Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Detroit's Katrina: Where is the National Response to Assist Detroit's Residents in Rebuilding Their City?


On October 7, an estimated 50,000 Detroit residents descended on Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit--not to escape the ravages of a hurricane, but with the simple hope of being able to escape the increasing ravages of homelessness and hunger that are threatening many of Detroit's residents.

This human surge was a response to news that 3500 federal grants were available to assist city residents needing temporary housing assistance to avoid homelessness. This is how badly the residents of Detroit are hurting. But they've been hurting for a long time--so long, in fact, that the nation seems to yawn whenever they hear another story like this one, which hit the headlines only days after TIME magazine's lead cover story on "The Tragedy of Detroit."

Detroit has been drawing a lot of media attention over the last year, and has now even "earned" for itself the "honor" of a Detroit office for TIME magazine with a front page cover titled "The Tragedy of Detroit" that launched its one-year "Assignment Detroit" project. This project will feature Detroit-area stories over the next year.

But while the "tragedy" of Detroit has been receiving news coverage, along with a lot of freelance photographic coverage of its decaying urban architecture, the slow-moving tsunami that has devastated Detroit's human population over the last decade has received no national or federal response similar to the kind New Orleans received after the Katrina disaster.

While Katrina devastated New Orleans in a single week in August 2005, Detroit has been in crisis for decades, the victim of repeated waves of slow-moving economic "hurricanes" that have left Detroit's physical and human infrastructure severely damaged. And of course this damage has only been magnified over the last year by the triple hurricane of the national economic recession, the crisis of the auto industry, and a series of local governmental scandals that have virtually paralyzed Detroit government over the last year.

At the very time Detroit's citizens have been needing an effective and responsive government, the city has gone further into debt to fund a long series of mayoral elections in 2009. And while the city has been spending millions to fund these elections, new Mayor Bing has been threatening to cut even further an already bare-bones public bus transportation system. This would mean that the ever-diminishing numbers of residents who still have jobs, but rely on public transportation to get to work, will have yet another hurdle thrown in front of them to make it more difficult for them to maintain their jobs.

But now that the elections of Mayor and City Council are over, we hope for the kind of government in 2010 that will work with, rather than against, the community and its energy and capacity to bring about change in Detroit. While more efficiency in government spending is clearly necessary, this efficiency cannot be achieved by cutting the basic services needed by Detroit's residents, such as public transportation, which are already at bare-bones levels.

Meanwhile, the nation seems to react to every story of about the Detroit "tragedy" with a collective yawn.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans suddenly, and its devastating impact, largely the result of human neglect and failed response, was highlighted every night on the national news for weeks at a time. President Bush's miserably failed leadership in response to this crisis helped to raise New Orleans to the center of national consciousness, and it became a symbol of the racialized impacts of bad policy, neglect, and the poor planning that made the nation take the Katrina disaster in New Orleans to its heart, and respond in kind.

Detroit is a twin sister to New Orleans, not only in its French heritage, but in its suffering as a result of the racialized impacts of bad policy, neglect, and poor planning over many decades. Yet Detroit is the twin sister whose major needs have been all but ignored by the nation--even though the needs of its citizens, and of the city as a whole, are just as great, and perhaps now even greater, than those of New Orleans.

The twinned collapse of the national economy and the local auto economy have left Detroit with a depression-level 30% unemployment rate, and a rate of housing abandonment that probably tops that of any other city in the nation. Without having suffered the destruction of the wall of water that devastated the lower ninth ward in NOLA, significant parts of Detroit closely resemble NOLA's most devastated ward.

But where is the national surge of response to help Detroit's residents, its nonprofit organizations, and its local government to recover from this disaster?

We need a national recovery program that will fund the many nonprofit organizations and residents in Detroit to put the city back to work rebuilding itself. As someone who has gotten to know many of the amazing people and organizations in Detroit who have been doing great work under the most trying circumstances for many years with very limited resources, I've seen the great things that are possible for Detroit--if only the nation will move beyond simply telling the story of Detroit's tragedy, and will instead move to funding Detroit's recovery.

Detroiters are ready to rebuild their beloved city. They have the passion, the energy, the commitment, and the vision for rebuilding. All they need is some help with the financial resources, which have been drained from the city for several decades.

The nation and much of the rest of the state of Michigan has stood idly by for decades and watched the city decline. Some, but not all, of Detroit's problems have been self-inflicted. The state of Michigan is now in almost as desperate an economic condition as Detroit, so has not been able to extend much help to Detroit in the current crisis. And so Detroit's recovery requires and demands a national response.

Its time for the nation to stop yawning, and to start doing what is necessary to lift up the city that was once the arsenal of its democracy. Its citizens can make the city great again, with a bit of help from their fellow citizens across the nation, and from our shared federal government.

So let this be an appeal for shared labor and collective national investment in the future of Detroit and its residents. For the fate of Detroit will signal, in many ways, the fate of our entire nation.

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