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Green Detroit: Why the City Is Ground Zero for the Sustainability Movement

Ignore the mainstream media. Detroit is not about architectural ruins. The people are re-imagining their city in fresh and courageous ways and there is a lot to learn from them.

The vultures are picking at the bones again:

“Two French photographers immortalize the remains of the motor city on film”.

That’s how Time magazine describes a recent photo series by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre titled “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline”.

I’d like to know who appointed these editors coroner, anyway? Where I come from, which happens to be Detroit, anytime you are immortalizing somebody’s remains, they are dead.

In this case I find it odd to send in two French photographers to conduct the forensics and perform the cultural autopsy. Who are these guys? How long did they spend in the city? What do they even know about Detroit?

Their photograph of a grand old theatre with its roof collapsing is certainly striking. Only problem is that it could have been taken 25 years ago. In fact, it was. When I was the editor & publisher of the Metro Times in the 80’s, we paid photographers to break into abandoned theatres across downtown to rally the community to save these civic treasures. Yes, we lost some like the United Artist and Michigan. But we also saved the Fox, the State, the Gem and the Grand Circus, all in the same neighborhood.

If Time wanted to show the world some images of Detroit, maybe they could have contacted an actual local photographer. There are many great ones.

Take Bruce Giffin for example, whom I worked with for many years.  Bruce’s powerful, respectful photographs from the streets of the city are deeply moving. They are authentic–I doubt if he jumps on the first plane to Paris after a photo session.

After all the political rhetoric, all the corporate funded white papers and messed up mainstream media coverage, Detroit is the truth. Detroit is the end result of a global economic system unfettered by labor or environmental standards. The city is the deadly consequence of capital freely moving across the planet, forever in search of a lower common denominator of working conditions, pollution and corruption.

Add an utter lack of vision (and too often integrity) on the part of the local business and political leadership and the result has been an urban implosion unmatched in scale and depth anywhere in the United States. The amount of suffering and heartbreak is so acute and so real that it can take your breath away.

So does Detroit still matter? Or should we just bulldoze what is still standing and scatter the remaining residents across the country like the Bush administration did to the victims of Hurricane Katrina? Blame it on the post-industrial hurricane called global free market capitalism.

Part of the answer lies in the city’s history. Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the industrial age with people starting automobile companies in their garages instead of tech companies. The world may not have defeated fascism and genocide without the “Arsenal of Democracy” running full tilt with countless women doing the heavy lifting. It was the place, more than any other, that gave real power to working men and women through collective bargaining. It was a crucible of Black pride and Black political power. And Detroit is birthplace to some of the best R&B, blues, jazz, rock & roll and hip hop the world has ever heard.

DO NOT underestimate the capacity of this city to achieve great things.

I would argue that Detroit not only still matters, but it is at this moment the single most important city in North America. Detroit is coming to a neighborhood near you–it is an early warning of what urban communities across the US and far beyond are facing as those post-industrial, peak oil hurricane winds gather strength.

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