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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Detroit and Urban Policy

Growing up in the Motor City, I always felt superior when visiting my parent's family in Sandusky or Toledo or, even, Cleveland. I felt triumphant cheering the Red Wings, Tigers, Lions, Pistons, even when we lost, because our city was a winner. We were the big city, fourth largest, and the engine that won WWII. My Dad worked with GM. He helped first change its plants to make tanks, planes, and guns, and then after the War back to making Chevys, Cadillacs, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles to power the fastest growing economy in the world.

He used to take me as a little boy to the GM and Fisher Buildings where he worked. We could see the models of the cars of the future. I remember a World of Tomorrow display in which an automated three-dimensional maquette showed the highway system of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Tomorrow came quickly. I remember when the first expressway was created, the Davidson. And then President Eisenhower made that image a reality through the Federal Aid Highway Act. The auto triumphs and Detroit creates conditions for its own destruction.

I was teaching high school in Detroit when JFK was killed. I also saw MLK at a service for Detroiter Viola Liuzo who was killed in Alabama acting for civil rights. Also in Detroit I learned about community organizing in a black, Appalachian white, and Hispanic area near Briggs Stadium and Wayne State University. Therefore, while I am no longer arrogant about it, Detroit and its future matter to me.

After teaching in Detroit, I went to Chicago for further education. In 1967, I was driving back from Cleveland on the Ohio Turnpike when on my car radio I listened to reports of the devastating riots in poor black neighborhoods. Chicago had already experienced a riot in 1966 and would again when MLK was killed. It was in Chicago, especially working with the Contract Buyers League in the context of a community organizing project and gathering information for a dissertation in social ethics, where I learned why Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and many other cities were committing suicide.

I learned how well-intentioned urban stratagems, linked to profit motivated corporate interests in a real estate economy regulated to assist those interests, was destroying our cities. Public housing originally created to help returning veterans was being used to warehouse poor, generally black families and buy up once cheap lands for investment in high end condos. FHA created to give the lower middle class the ability to gain equity in land and single family homes was used to redline certain "high risk" neighborhoods and foster the white flight to the exurbs further subsidized by government investment in infrastructure. Tax exemptions for mortgage and other credit interest gave tremendous advantages to both buyers, sellers, and constructors of homes in cheaper lands outside the city. Such practices reinforced and verified the assumptions they were built on, e.g. black neighborhoods deteriorate, the poor you will always have with you, those people bring it on themselves, government is the problem not the solution, the free market works, immigrants cost more than they contribute, walled communities are safe communities, and so on.

Many of those programs have been reformed piecemeal. Many new tools have been fashioned, often through the hard work of people organizing through their churches and associations, to assist those who have been left out of the real estate wealth game. I worked with HUD (which we had sued in Chicago for its redlining policies) for the last 14 years and saw how many of the new programs could work when HUD community builders worked hand in hand with local community organizations and advocates. (Unfortunately HUD has since withdrawn from local neighborhoods back to more centralized bureaucratic administration of programs.) But there was clearly no coherent and inclusive urban policy to guide it.

I have worked primarily in non-profit organizations working with, and sometimes against, local governments in Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Honolulu, Cleveland, Fresno and other cities in California's Central Valley. Each place is different they say with its own real estate market. And they are right. But the cities play by the same economic rules supported by the same national government with the same national urban (non-) policy. Each action we took in each neighborhood was important and, when successful, very gratifying; but the rules of the game stay the same because we operate without understanding of those rules and their consequences, often unintended.

Now I am in the "belly of the beast," Washington DC working as a volunteer leader in a church/community-based housing and community development corporation headquartered in a former riot blighted, now one of the most gentrifying, neighborhood of the city. We attempt to retain and even increase the supply of low-income housing in a market that is pushing people out of the city often into long commutes through snarled traffic. DC has probably the most progressive housing programs that I've seen in a city and, unlike Detroit and more like Pittsburgh and Chicago, the inner core is prospering with the immigration of young, talented, and wealthy or wealthy-to-be people of many ethnic, racial, cultural backgrounds. But with those winners, especially the early investors, there are many losers.  And metro-Washington is in trouble as it continues to sprawl out.

I am convinced that my colleagues (and I have have wonderful colleagues in each of the cities I mentioned above) and I need to keep acting in our local situations to build local leadership and to use the tools we can to fight poverty, create affordable housing, organize safe and healthy neighborhoods. But we also need to engage in the discussion of a new national urban policy based on the analysis of the political, economic, and cultural patterns that are in fact creating the divisions, fragmentations, and destruction of our cities. Detroit's move to bankruptcy is the occasion for this. It is a symbol of failed national urban, housing, and racial policy as identified by the Kerner Commission after its riots.

Just as we did through action in Chicago to uncover, not racial tension--that was apparent--but the patterns of buying, selling, and building or "improving" real estate that were reinforcing that tension. Now the tension is less between black and white (though the Travon Martin case shows that still exists), but between the well-to-do economically secure with multiple options and the poorer not-so-secure without many options--all founded on a spirituality of success as defined by money.

So I invite my colleagues for a discussion of a new urban policy for the US. I think our discussion might:
  • Start with an understanding of urbanization in the US, its scope and character.
  • Include an analysis of the patterns of urbanization and their consequences, economic, political, cultural, spiritual.
  • Identify the regional and national practices and programs, or lack thereof, that are contributing to these patterns as well as the culture that legitimates them.
  • Concretize these patterns in many diverse urban settings with institutions and persons named.
  • Show how how our actions in our local neighborhoods and organizations relate to these patterns of urbanization.
  • Identify the elements of a new urban policy.
  • Put those elements together into a coherent policy that can be used throughout the nation.
  • Put together the strategies and actions that will be needed to get this policy accepted and implemented by public, private, and non-governmental, non-profit organizations.
What do you think?

PS while I was thinking about this, Dan Balz in the Washington Post just wrote about Detroit's woes and a lack of Urban Policy. Check it out.

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