Detroit: Place and Space to Begin Anew
The following excerpt is from legendary philospher, community organizer and social activist Grace Lee Boggs's new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century, published by the University of California Press. Click here to listen to a Nation Conversation with Boggs, and here to watch a video of Boggs speaking with Amy Goodman and Scott Kurashige at New York City's Brecht Forum on April 15.
Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living—ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.
The media and pundits keep repeating that today’s economic meltdown is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But in the 1930s the United States was an overproducing industrial giant, not today’s casino economy. In the past few decades, once-productive Americans have been transformed into consumers, using more and more of the resources of the Earth to foster ways of living that are unsustainable and unsatisfying. This way of life has created suburbs that destroy farmland, wetlands, and the natural world, as well as pollute the environment. The new economy also requires a huge military apparatus to secure global resources and to consume materials for itself, at the same time providing enormous riches for arms merchants and for our otherwise failing auto, aircraft, and ship manufacturers.
Instead of trying to resurrect or reform a system whose endless pursuit of economic growth has created a nation of material abundance and spiritual poverty—and instead of hoping for a new FDR to save capitalism with New Deal–like programs—we need to build a new kind of economy from the ground up.
That is what I have learned from fifty-five years of living and struggling in Detroit, the city that was once the national and international symbol of the miracle of industrialization and is now the national and international symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization. That is why so many people, especially young people, have their eyes on Detroit today.
Two decades ago, the urban agricultural movement seemed Utopian. But with shrinking supplies of fossil fuels, rising fuel prices, and global warming, it is beginning to look more and more practical. Even the mayor of Detroit now considers agriculture to be a pillar of the city’s future. The key question is whether the vision for urban farming emanating from the grassroots will continue to be paramount.
For example, at a small meeting of the St. Ignatius community on the Eastside of Detroit following Hurricane Katrina, members were asked, “If you had your way, what would you like us to do in this neighborhood?”
In the ensuing discussion folks who had never heard of Adamah made proposals that seemed to come right out of the Adamah vision: community gardens to grow their own food; grocery stores, banks, barber, and beauty shops within walking distance; green spaces with trees; more intergenerational activities; a small neighborhood school where, instead of the old kind of schooling for jobs, children would develop responsibility for one another and for the community through a curriculum that engages them in community activities; a resource center with a community theater, artists’ studios, and information about the different skills available in the neighborhood (e.g., car repair, plumbing, carpentry, tutoring).
Meanwhile, just a few blocks east of my home, Mike Wimberly and his octogenarian mother have created the HOPE District, an eight-block strip that includes a huge lot with placards on which residents can post their dreams; a community garden and an orchard; weekend markets; and a Club Technology with sewing machines and computers for small business incubation.
As I witness and participate in our visionary efforts to revitalize Detroit and contrast them with the multibillion dollars worth of megaprojects advanced by politicians and developers that involve casinos, giant stadiums, gentrification, and the Super Bowl, I am saddened by their shortsightedness. At the same time I rejoice in the energy being unleashed in the community by our human-scale programs that involve bringing the country back into the city and removing the walls between schools and communities, between generations and between ethnic groups. And I am confident just as in the early twentieth century people came from around the world to marvel at the mass production lines pioneered by Henry Ford, in the twenty-first century they will be coming to marvel at the thriving neighborhoods that are the fruit of our visionary programs.
My hope is that as more and different layers of the American people are subjected to economic and political strains and as recurrent disasters force us to recognize our role in begetting these disasters, a growing number of Americans will begin to recognize that we are at one of those great turning points in history. Both for our livelihood and for our humanity we need to see progress not in terms of “having more” but in terms of growing our souls by creating community, mutual self-sufficiency, and cooperative relations with one another.
Living at the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order, we in Detroit are faced with a stark choice of how to devote ourselves to struggle. Should we strain to squeeze the last drops of life out of a failing, deteriorating, and unjust system? Or should we instead devote our creative and collective energies toward envisioning and building a radically different form of living?
That is what revolutions are about. They are about creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old; about evolving to a higher Humanity, not higher buildings; about Love of one another and of the Earth, not Hate; about Hope, not Despair; about saying YES to Life and NO to War; about becoming the change we want to see in the world.