More than Pain and Promise


More than Pain and Promise

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen, Dec.5-11, 2010

Sometimes it seems that the people who profess the deepest love for Detroit are doing the most damage to us. “Pain & Promise: An Essay on the Politics of Detroit” by Trevor W. Coleman in the November issue of BLAC is a prime example.

Introducing the article is this description of Coleman: “An astute observer of city and state politics for two decades shares his in-depth perspective on citizens’ role in creating today’s reality and their responsibility to transform Detroit into the place they want it to be.”

This enticing claim falls flat. Instead of reading something about citizens and their role in transforming the city, we find yet another article explaining how the government-foundation elite knows what is best for us.

Perhaps Mr. Coleman has spent too much time in the Governor’s office because there is nothing in the article suggesting that he talked to any of the many Detroit citizens who are engaged in visionary, transformative political work. Instead his only sources are Governor Granholm, Mayor Bing, Council Members Tate and Spivey, and Carol Goss, CEO of the Skillman Foundation.

Whatever else we might think of these individuals, they all share the belief that the current effort at “downsizing Detroit” is actually some kind of good idea.

Mr. Coleman knows better. As a former Free Press reporter, he should be among the first to recognize that providing only one perspective on a complex issue is shoddy journalism.

Moreover, his description of African American Detroiters ranges from “cynical, powerless and even defeated” to suffering from a “brain drain” or needing an “attitude change.”

The resilience and “steely determination to define their own reality on their own terms” that he admires is cast as a thing of the past. Why? According to Coleman, such strength of character was because Detroiters thought “city leadership had their back.”

This is nonsense. It is also a distortion of the history of this city and its people. Since the rebellion of 1967 the corporate elite and their foundations have been trying to “rebuild the city” through a series of failed mega projects. Every Mayor and almost every city council person has supported these mega projects, often over the opposition of citizens.

Central to this popular resistance was the oft-repeated conviction that by concentrating all their dollars downtown, city leadership was making the fatal mistake of leaving neighborhoods to die.

During the struggle against the destruction of the Poletown neighborhood to build a Cadillac plant, two critical ideas took root in the community. First, many people began to realize that a fundamental and historic change was occurring. Mass production no longer meant mass employment. Jobs were not “coming back.” There was no quick fix. Instead it was up to us to create new kinds of work and a new economy.

People began to say that we were entering a period of great transformation. The industrial age that built Detroit was coming to an end.

We were among the first to be abandoned by industrial capital and therefore among the first to ask ourselves what new kinds of lives do we create in this new world.

People also began to realize that the thinking that had brought us to this point was unlikely to generate the solutions we need for our future. The ways of thinking that got us into this mess would not get us out of it.

So we began asking ourselves new questions: What kind of city do we want? How can we make not just a living, but a life? How do we keep our communities safe? How do we create a new kind of education for our children while rebuilding our community?

In struggling to answer these questions, Detroiters turned the pain of loss into the promise of creating a new city from the ground up. This indepth probing is the source of change in today’s Detroit. That is what Mr. Coleman and the elite interests he favors find it hard to understand. ___________________________________________

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