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It’s been almost four decades since Motown records moved it’s studios to Los Angeles. Years later, the auto industry began it’s sharp decline. All this left the once vibrant NW Goldberg neighborhood, also known as Zone 8, in disrepair. Today, people like Yusef Shakur are taking action to pick the community back out of the rubble.

Produced by Jesse Freeston.

Story Transcript

JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: While attending the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, Michigan, The Real News joined a small group on a tour of the city’s famous Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, also known as Zone 8. The original home of Motown Records, recent decades have brought hard times to Northwest Goldberg. Our guide was author and community organizer Yusef Shakur.

YUSEF SHAKUR, URBAN NETWORK COFOUNDER, AUTHOR: This gas station hasn’t had gas in about six years. The community kind of accepts it. You know, it’s like, you know, this is where the young guys hang out. This is a breeding ground for criminal behavior. In my generation, in this whole neighborhood probably five guys graduated from the high school. I never met a lawyer until he was helping me go to prison. I never talked to a judge until he was sentencing me to prison. I never talked to a doctor until he was sewing me up after I get shot. So in my mind, really, realistically, what is my chance to want to be a lawyer, and what is my chance of really [inaudible] want to be a doctor?

FREESTON: The neighborhood was once one of the world’s most vibrant communities. Motown’s original Hitsville recording studio launched a series of musical legends, including Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder.

SHAKUR: And right across the street there was White’s Records. White’s Records, that was probably one of the most famous record stores in the world, based upon a relationship to Motown.

FREESTON: Today, the old studio has been turned into a museum.

SHAKUR: There is no relationship between these institutions and the community.

FREESTON: But Motown isn’t the community’s only landmark.

SHAKUR: Right here, this is King Solomon Church. This is where Malcolm X, this is where Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, all those folk here.

FREESTON: Malcolm X, who was raised in Michigan, delivered his famous “Message to the Grass Roots” speech at the King Solomon Church in 1963.

MALCOLM X: If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her.

SHAKUR: This is a base, a recruiting base that wants to get people here, and they’re doing training. And right across the street from our school there’s an armor guard. And I say, you can keep an armor guard open, but you can close a school. It shows you the society that we live in, where we’d rather invest our money.

FREESTON: The military isn’t the only institution in the neighborhood that Shakur is critical of.

SHAKUR: And, like, right up here is Henry Ford Hospital. And this section of my neighborhood, Henry Ford Hospital has been buying up a lot of the property, tearing the houses down, the buildings down, making it for parking lot space. You know, they’re not investing in the community, none whatsoever; you know, they’re just buying up the property, you know, and just moving people out. And also the churches, they’re buying up a lot of the property, too. You know, this church bought�this used to be a factory right here. God knows what they’re going to do with the property. And from my experience, you know, a lot of the�if you’re not part of the congregation or part of the [inaudible] you’re not really going to be part of the [inaudible] that’s benefiting from it. You need to hold these individuals accountable to want to help beyond just your membership. Actually, they built this one real fast. I asked him what it is. He says it’s going to be a Jehovah’s Witness church. And, I don’t know, why would you build another one? You already have one here.

FREESTON: According to Shakur, growing numbers of Northwest Goldberg’s residents are refusing to accept the community’s decline as its destiny. A series of community institutions have arisen in response to their conditions.

SHAKUR: This is the Hush House. They do a lot of meetings here.

FREESTON: The Real News spoke to Roshawn Harris, editor of Hush Your Mouth, a newspaper put out by the Hush House.

ROSHAUN HARRIS, EDITOR, HUSH YOUR MOUTH: And what the Hush House is is basically a community center for leadership training, for historical and cultural enhancement. We’ve had folks from Japanese trade labor unionists to delegations from Liberia. So these are the kind of possibilities, the kind of projects that could come out of a place where you share, you know, the common experience of the Third World community. And when I say the Third World community, I involve Detroit, because when we’re talking about Third World, we’re talking about the people who are the result of this kind of postindustrial capitalist breakdown, like the Northwest Goldberg (or more infamously known as the Zone 8) community, where the Hush House is. Try to rebuild those communities who were once vibrant factory towns. There was a lot of machine work going on. There was just a lot of places for people to find work, to have families and communities and live well. And so we’re trying restore that, but we know we have to do it in a cooperative way, in a way that, you know, supports the entire community and not just parts of the community. And so we look at different strategies, what’s been working maybe for the folks over in Palestine, because they’re in an adverse situation where you don’t have access to food and school and quality housing. So they’re dealing with the same type of issues. So we want to look at their crises, but also look at the solutions and the possibilities that come from that.

FREESTON: Lessons learned from the Palestinians were put into practice during the restoration of the aforementioned King Solomon Church.

HARRIS: The model that I think is used oftentimes in Palestine of deconstruction/reconstructing, a lot of times with the abandoned buildings and dilapidated properties that you see in Detroit deconstruction is a good way to kind of use renewable, I guess, resources to kind of dress something up that was once in disrepair. We were fortunate enough to get some grant money to employ kids from the neighborhood on a project of construction around the corner at King Solomon Baptist Church. And so the kids picked up some really good skills as far as learning how to use what’s already in their community that looks like it’s disposable, it looks like it has no use, and actually use it for something to make a better circumstance for themselves.

SHAKUR: We’re constantly seeing negative images reinforces negative behavior. So we’re trying to offset that with positive images that manifest positive behaviors.

FREESTON: Shakur laments that such images weren’t around when he was younger.

SHAKUR: My mother at the age of 15 made me a ward of the state, and I gave my mama pure hell. I mean, a lot of�all the gray hair she got is because of me. And the only option my mama had was�to try to save me�was to have me locked up. And when I came home, I wanted to do good, you know, not necessarily for me, but for my mama. I was tired of giving her headaches. Instead of going to Northwestern High School, I went to Northern High School, ’cause I figure I don’t know nobody there�give myself a realistic chance. And I’m doing good, good, good grades. I got a teacher saying, I’m going to help you go to college. All this. I don’t even know anybody that ever went to college. Only thing I know about is gang banging, but I don’t want to do that, ’cause I know it’s therefore prison. But I’m swimming in water that I’m unprepared to swim in, so I’m actually drowning and drowning and realizing I’m drowning. I say, okay, let me do it, let me go and kill myself. I took some pills. As you see, I was unsuccessful in doing it, but that’s the state of a lot�of particularly a lot of young black youth, just youth in general across America: they’re finding themselves in situations that they don’t know how to deal with, and there’s no one outlet to come and say, I’m scared, I’m frightened, I’m angry, and not going to chastise them. Like, it was�. [snip] Actually, that’s the man that I was talking about, right there, Kwasi.

FREESTON: Kwasi Akwamu was a key influence on the imprisoned Shakur. The two began their community organizing together while they were incarcerated in separate prisons.

SHAKUR: They just started an organization called the Freedom Network. Out of the Freedom Network, they had developed a newsletter called African Prison Bulletin. What we began to do was circulate information through our newsletter. They would write it up and put articles, and we would send it out here. So they found the members, then they sent it back to prison. It was one of the most incredible things, the most revolutionary things that have ever taken place, in particular the Michigan Department of Corrections.

FREESTON: Upon leaving prison, Shakur and Akwamu founded a new project called the Urban Network.

KWASI AKWAMU, URBAN NETWORK COFOUNDER, AUTHOR: You know, a bookstore, resource center, an art gallery, a recording studio, a publishing company, a sign company. We have a wide variety of things bringing services and resources to the community right here in Zone 8.

FREESTON: In the same way that Motown music accompanied the community’s development in the ’60s, the Urban Network is facilitating the hip-hop that inspires the current renaissance.

SHAKUR: Alright. This is where I grew up, right here. This is my mom’s [inaudible] I built a stage right there so we can do hip-hop concerts.

AKWAMU: One of our slogans here at the Urban Network is Restoring the neighbor to the hood. And what young people proclaim is we have hoods. And the reason that we have hoods is that we don’t have neighbors. You know, we have people that are very alienated and detached from one another. People don’t trust or interact with one another. And so we’re trying to�you know what I’m saying?�we feel that in order to deal with crime, in order to deal with violence more effectively, that it’s easier to build strong communities. Strong communities by default are safer communities. So, you know, that’s our aim and our mission, is more people to understand that, you know, to have a strong neighborhood, you must be neighbors.

End of Transcript

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Yusef Shakur is a community organizer and co-founder of The Urban Network, a bookstore and resource center located in his home neighborhood. At 13, he co-founded what would become one of Detroit's most notorious street gangs, Zone 8. Shakur spent nine years of his youth behind bars, and emerged determined to "put the 'neighbor' back into the 'hood'"". Now he is a community organizer