Recently, 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 digress…
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 plan.
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?
Second, 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.
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