 and 22, 2010, Detroit experienced five extraordinary, well-attended public meetings on the subject of land use and related public policy issues.

Mayor Dave Bing, Kresge Foundation-funded Team Leader Toni Griffin, Co-Team Leader (and Deputy Director of the Planning and Development Department) Marja Winters, Group Executive Karla Henderson and their legions of well-paid consultants hosted thousands of ordinary Detroiters at sites around the city. Their endlessly repeated mantra: “There is no plan.”

Detroiters have decades of hard experience in corporate-driven back room deals and “crony capitalist” scams – in the face of growing poverty for the city’s working class majority – from “Negro removal” in the sixties through the Poletown eminent domain neighborhood land grab in the eighties, to Kwame Kilpatrick’s ongoing ethical bonfires. Mayor Bing’s administration and the foundations funding “Detroit Works” are understandably concerned that we would reject any “plan” provided as a fait accompli to us by the NBA Hall of Fame businessman and his “business community” supporters. Therefore, the sponsors of the “Detroit Works” project bent over backwards to deny any and all such schemes.

But in their fear of real Detroiters, the organizers failed to offer any concrete ideas about community economic development and land, democracy and planning, environment, economy or justice – or indeed, any substantive ideas about much of anything. Therefore, these huge and – for Detroit – virtually unprecedented gatherings shed little light. Residents mostly registered well-justified complaints about poor city services and quality of life. A few activists were able to raise legitimate process concerns. Not much was accomplished, in spite of the enormous pent-up pain that brought so many people out. On the whole, it was a series of missed opportunities for demonstrating vision, leadership, courage and imagination.

The first event at Greater Grace Temple on the northwest side on Tuesday, September 14 was an utter fiasco, disintegrating in poor organization, loud recriminations and incoherent miscommunication. After the hour-long forum, facilitator Kirk Mayes told the Michigan Citizen newspaper that “The purpose of the forum was to pull people out of the complaining format and get them to creatively discuss problems.”

Another thousand or so people showed up for the second meeting two days later at the Serbian Community Hall on the east side. While procedurally calmer, the promised “facilitated discussion” with Detroiters was not really either facilitated or a true discussion. People in the crowd were called on, and they made their points. Ms. Winters or Ms. Henderson then called on the next speaker, and so on. Again, the organizers’ fear of the accusation that “the fix is in” paralyzed them from even articulating any provocative ideas to frame a coherent dialog, or engaging in any meaningful or authentic way with the many Detroiters who came hoping for effective leadership and real change.

The third meeting, on Saturday morning, September 18 (the only one not held in the evening), was a semi-historic occasion: For the first time Dave Bing – at least in terms of his demeanor, if not the content of what he said – sounded more like the mayor of a city than a motivational speaker rehashing his sports and business careers. He began by repeating the line he used, and the corporate media picked up, at the Serbian Community Hall two nights previously: When his administration entered office, “We inherited a hell hole.” The continuing maintenance of absolute control over the proceedings, patronizing Detroiters and withholding any indication of administration thinking about key issues, again severely limited the usefulness of the event, although the Saturday morning crowd seemed to feature a higher mix of seasoned activists, community leaders and high-ranking city officials, who would have been especially well-prepared to kick off an effective community visioning process that will be essential to Detroit’s future prosperity, if Detroit’s leaders ever decide to commit to it.

The Detroit News perfectly captured the shortcomings of the proceedings in the first two sentences of its story about this meeting: “Residents talked Saturday about weeds outside their homes, long waits for police, rundown homes that need to be torn down, and the school board being controlled by the mayor. The only thing they didn’t discuss at length was a plan to reshape the city, which was the point of the community forum at Whittier Manor.”

The slightly smaller third meeting on Tuesday, September 21, at Western High School on the city’s shamefully neglected, but dynamic southwest side, maintained the identical format and content-free presentation. “Detroit Works” confirmed finally and irrefutably that its highly-regarded authors tragically believe that real Detroiters have nothing of value to say, can offer no credible ideas, and are basically worthless except to complain about inadequate police, fire and sanitation services. Introduced as “The Visionary” by Marja Winters, Dave Bing admitted that “I had no idea what I was getting into when I ran for mayor.” Confronted by a Detroiter in the audience about the absence of any authentic dialog, he stated that “With 7 or 800 people it’s almost impossible to have dialog.” By their own admission the meetings failed to achieve the stated purpose “to pull people out of the complaining format and get them to creatively discuss problems.”

The final well-attended meeting at Detroit’s magnificent African American History museum in the cultural center, completed the administration and their consultants’ attempted public relations rehabilitation. For whatever reason (fatigue?), Toni Griffin changed the central verbal mantra. Instead of denying the existence of any plan at this time, she said “We’re not gonna share a plan with you tonight, this month or next month.” Like other speakers, Dave Bing praised the significant turnouts at these meetings. He said “A lot of people think nobody cares about this city.” Perhaps a lot of the strange dynamics in evidence are explained by this fact: the mayor spends too much time with people who are uninformed about Detroit, including people who falsely believe nobody cares about the city.

What one would never know, from the Bing administration and consultants’ tight scripting of these five public meetings, is that many diverse Detroiters coming from multiple perspectives not only care about our community, we have been working hard in recent years, not waiting for leadership, to come up with vision and practical suggestions for our deep crisis. To mention only a few examples:

With extensive local participation and sponsorship, the American Association of Architects engaged in a real, interdisciplinary community visioning process and issued a detailed 60-page “Strategic Design Assessment Team” (SDAT) report, including detailed analysis of such issues as an urban “eco-village” design and developing local small business sectors for job generation in food processing and distribution, that should have informed discussions at these meetings, although they have not and cannot yet be incorporated into any “final” or “master” plan.

The respected and experienced local community organizations in the “Community Development Advocates of Detroit” (CDAD) industry association, also with extensive local input and consultation among the affected communities, developed an extensive “strategic framework” of neighborhood indicators, classifications and suggested policy initiatives tailored to providing a vision and hope (not yet a “plan”) for real change in every part of the city.

The “Detroit Food Policy Council” and the “Detroit Food Justice Task Force” have begun massive and historic efforts to create a food-secure Detroit and address structural racism in local food systems, in the context of the city’s burgeoning urban agriculture movement – a policy framework that is particularly relevant to the core topics of land use and community economic development, although it was barely mentioned in this month’s “Detroit Works” public meetings.

Detroit has adopted a “non-motorized transit” plan to encourage cycling, walkability, greenways and other adaptive land uses.

Far too many discussions and initiatives regarding “green” and sustainable development and “new urbanism” to list individually – from energy conservation and building design to adaptive reuse of the city’s current vast open space and unused building stock (including on the government level the local land bank, a reform policy ostensibly designed to gain control of, assemble and re-purpose tax-reverted vacant properties).

Community-based economic development initiatives modeled on those already underway in other major cities, connecting the economic needs of the city’s major institutions with the employment needs of its people by initiating local enterprises via sustainable small business plans, under unique structures of community ownership.

Most fundamentally, beginning a huge, long-term shift from the market-oriented thinking that dominated Detroit’s decades of decline, to commons-based thinking in terms of the “triple bottom line:” social equity, shared economic prosperity and development, environmental health and true sustainability.

“What’s goin’ on?” – Marvin Gaye

“Intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” and the manipulators “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country.” – Edward Bernays (Freud’s American nephew), “Propaganda” (1928) (quoted recently in The New Statesman by John Pilger regarding the US “pull-out” from Iraq: “Flying the Flag, Faking the News”)

“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” – Bush White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in 2003, explaining why the propaganda buildup to the attack on Iraq was introduced in September 2002.

Conditions in Detroit in 2010 recently drew about 18-20,000 people here, only three months ago, for the second US Social Forum, under the slogans “Another world is possible, Another US is necessary, and Another Detroit is happening.” Those grassroots activists, organizers and community leaders from around the country and internationally recognized that amazing, historic and world-changing things are happening today in Detroit. Detroit is a bellwether. In its post-industrial desolation, its racialized poverty, and its hidden but deep history as a movement city that changes the world (among many other things), the USSF saw a highly revealing reflection and a vision of our collective struggles and our future.

This is truly an incredible time and place to be alive. An old way of living in the world and organizing societies is dying, with peak oil, climate chaos and global economic collapse. A new way is being born. It is difficult, painful and even bloody. It is real. And Detroit is ahead of the curve.

Detroiters already have many years, even decades of experience making a way out of no way, in what some now call a complete “DIY” city. If it is indeed a hell hole for children and families in deep poverty, for victims of structural and environmental racism and shocking economic inequality, it is also a community of brilliant creativity, innovative genius and deep love and respect for diverse traditions. And it is by brutal necessity thoroughly grounded in the social, political and economic realities facing the world today; what one author (James Kunstler) has called “the long emergency” of our interrelated energy, economic and environmental crises, which many people have begun referring to as “the new normal.”

The failure of the mayor, his troika of team leaders and their pricey consultants to “get” either the scope of the real crisis, the uniquely valuable perspectives of ordinary Detroiters on surviving it – or indeed their failure under these circumstances even to offer any significant ideas for discussion during massively attended public forums on Detroit’s future, may be the best evidence and argument yet for turning the page on new forms of leadership, community, economic life and just about everything else. As Marvin Gaye’s other immortal tune has it, “Let’s Get it On.”

Detroit has unparalleled assets for pursuing a strategy of asset-based development in the 21st century economy: great water resources, an incredible amount of open and relatively affordable urban land, and an enviable history and culture. There is virtually no equivalent example today of underutilized potential. This is a strong, dynamic community of survivors who want to do more than merely survive: we want Detroiters to thrive in the new century.

The key to progress is the process of getting from here to there: adopting and effectively implementing governance, leadership, communications, marketing and development strategies that successfully move Detroit from its current condition to where we want to be. Without bold leadership and broad participation, all the important, creative ideas we agree on as a basis for future progress, and all the tremendous social wealth of Detroit, will be wasted, as if Detroit were only the “hell hole” Dave Bing sees now that he says he realizes what he’s gotten himself into. That is completely unacceptable.

I have no idea if there is already a semi-secret “plan” for the gentrification of Detroit and relocation of Detroiters or not. I do know that around the world today, from Athens to Detroit and all points beyond, there is a system and an ideology on steroids. It used to be called “structural adjustment,” when US imperial tools like the IMF, WTO and World Bank inflicted it on the peoples of the developing world in the 1990s.

The essence of this top-down system is depressingly familiar: privatization of everything; a “race to the bottom” of economic conditions, social services and labor and other human rights of all kinds; deregulation of corporate capital concentrations, to let the wealthy do virtually anything they want in a Wall Street casino economy. Even broader than this, implementing a universal consciousness-changing campaign in the schools and the media, through the foundations and all remaining public discussion forums, undermining popular democracy, using divide-and-conquer tactics of racism and other prejudices, crippling the “left hand” protective roles of government (e.g., social security, public education, health care for all, etc.), and focusing policy and popular mobilization on the strengthened “right hand” of the state in the prisons, the military, the police and the other forces that order large numbers of people around, so a few at the top can make money, gain even more power and enjoy tax cuts. (Which sounds essentially like one of those meetings they held in Detroit this month… Hmm…) Enough of all that.

When the Bing administration local power nexus of officials, foundations and connected corporations says “There is no plan,” they mean they haven’t figured out yet how they are going to achieve dominance over our community and exercise effective agency in this brave new world of crisis and opportunity. They know painfully well that since they can barely put out house fires or respond timely to medical emergencies (to mention only two recent high-profile municipal scandals), they are far from being players who can swing the big deals and reap the big rewards of casino economy speculative investment, by delivering Detroit to Wall Street’s regional and international speculators. Overcoming their insufficiencies as leaders in the structural adjustment of Detroit was the real agenda behind the first five “Detroit Works” public meetings. Their inability and failure to engage the community in meaningful discussion of the key issues prevented these meetings from accomplishing their ostensible purpose of kicking off a broad process to fundamentally transform Detroit. Only time, and Detroiters’ responses, will demonstrate the real world outcomes of all this.

The first of these five public meetings demonstrated how out of touch the city’s official leadership is, when they didn’t realize that a call for public input toward radical change would draw a thousand people or so to Greater Grace Temple. They completely failed to understand the desperation and hunger for new vision and leadership in our communities. Moreover, the final cluelessness of Detroit’s business leadership consists in not recognizing that this time the “business cycle” isn’t going to ride to their rescue. This time it will be ordinary people, working at the grassroots and effectively challenging officials through democratic conversations, confrontations, and movement building power who – like our great-grandparents in the CIO during the Great Depression – will make the necessary changes in the face of massive transformations entailed by the crises all around us. Unless and until these officials join us in meaningful democratic conversations about genuine social change and justice, their “Detroit Works” project is doomed to failure.

TOM STEPHENS is a people’s lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at

Tom Stephens is a volunteer educator for the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement (DIFSM) and a Peoples lawyer in Detroit.