Lessons from Marathon? By Shea Howell

Thinking for Ourselves

Lessons from Marathon?

By Shea Howell

The refusal of the corporate elite and foundations to acknowledge the failure of Detroit Works is reaching laughable proportions. Last week, Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press and American Black Journal on PBS hosted a show touting the Marathon Petroleum Company’s effort to buy out homeowners in Oakwood Heights as a possible model for Mayor Bing’s efforts at “neighborhood consolidation.” This show followed an editorial by Mr. Henderson echoing the same theme. Mr. Henderson wrote:

“Marathon’s effort might best be described as Detroit Works writ small, a laboratory to see how some of your biggest ideas about creating density and emptying out dying neighborhoods might actually play out. There should be lots to learn.”

The most important lesson Mr. Henderson is looking for is how to move people from one place to another, as though we are pawns on a chessboard. He says, “In a city of more than 700,000, with 139 square miles and perhaps tens of thousands of people who need to be moved to create a more rational population footprint, a successful Detroit Works program could reach harrowing figures pretty quickly. There has been no talk about who would pay that bill.”

Mr. Henderson persists in repeating the tired argument that “tens of thousands” “need to be moved” because this would save the city money on services. He says the mayor “should pay attention to the impact on city services from the Marathon program.” He asks, “At what point does it become possible to stop doing things like removing fallen trees or fixing infrastructure? What does it mean for schools, police and fire service, bus routes?”

Neither of Mr. Henderson’s guests on American Black Journal went along with his enthusiastic endorsement of the Marathon efforts. Robin Boyle, the head of urban planning and geography at Wayne State University pointed out that if only 5% of the current homeowners slated for “relocation” were offered the same deal; it would cost the city $600 million. Moreover Mr. Boyle rejected the idea that such a move would have much of an impact on city services, as most are tied to physical structures requiring on going maintenance to reach the whole city.

John Gallagher whose book Re-imagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City showcases the innovative community-building work happening in the city posed two visions for the future of the city. On the one hand, he said, there are those who back the Detroit Works Project and see some kind of quick, large scale reconfiguration of the city, often involving some combination of massive land use projects such as the reforestation proposal of Hantz farm. On the other hand, there is the image of a much more organic emergence of re-purposing land by people in the community. This sometimes means expanding the size of lots, and turning open land to green space, parks or gardens. These small-scale, community driven efforts that he documents so well, are virtually unseen by Mr. Henderson and those who back Detroit Works. Yet this is the only approach that will sustain the evolution of a new city that serves its people and protects its resources.

At the end the show, Mr. Henderson mused that perhaps the reason Marathon can achieve success is because it is a private company, unencumbered by the political issues facing elected officials.- Such thinking is at the heart of the misguided Detroit Works initiative. People engaged in discussion and disagreement are seen as problems to be managed. The idea that such conversations could produce new solutions to our common concerns is unimaginable. Yet this is precisely what Mr. Gallagher describes so well. It is our best hope for a re-imagined democracy as well as a re-imagined Detroit.


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