I grew up in a vibrant Detroit, the proud and thriving automobile capital of the world. And in 1967, as I studied for my undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, I had no idea that a raid on a nearby after-hours club that summer would ultimately signal the collapse of many of the city’s neighborhoods and eventually ignite massive white flight. I thought our country’s involvement in Vietnam would remain the focus of protest that year, not our own angry citizens burning down the inner city.
In 2017, media attention on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, revolution or uprising (depending on who you ask) is forcing residents to reassess what brought on such rage. The violence lasted five days following the original police raid on July 23 – and Stephen Henderson, the editorial director of the Detroit Free Press, and others are questioning if the city has really learned the lessons of those violent days. While it is clear that change is coming to some areas of Detroit –focusing for now heavily on the vibrant downtown and some midtown neighborhoods, including around Wayne State University – many angry black residents still live in neglected areas and continue to question whether their lives will ever improve.
On Sunday the 23rd, I joined college friends to watch the local ABC-TV premiere of the Detroit Free Press documentary on those five days – “12th and Clairmont.” I found that the focus on the home-made films submitted by those swept up by the violence gave an authentic voice to the complex emotions behind the turmoil and lingering anger. Now a movie is premiering here called “Detroit” by award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow that details the particularly brutal deaths of three black teenagers in the Algiers Hotel in the course of those five horrific days. I hope the local Free Press documentary and the nationally distributed film will give Americans a greater understanding of that ominous year in Detroit – and an appreciation for the on-going struggle facing not only the Motor City, but cities across our nation. Let’s continue to listen to the anger, learn and move forward.
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Mass transit was so simple during the years I lived in New York City. There were great options – express buses, subways, even cars, if you liked traffic jams. It was less simple in Los Angeles when I moved there in 1989 with my late husband, Tim Robinson. You had to love traffic jams, before there weren’t any real options for most commuters. The Los Angeles government was finally committing to a network of metro rail lines that would eventually include both subways and elevated trains and would connect the downtown with Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and other communities Yet the public was skeptical it would ever happen. When I started graduate school at USC Annenberg, I quickly got a study assignment to work with the LA transportation department and write a research paper about the value of such a mass transit line. And yes, key parts of it were eventually finished to ease the clogged freeways. A small step compared to New York’s extensive subway system, but a good start.
Now that I’ve just recently returned to my roots in the Detroit metropolitan area (again from New York), the Free Press recently reported that crucial state funding has come through for a proposed Woodward Avenue streetcar line that would be completed by late 2016, a vital mass transit link between the booming downtown business district and the city’s New Center area, the cultural hub, three miles away. Now that I’m driving regularly to the New Center area, I’ve learned how inadequate mass transportation is in the Motor City and the value of such a new line.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “…Backers of M-1 Rail predict that the three-mile line along Woodward will prove so popular that additional lines known as bus rapid transit will be added to grow into a metropolitan-wide system.” Columnist John Gallaher wrote a column earlier this year about all the health benefits that will result in cities that move to mass transit. As a former Brooklynite who misses the option to hop on the subway, all I can add is hallelujah! You can read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metro_Rail_%28Los_Angeles_County%29 and at http://www.freep.com/article/20140325/BUSINESS06/303250138/M-1-Rail-Finney
As the public corruption trial of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick continued to unfold in Detroit and yet another police chief was embroiled in charges of a sex scandal, diehard Detroit baseball fans at least got some relief as Miguel Cabrera, third baseman, became just the 15th player to win baseball’s Triple Crown and the first since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It happened as the Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals 1-0 this week. http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/03/can-cabrera-sew-up-a-triple-crown/
Since I returned to the Detroit area this summer, I have warmed to my hometown team again and started to appreciate the way it has energized a city struggling to rebound along with the auto industry. I admit to reluctantly giving up my love of the Yankees, who have clinched the American League East title, while the Tigers just won the Central Division.
The real story for me is the low key nature of the Venezuelan native, despite his dazzling American League-leading credentials: .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI (runs batted in). Cabrera, who is idolized by his South American countrymen as well, has been called one of baseball’s reluctant superstars and he’s been described as never one to crave attention. Tigers catcher Alex Avila told a reporter that he’s not a talkative guy and “he lets his ability carry through.”
Cabrera has also had to overcome a drinking problem that flared out of control during spring training last year when he was arrested in a drunken driving incident in Florida. As testimony to his determination to be a model player since then, Cabrera is the team’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, awarded to the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.” As the city of Detroit struggles to turn around years of decline, Cabrera is one of the shining lights. The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984 and last advanced to the World Series in 2006. Now Cabrera faces the challenge of following in Yastrzemski’s footsteps even further – the Boston Red Sox advanced all the way to the World Series when their left field player won the Triple Crown 45 years ago. The Red Sox team that year was named the Impossible Dream.
I was back in the Detroit area recently for a family memorial and took home a Detroit Free Press on my flight back. That’s how I learned about a new film called “Detroit Lives” from Palladium Boots about my hometown. It celebrates how young artists and entrepreneurs are taking over the inner city and not waiting for permission to plant gardens, renovate abandoned buildings and create their own vision of the Motor City. The film had its New York premiere in September and will open soon in LA and Detroit. Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News wrote a great column about the film on “A New Vision for Detroit” that is online at http://www.detnews.com/article/20100926/OPINION03/9260306/1467/OPINION01/A-new-vision-for-Detroit.
Finley writes that that the film challenged his assumptions about what form a new and improved Detroit ought to take. “Our version of renewal comes in billion-dollar packages funded by big sugar daddies,” he says in the column. “So I rolled my eyes at first when a young artist told (host Johnny) Knoxville, ‘Detroit doesn’t need a savior. Detroit doesn’t need a big box store.’ That’s the difference in mindset between the corporate class and the creative class.”
Listening to the artists in the film (you can view part one online at http://www.palladiumboots.com/exploration/detroit) reminded me of my own “urban pioneering” days in the East Village and Midwood, Brooklyn as a young freelance writer and aspiring off-off Broadway actress. I was in love with the history of the city and the spirit of adventure in creating new institutions, including a food coop, along with my fellow artists and entrepreneurs.
It is wonderful to see that same excitement in Detroit’s younger generation as they dispute the idea that Detroit is ugly and dead – just as my generation of artists disputed the death of the East Village and joyfully snapped up decaying old Victorians in Brooklyn. In my own family, I always admired how my niece, who died much too young, refused to abandon her neighborhood Methodist congregation Mt. Hope in northeast Detroit, even after all her friends and family moved out to the suburbs. At the memorial for her this past weekend, the family learned how much love she shared with current members of the congregation as they told how wonderfully she managed the thrift shop and how much they enjoyed her flute solos during services.
I’m so glad I read my hometown paper on the flight back to New York. I caught up on a new spirit of hope at a time when most of our cities now face huge budget gaps and need that jolt of creativity, instead of anger and backlash. Amazingly, our young artists/entrepreneurs seem determined to reinvent the world through their own fresh eyes and I’m betting they are right!
‘Grown in Detroit,’ an award-winning documentary made by Dutch filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk, sees promise in the abandoned lots in my hometown, where others see only devastation. The documentary chronicles an environmental miracle and unfolds a lesson for everyone about failure and renewal and why we should never give up hope. The city has tragically lost half of its residents, but one third of the city has become green again, and the Detroit government is allowing its residents to become urban farmers.
The documentary focuses on a public school where young African American girls who are pregnant or already young mothers are taught agricultural skills on the school’s own
Farm, located where the playground used to be. The students are learning by farming to become more independent women and knowledgeable about the importance of nutritional foods. They are also learning to make honey, since the bee population, almost extinct in America, is flourishing in Detroit. The extensive variety of native flowers on the vacant lots and the lack of pesticides make Detroit’s unique environment perfect for a very pure, organic honey production.
On their website at http://grownindetroit.filmmij.nl/, the filmmakers talk about how they have grown in love with Detroit and its residents. Sure, they admit, Detroit could be in a better shape but they argue that it’s one of the few cities left in the region with such beautiful architecture, history, community spirit and abundant nature. Too bad most of this country only believes the Murder Capital headlines – I prefer the optimistic view of the Poppenks and that after the most tragic circumstances, we can learn from our failures and help each other to start all over again.
Study the competition – that seems like a common sense rule when it comes to marketing a business, no matter the size. Yet it is always amazing to discover where the giants ignore the basic rules.
Consider the auto industry. I grew up in a prosperous Detroit back when General Motors was the greatest corporation in the world. It was with great pain that I watched the inner-city burn and the population flee following the race riots in the late 60’s. The central city has never recovered because its fate has been so linked to the troubled American auto industry.
I had an opportunity recently to get some unique observations from the competition on why the Detroit auto industry was doomed to flame out so spectacularly and destroy the local economy.
Carlos Ghosn, the Chairman and CEO of Renault Nissan Alliance spoke at the French Institute on how his successful career has been shaped by his global outlook. Ghosn was born in Brazil, of French and Lebanese heritage. His education was in France and his early career was forged at Michelin, a French company. In the late 90’s he was able to step in and turn around a troubled Nissan Corporation. Ghosn explained that because he had a nomadic upbringing and was not rooted in one place, he was also not stuck in the mind-frame of one culture. He felt he was able to successfully lead a Japanese company because they also had no preconceived biases against him. Yet as an outsider, he could more readily see their mistakes.
So why, he was asked, did the Japanese eventually overtake the Americans in their trademark industry? Simple, he replied – the Japanese studied the American competition closely, but the American automakers did not study their Japanese competitors or even seem to realize they should be worried about their strategies until it was too late. Constantly analyze and learn from your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, Ghosn warned.
As I watch the American automobile industry rebuild, I hope this is one mistake they have learned and are not destined to repeat.