All we have to do is start paying attention.
On the last Thursday of October, an overcast fifty degree afternoon, I took a four-hour excursion on bike, exploring the Detroit River Watershed. This was recreation. But more: a spiritual discipline. I was unplugged and tuned in. I wanted to keep an eye out for what it was that Creator God had to tell me about this city through the Lens of the Land.
The Detroit River herself flows under the Ambassador Bridge, privately owned by billionaire Matty Moroun. This week, the city announced they were breaking ground on yet another bridge to support the massive flow of trade & traffic across the river to Canada. The city is saturated with seagulls, who thrive anywhere there is water and food, especially left behind by the human species (below, with the Ambassador Bridge in background).
Speaking of billionaires, Mike Ilitch made his money on Little Caesar's Pizza and he owns the city's baseball and hockey teams. The hockey team plays at Joe Louis Arena, named after the greatest boxer of all-time, who grew up in the watershed. The Arena is going to be replaced by a new rink on land that Ilitch purchased from the city for $1. In addition, with the hopes of creating 8,300 jobs, the bankrupt city somehow contributed more than $280 million without a community benefits agreement that would guarantee employment of actual Detroiters (on previous bike rides from downtown through the massive construction along the Cass Corridor, I saw a multitude of white folks working--curious in a city with an 83% African-American population). Ask Detroiters about the hope of robust job creation and they will unequivocally tell you the Lions have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl. Joe Louis will be demolished in 2017, the riverfront land signed over to one of the creditors involved in loaning billions to the city which defaulted during the historic bankruptcy. As I peer into the future, I can clearly see hotels and condos on this prime real estate.
As I headed east, I cruised past a portion of Hantz Farms, the land-hoard of another wealthy "investor." According to Businessweek:
John Hantz, the chief executive officer of a billion-dollar investment group in the Detroit suburbs, says he is pouring tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the project because he believes private enterprise can solve urban America’s problems more effectively than can the public sector.
It doesn't have be this way. Two years ago, Malik Yakini of The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network described a "community-based urban agriculture movement" in an op-ed in the Michigan Citizen:
Many of us have opposed those proposals [of John Hantz] because we think that their scale is inappropriate and because they are not grounded in the social justice values that guide the current community-based urban agriculture movement...From our perspective, having a large amount of land in the hands of any one person or corporation continues the centuries old legacy of inequity. We want to see the publicly owned land in the city of Detroit utilized for the common good. Land ownership provides the opportunity for wealth creation, community development and pride.While Hantz Farms is committed to growing trees to make land more scarce (in order to reduce blight and drive up property values), Myrtle & Wayne Curtis are cultivating a completely different kind of consciousness at Feedom Freedom Farms, on the eastern fringe of city limits.
When I rolled up, I caught them bundling kale to sell to the local Jungle Juice bar a half-mile away. Wayne explained that, for the past five years, Feedom Freedom had been experimenting with growing food through a process of "permaculture," an "indigenous" life way committed to interdependency, efficiency and accessibility for all species. This is juxtaposed with an "official" policy defined by coercion, enforcement & scarcity.
"Come on, Wayne!"
He was just starting to gather steam when Myrtle beckoned for him to haul over the bulging tray of greens to get hosed down by water, in this watershed, controlled by legislature, not Nature. Myrtle lamented that, just down the street, she spotted a neighbor desperately siphoning it from a nearby fire hydrant. In the words and work of Myrtle & Wayne, I heard the lament of Dr. King whispered in my ear:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.On my way over to Jungle Juice, I passed one of seven blockades (a "farmer's market stand" right in the middle of a major street running west to east from Detroit into the suburbs) along Altar Street, commissioned by the city of Gross Pointe. At the very least, this is a painful reminder of this watershed's half century of white flight.
Three months ago, the former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich investigated this watershed's water issues. He reported:
Official boundaries are often hard to see. If you head north on Woodward Avenue, away from downtown Detroit, you wouldn’t know exactly when you left the city and crossed over into Oakland County — except for a small sign that tells you.What if resources were shared equally across the watershed, just as they had been for millennia before the white man started drawing artificial boundaries?
But boundaries can make all the difference. Had the official boundary been drawn differently to encompass both Oakland County and Detroit – creating, say, a “Greater Detroit” – Oakland’s more affluent citizens would have some responsibility to address Detroit’s problems, and Detroit would likely have enough money to pay all its bills and provide its residents with adequate public services.
But because Detroit’s boundary surrounds only the poor inner city, those inside it have to deal with their compounded problems themselves. The whiter and more affluent suburbs (and the banks that serve them) are off the hook.
Any hint they should take some responsibility has invited righteous indignation. “Now, all of a sudden, they’re having problems and they want to give part of the responsibility to the suburbs?” scoffs L. Brooks Paterson, the Oakland County executive. “They’re not gonna’ talk me into being the good guy. ‘Pick up your share?’ Ha ha.”
Buried within the bankruptcy of Detroit is a fundamental political and moral question: Who are “we,” and what are our obligations to one another?
There's plenty of rewilding in this watershed. Trees and shrubs are growing where burned out and/or vacant homes used to be planted. Mother Nature is determined to have the final word. And she will. As Wendell Berry wrote:
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
This time of year, the Fall colors transcend the Crayon box…
…and the native Spruce tower over homes.
On the Eastside, just a stone's throw from the shore of the river, the European colonial legacy is enshrined in stone. Father Gabriel Richard has a mixed legacy: he advocated strongly for the War of 1812, but also had an amicable relationship with the native population, so much so that Tecumseh refused to fight with the British until they released Father Gabriel from captivity.
In order to understand how decisions are made in the Detroit River Watershed, all we need to do is follow the money. This is a land controlled by corporations with no allegiance other than profit. Ilitch and Hantz (and Quicken Loans' Dan Gilbert and a handful of others) are lobbying and lawyering up, as the Republican Governor and Legislature have appointed an Emergency Manager over the city and school district. From Day One (in 1701), the degrading of Detroit has been steered by white folks. According to Scott Martelle in Detroit: A Biography (2012), a few basic factors have led to Detroit’s rusting demise:
…divestment & abandonment propelled by corporate decisions framed and aided by government policies, from housing to free trade, with an overlay of stubbornly persistent racism.Watershed Discipleship interrogates us: Who will lobby for the Land? Who will protect the Poor? Who will boycott businesses that have zero interest in a full investment of this place? As Reich articulates, this vocation will require a concerted effort from across both the chocolate city and the vanilla suburbs. In conclusion, his piercing question bears repeating:
Who are “we,” and what are our obligations to one another?