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Feb 13, 2009

The people of Detroit are beginning to imagine a new life for their near-dead city.

By James R. Gaines (text) and Chris Bravo (video)

No American city ever rose so fast—from a trading post to the hub of
global industry within a few decades—or fell so far. The last
comparable collapse in the Americas came with the end of Mayan
civilization, a thousand years ago.
Large swaths of Detroit seem to have been hit by a neutron bomb.
Sometimes a building will look entirely normal, even beautiful, until
you come close enough to see that weeds and treelets—a species of
Chinese plant that somehow got loose there—are growing out of its
glassless windows. Some people call it “the ghetto palm,” others “the
tree of heaven.”
The old Packard plant, built in 1906, stands as the ultimate ruins of a
city and the idea that built it. On a cold sunny Sunday morning, a
longtime UAW member named Rich Feldman stood in front of it and said,
“I bring people here to see the pain and the hurt that are present in
our city. It’s a breaking point, a way of saying we can never go back
again. These 40 long-abandoned buildings represent a standard of living
for working-class Americans beyond anything that anyone could have ever
imagined, and it is gone.”
Feldman has been watching the collapse of his city for the last 20
years, during which officials have issued ten times more demolition
permits than building permits. He has also seen something else.

Rising up from the ashes! Rising up from the ashes!
It’s the title and refrain of a hip-hop CD documenting Detroit’s
dropout population. That includes almost three quarters of all black
students in the city.
Detroit is a gold mine for leaden statistics like that one: it’s the
poorest big city in the U.S., with about a third of its residents
living below the poverty line. There were 394 murders, 341 rapes and
6,575 robberies in the city last year, and almost 20,000 cars were
That is the Detroit story everybody knows. Feldman will tell you that another one is being written.
That CD, for example: it was made by Detroit kids, in a program called
the Live Arts Media Project. Many of those kids were dropouts.
Refusing to surrender to poverty and crime, Detroit is witnessing new
community development programs that take aim at root causes and try to
grow a new economy from the ground up. Many of these are independent of
the government. All over town, people are opening stores and markets,
starting businesses and small factories in their basements.
Urban gardens are springing up on the vacant lots. When people are hungry, the new gardens and their gardeners feed them.
Artists have remade whole blocks of ruined houses into a lively,
tale-telling urban landscape, while hundreds of independent record
labels incubate in bedrooms and garages that have been wired for
high-speed Internet.
There is a live poetry reading somewhere in town virtually every night of the week.

The collapse of Detroit parallels what is happening elsewhere in
America. What happens next will depends on who comes by—or comes back,
or stays around—to fix it.
“My American dream,” Feldman says, “is one that makes a strong
distinction between the standard of living, which folks once thought
was the answer to all concerns, and quality of life—the dignity of the
lives of people.”
On the following pages are some of the people who are trying to make a new Detroit—and they believe, a new America.

Food: From urban rust to verdant green
With its 139 square miles, Detroit has one of America’s largest
urban footprints. In 1950, that land held 2 million citizens, today
there are less than half that. This fact, combined with homelessness,
joblessness and falling incomes among working people, makes a
compelling argument for urban agriculture and local businesses built
around local food. Detroit has a lot of that already, and more is on
the way.

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network: The Detroit Black
Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) was formed to create new jobs
and support a new economy with the production of local food—and to keep
the profits in Detroit’s black community.

EarthWorks Urban Farm: EarthWorks Urban Farm, an outgrowth of
the Capuchin monks’ soup kitchen, now includes an apiary, kids’ classes
and a mobile market.

The Arts: Imagining a new conversation
Above ground, Detroit’s symphony, museum, opera and theater are
still thriving. Just a little deeper, down in the grassroots, there is
a profusion of new growth—from hundreds of independent music labels and
a vibrant new generation of performance poets to a new theatrical and
visual vocabulary of the urban landscape. Detroit’s artists are
inventing ways to make the city itself a work of art.

The Heidelberg Project:
Named for its street, the work of
artist Tyree Guyton has brought to light to what was among Detroit’s
most benighted neighborhoods.

A Theater of Experience: Director Aku Kadogo, a Detroit native
who returned after a long career abroad, teaches her drama students at
Wayne State University how to draw from the legacy of African-American

The Poem is the City:
Like others in Detroit’s vibrant new poetry scene, Will Copeland finds
his inspiration in the movement toward a new Detroit and a new urban

Beyond school: The textbook is life
In a city where the black dropout rate is almost 75 percent, the
need for new approaches is obvious. Several organizations, including
Detroit Summer and the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council,
have stepped into the breach with programs that teach kids about media,
entrepreneurship, personal responsibility and the power of community.
Their goal is a new economy and a newly empowered citizenry.

Detroit Summer: Started in the early 1990s, Detroit Summer has
spawned a dozen projects for the city’s youth, including the Live Arts
Media Project (LAMP).

East Michigan Environmental Action Council:
EMEAC teaches kids how to use media to support environmental responsibility. The kids use what they’ve learned as they see fit.

Community: Hospitals for the soul
They are all in the work of community development, but that’s a
fancy phrase for a lot of what they do. A young woman gets out of jail
at 25, after ten years. What is she to make of the rest of her life? A
family is evicted. Where do they go? A mother is addicted to crack with
no husband and 11 children at home. As often as not, the work of
community development is done one life at a time.

Hush House: Part safe house, part think tank, part publisher and
part community center, Hush House is also a museum, a newspaper and an
entrepreneurial collective.

Friends of Detroit & Tri-County:
a 23,000-foot former meat packing plant, Mike Wimberley houses a
computer school, classes for sewing, a music studio and a licensed
commercial kitchen.

“The world I grew up in as a radical was a world that thought of
leadership in a very vertical way—leadership and followership. And I
think that the world has changed so much that it’s possible to say, ‘we
are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.’”

Grace Lee Boggs, the widow of autoworker-revolutionary Jimmy Boggs,
runs the Boggs Center, which cultivates community leaders and is ground
zero for much of the new thinking about Detroit’s future. Now 93, Boggs
is a kind of hero to the reformers of Detroit, and to meet her is to
know why.
Her perspective is far-sighted, backward and forward. “Detroit is the
most striking example of the transition that cities all over the
country are undergoing—from industrial society, which has collapsed or
is sinking very fast, to post-industrial society.”
She sees the same thing happening in Akron and Oakland and Milwaukee
and Buffalo—a transition she calls “as far-reaching as the one from
hunting and gathering 11,000 years ago to agriculture. And from
agriculture to industry 300 years ago.”
A political activist since the 1930s, she has no illusions that this
transition will be easy. But, like her husband, she does not think
progress can depend on help from on high or outside, whether from
President Barack Obama or anybody else.
“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” she says.
Neither Boggs, nor the many other young and old activists who are
trying to remake Detroit, pretend that utopia is at hand. But in the
depths of post-industrial blight, they’re finding reasons for hope.
Who knows what may come of a thing like that? 

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this is the first i have seen of this and I LOVE IT!!! THANK YOU

Sabrina Nelson
Apr 20, 2010

I take back my previous comment….I didn’t realize there was more video presentation to watch. What an awesome project. The people are rising up to take individual responsibility rather than relying on gov’t to be the answer. This spirit needs to spread through out the nation!

Kate Barbie
Feb 19, 2009

Now I get it…. I didn’t realize there was so much more video presentation to watch. After seeing it all I was truly inspired and given a breath of hope for this city. Individuals are taking responsibility and putting into action what can help themselves and others in their community. This kind of spirit needs to be transported to inner cities across this nation! Great job!

Kate Barbie
Feb 19, 2009

Go Earthworks and Lisa!! Turn all those vacant lots into beautiful gardens of possibility!

Anna Richter
Feb 19, 2009

I don’t get it…. It may not be what you want to hear but Detroit is in the shape it is in because it put all its eggs in one basket (the auto industry) which catered to labor unions. Now the liberal establishment is entrenched and they demand total control. Until the general public wakes up to this modern day enslavement, things will improve very little. I pray for Detroit. America can not afford one city to be depressed like this. This allows other forces, ie Muslim Sharia Law, to desire more control of the people. It needs a Christian spiritual revival before any physical revival of the city can be seen. I told you, many do not want to hear this, but sometimes the TRUTH is hard to hear.

Kate Barbie
Feb 18, 2009

Thank you so much for this work! It vividly shares the story of The Detroit that we live in and love. It is wonderful to see so many of our heroes and their vital work recognized here. ~Gregg, Angela & Aya

Gregg Newsom
Feb 18, 2009


Cara Graninger
Feb 18, 2009

Very well done. I look forward to future editions. One small correction. Nsoroma Institute, the African-centered school that I direct is not in Southfield, Michigan. Since August of last year, we have been on the eastside of Detroit.

Malik Yakini
Feb 14, 2009

Watch FLYP’s interview with the chairman of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Malik Yakini.

Watch FLYP’s interview with EarthWorks Urban Farm’s outreach coordinator, Lisa Richter.

Take a tour of Heidelberg Street with Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of The Heidelberg Project, and watch a clip from the documentary, Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton, by Nicole Cattell.

Watch a rehearsal of Wayne State’s forthcoming production of Zora Is My Name!, in which Kadogo coaches the finer points of Southern dialect and storytelling and talks about her goals as a teacher. 

Watch Will Copeland recite two of his poems about Detroit’s past and future, titled “Respiration” and “Organic Activist.”  

Watch members of Detroit Summer talk about empowering kids with a different kind of education.

Watch a video produced by participants in the Live Arts Media Project program about creating cooperative economies and listen to a piece from the Project’s audio documentary, Rising Up from the Ashes: Chronicles of a Dropout.

Green Screen is EMEAC’s youth-focused environmental film festival. FLYP lets you watch two of last year’s entries to the festival: Neglected Sky by John Cooney and Be Seen Being Green.

Watch Roshaun L. Harris, editor of Hush Your Mouth Magazine, talk about the community roots of Hush House’s publication, and watch Oyatunde Amakisi, producer of the Detroit Women of Color International Film Festival, talk about the impact of the event.

Watch Mike Wimberly, executive director of Friends of Detroit & Tri-County, talk about the challenges of building economies from scratch.