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The Real Story Behind the Decline of Detroit … And Yes, Great Things Are Happening There Too

The media is in a frenzy about Detroit's finances—but there's a lot more going on than just bad news.

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Recently Detroit News Editor Nolan Finley,  who has built his career on being the most steadfast and flamboyant carrier of the “white man’s burden,” published a much hyped editorial titled “Can Detroit Govern itself?”  You can guess how he answered his own question. 

And his coded speech is unmistakable. Everyone knows that what Finley really means is can African Americans govern themselves?  To which my answer is absolutely,  if you and your one-percent pals were capable of allowing such a thing.  A step in the right direction would be for the News to publish a reflective piece on how its coverage of the city and its hate filled comments section helps perpetuate racism and segregation

The thing about residential segregation is that it changes not just economics,  but politics as well.  As Detroit became more predominantly African-American,  its influence,  especially in state government declined.  Among other things,  that made gerrymandering easier,  contributing to the control of all three branches of government by right-wing Republicans. 

But there is more to this story—way more

Believe it or not,  the worst of times is well on its way to becoming something truly inspiring  The very isolation of Detroit has created the conditions for economy number 4 to develop a new paradigm of economic activity. 

Economy number 4 is a complex,  multi-layered thing in its own right. It is single moms stretching dollars from government programs for the poor as creatively and as far as they can. It is back alley auto repair shops and church’s selling dinners on the street.  It is off the books home child care.  It is what African-Americans have had to do for many generations to make a way out of no way. 

It is also scrappers who are repurposing the copper,  weathered wood and other valuable products left by the abandonment of homes,  stores and factories.  So, yes it’s crime too.  Crime, after all, is a form of economic activity whether it is Wall Street stealing homes through foreclosure or robbers who target dope-dealers cuz “that’s where the money is.” 

Some people look at the physical destruction of Detroit and see only the blight.  What I see is amazing resourcefulness on the part of the remaining residents to prevail again and again against overwhelming odds. 

Necessity truly is the mother of invention and in that spirit,  Detroiters are also developing a remarkable highly intentional economy.  That economy includes increasingly sophisticated urban agriculture and a growing network of alternative schools.  It is neighborhood based conflict resolution;  do-it-yourself solar street lighting;  community based manufacturing using the newest fab lab technology and alternative transportation systems.  It is new art and new music and new media.  It is time-banking,  co-ops and other forms of creative finance. It is Skype conferences and face to face meetings with partners all over the world to reimagine work,  finance and democracy.  It is the creative use of social services and churches to create maker spaces and entrepreneurial opportunities for returning citizens.  It is the hard below the radar work of the Detroit Roundtable and others facilitating healing and practical new alliances between the city and the suburbs. 

The living, breathing Detroit new economy movement taps into Detroit’s deep political traditions of advocacy for economic and social justice.  It is especially dependent on the decades long visionary analysis and activism of the late James Boggs and 98 year old Grace Lee Boggs. 

Interestingly enough,  the new economy component of Detroit’s fourth economy is itself attracting a significant amount of tourism.  Plans are already underway for new B & B’s to house both long and short term visitors.  Already people are coming from around the country and the world who want to learn first hand what a fledgling post-capitalist,  post industrial, new paradigm economy looks like. 

 
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