Contextual Content

Saving Detroit

Paul Jay speaks to Carl Anthony about the solution local community of Detroit found to problems of
vacant and depreciated and lack of transportation infrastructure.


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you again from San Francisco. We’re at the Momentum Conference at the Tides Foundation, and we’re now joined by Carl Anthony. Carl is the founder of the Earth House Leadership Center in Oakland, California. He also wrote the foreword to this book�it’s called Breakthrough Communities. And before we talk about communities that are breaking through, let’s talk about what was broken in the first place. And President Obama, when he was running, and since, has talked about no red states and no blue states and just United States, but the fact is there really are more than one United States, and maybe it’s more about poverty and more about class. Describe what the real conditions in some of the cities you’ve been working are.

CARL ANTHONY, FOUNDER, EARTH HOUSE LEADERSHIP CENTER: Well, our metropolitan centers have been racially divided, going back to the middle of the 20th century. And at the moment when formal segregation was declared illegal, both by the Supreme Court decision of Brown versus Board of Education, 1954, and the Civil Rights Act in 1965, we had a formal process by which we agreed that we don’t want to have segregated society. But paradoxically, at that very moment we were actually laying the groundwork for re-creating a segregated society. So now in all of our metropolitan regions there are really deep patterns of racial segregation, with a large percentage of the white population living in suburbs and people of color living in the cities. And this is particularly a problem for the young people who are in schools. In many cases, the young African-Americans and Latino students are in schools that are 95, 100 percent racially segregated. And this would not be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that our economy and the sort of global system that we’re in requires a level of education, of preparedness, that our schools are not giving those young people.

JAY: Going back again to the election campaign and some of the controversy that took place during this debate between then-candidate Obama and Reverend Wright and President Obama’s famous speech on race, there was a kind of a suggestion that we’ve moved on from structural racism, that this is�you know, he talked about old-school thinking. And there’s also, since, even particularly with this recent controversy with the academic who was arrested at his own house, there is a more visible successful black elite in America now, and there’s sort of this feeling, oh, maybe we’re past all of this. But your research says quite the opposite.

ANTHONY: Well, I think we need to really understand the makeup of our country, and therefore we really need to embrace the stories of all the people in our country. And we have a very narrow band of a sort of public understanding of who we are as a people. If we have, for example, African-Americans�and I as an African-American do not consider myself as a minority. I have French Huguenot ancestors; I have Scotch ancestors; I have native American ancestors, Cherokee and Seminole ancestors, as well as people from Africa. And my ancestors came to this country not by choice, but they were brought before the country was actually created, so we’re talking 12 generations of being an American. And that’s a story that actually everyone really needs to understand. But it’s not just a story of African-Americans. It’s also we need to understand more about the stories of the Irish and the Italians and people from Eastern Europe, as well as the indigenous population in this country. And now we have new waves of immigrants from Mexico and Asia. So in order to have a healthy cosmopolitan community, we need to know the stories and understand the issues of all the people who live in the country. And so this kind of goes against this idea of kind of colored blandness, where we don’t really know anything about everybody or anybody, but we think that somehow we can build a society around that ignorance.

JAY: So talk about the conditions of some of the big urban centers. Are they getting better? Are they getting worse? What’s happening?

ANTHONY: It’s a paradox, because many are getting better and getting worse at the same time. They were talking the largest cities, like New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago, and then some of the smaller ones, are dealing with multiple dynamics. Many of the cities, for example Chicago, would be really in the tank right now if it hadn’t been for a huge influx of immigrants from Central America and Mexico. So what we’re basically having is pockets of poverty getting deeper in many of our inner cities, but we also have poverty spreading to the suburbs. And as a matter of fact, within our metropolitan regions across the country there’s actually more poverty now in the suburbs than there are in the inner cities. So we’re really having to discover that the suburban idea that we sort of inherited from the 1950s is no longer the reality.

JAY: This is probably exaggerated by the subprime crisis.

ANTHONY: Exactly. Exactly. And so in many cases the people of color who were in a sense the targets for predatory lending are the people who were really ambitious to try to get out there and to own a home and really be part of the American dream are the ones that got hit the hardest. So we’re really dealing with a deep paradox in our culture that we actually penalize people�.

JAY: What are the unemployment rates and some of the statistics that would paint a picture for us?

ANTHONY: In some cases, typically 11, 12, 15 percent in some cases, among the young people up as much as 40 percent unemployment.

JAY: But we’ve talked about talking about what’s happening in Detroit, which is considered the New Orleans of the economic crisis.

ANTHONY: In Detroit we now have a situation where there are 45,000, 44,000 publicly owned vacant properties and another 45,000 that are privately owned. So you have 90,000 vacant properties. The city was designed and built for 2 million people, and now there’s 900,000 people living in it. In addition to that we have a situation where the city is extremely segregated: 90 percent African-Americans, and then maybe 5 percent Latinos that are coming in, surrounded by relatively wealthy suburban places. So we have this�.

JAY: Or were relatively wealthy [inaudible] some of those places now.

ANTHONY: [inaudible] some of those places are now [inaudible]

JAY: Every fifth house is empty now.

ANTHONY: Exactly. Exactly. So what we’re finding is that across the country, poverty that was in the inner city is now spreading to the older suburban places. And it also is not simply following along the race lines. We also find that people who live in suburban places who happen to be European-American are facing some real problems around having enough tax base to actually pay for basic human services, having a decent schools. And then there’s this tendency for people to try to escape that by moving to the next outer ring. And so we have rapid expansion of our metropolitan regions at a moment when we should be actually building more efficiencies coming together around more sustainable [inaudible]

JAY: So talk about this experiment in Detroit. What did they do?

ANTHONY: The initiative was taken by a group of churches. They came together. They’re African-American Baptist churches. They’re the various Protestant religions, the synagogues. They had even a few Muslim mosques and the Catholic Church. All came together. There were actually 72 congregations. So they called together a public meeting about this. Not only was the mayor of Detroit there, but also the 15 mayors of the suburban communities around Detroit. And there were four congresspeople and two Senators, federal Senators, as well as the governor of Michigan. And 5,000 people showed up at this. And at this meeting, the agenda was we need to do something about the vacant property, we need to do something about the lack of public transportation. The public transportation system was destroyed. And when the governor came, this group of people didn’t say to the governor, �What are you going to do about this?� They said to the governor, �Governor Granholm, here’s what you’re going to do. Will you report back to us in 30 days?�

JAY: So what was it they wanted her to do?

ANTHONY: Between 1985 and the year 2000 in the state of Michigan, in the suburban communities there were eight new houses built for every new household that was formed. And these houses were being built out on the suburban periphery, eating up the farmland. And the developers, once they got their development done, they just laughed all the way to the bank. People were continuing to move out. And this was a huge problem for the farmland. They asked the governor to convene a statewide commission on land-use that would bring together people like the American Farmland Trust, like the realtors, the board of realtors, like the NAACP and the Sierra Club. In fact they put this�.

JAY: So this is to deal both with the urban vacancy and the encroachment on farmland.

ANTHONY: That’s right, the pressures on farmland. And what they actually ended up creating was a statewide empowering authority to begin to build a land bank, and they used geographic information systems to actually track all this vacant land, and as a result began to work on public participation in shaping new uses for the land while restricting new development�statewide investment in new development on the fringe. And one of the key aspects of this was the transportation system. And right now, for example, as you know, in Washington there’s a big debate about the re-authorization of the transportation bill. And this proposal that came forth said that we should not be building new freeways out on the edge periphery; we should be fixing the places that we already have.

JAY: So the idea is if the state says, �We’re not going to help you expand into new farmland,� its going to push investment money back in the city.

ANTHONY: That’s right.

JAY: So did it work?

ANTHONY: Yes. Well, it has been working. And still it’s not working fast enough and systematically enough, but it actually did work. And what’s happened now is that land banking is happening in Detroit. The first 5,000 units are being brought online for new uses around a transportation facility [inaudible]

JAY: Now, are they giving poor families access to these houses in subsidized ways?

ANTHONY: What the hope is is that these properties will come in and become mixed-income communities, looking very closely at the creative class, that is, people who are artists and people who use nontraditional buildings like lofts and so forth, in order to be able to produce an economically viable uses for the properties that are coming back online.

JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the administration’s role in all this of this, the Obama administration, both in terms of these kind of plans you’re talking about in the urban centers, but also, more broadly, Detroit and the auto industry, ’cause it’s quite a controversy about how the auto industry’s been saved, assuming it’s been saved. Please join us for the next segment of this interview on The Real News Network.