A Tale of Two Cities, Remixed

Beverly Bickel is a clinical associate professor of language, literacy and culture at UMBC. She recently posted her reflection on a June visit to Louisville, Kentucky: A Tale of Two Cities and Our Unfinished Democracy.

Bev Bickel 2Detroit, Michigan. Mainstream media coverage tells us that Detroit is a failed city, a story told through images of desperately unemployed people, abandoned city blocks, and crumbling factories, images that can provoke fearful speculations of people in Baltimore. Are we next?

But Detroiters insist they have something hopeful to share with us in Baltimore and other post-industrial places. The recent Allied Media Project’s conference in Detroit was filled with artists, youth leaders, media activists, students, teachers, researchers, writers, filmmakers, and community organizers who gathered to think about current and long-term solutions to seemingly intractable social problems. I was struck by the insistence that we learn our histories and tell our present stories in order to be able to imagine the future tales of these two cities–one where I was born and the other where I have lived for the last 25 years. The animating conference questions–What kinds of human beings are we and could we be? What kinds of cities and communities do we deserve?called for a commitment to recognizing diverse experiences and knowledge and an active insistence on working within and across differences to help each other envision what is needed to humanize our communities, cities, schools, media and work.

Participants demonstrated and discussed projects designed to transform people from consumers to producers of collaborative solutions to segregated and excluded communities being deprived of basic human rights, as well as work that surfaces human stories of creative, cooperative living and value-centered decision-making and media-making. Focusing on strategies and connected work in “an immediate confrontation of our most pressing problems,” conference participants were intent on learning the histories of foundational social problems like structural racism, stultifying gender relations and inhuman economic development as they investigated past strategies of resistance in order to build on the efforts of people who have long been working on stubborn social problems.

Detroit, like so many U.S. cities, is no stranger to social inequalities. While it is a northern city, with the Ambassador Bridge reaching just one mile across the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada, even Detroit needed the Underground Railroad now marked by signs around the city. Especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that legally required northern states to cooperate in capturing and returning slaves to the south, escaping slaves had to cross all the way into Canada for true freedom and Detroit was a central crossing point. And all these years later, in this northern city to which thousands of African American fled to escape the horrors of slavery and then the Jim Crow violence in the south but where they encountered northern-style segregation and inequality, the evidence of structural racism is everywhere.

Organizers from the Boggs Center, a long time Civil Rights center which is helping to lead much of the work to reclaim communities in Detroit, reported that today Detroit is 139 square miles of which only 7.2 square miles, a narrow swath of downtown to the waterfront, are being developed. In the rest of the sprawling city, with its 82% African American population, 25% of former residents have left after losing their homes during the structural financial crisis; unemployment has skyrocketed; and 3000 people each week are being cut off from water service. Detroit organizers explained that with the state’s divestment of Detroit and its subsequent bankruptcy and “Emergency Management,” state and corporate leaders are busy privatizing public physical space by making land resources readily available to developers while privatizing political space by bypassing city voters from any accountability for the city’s management.

But city residents are also busy building land trusts to purchase and protect neighborhoods, developing a massive network of community gardens, creating alternative economies and physical spaces for new kinds of work sites and communities. Organizations like Detroit Future Schools are asking questions, like: What is the purpose of school? How is schooling engaging students in the present work of their communities? The new Boggs School is working to remake curriculum around these central questions while other youth led groups like the Detroit Future Youth join 12 youth organizations to make media and music, write curriculum, and create cooperative spaces for creative transformational organizing and cultural work. Detroit Summer continues the work of the 1964 Freedom Summer through youth led media projects around the city and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center supports The Alley Project that worked with youth, gang members, residents, community organizers and designers to develop a community arts center, spaces for planned community art in the alleys, and a central space for free writing.

Detroit 1

Detroit 2

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The Boggs Center is calling people from around the country to Detroit for a conference called New Work, New Culture, New Economy October 18-20, 2014 and inviting us all to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights struggles and one of Detroit’s committed leaders, Grace Lee Boggs, in the award winning new documentary American Revolutionary that aired on PBS on June 30 and is now available to non-profit and youth groups. Clearly, there is much that Baltimore can learn from Detroit, and we have some tales of our own to tell about the good work going on in our communities, some of which is recounted on this BreakingGround website.

Contact the author, Beverly Bickel, at bickel@umbc.edu.

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