The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Shrinking Detroit—A Scam to Steal People’s Homes!

Dec 13, 2010

Detroit’s mayor, businessman Dave Bing, says the city has to shrink. Last February, he explained it this way: “There is just too much land and too many expenses for us to continue to manage the city as we have in the past.” He insisted that no one will be forced to move, “We’re going to use incentives.”

Yes, but which incentives?

“If they stay where they are,” says Bing, “I absolutely cannot give them all the services they require.” In other words, extortion: move or you won’t have public lighting, water, trash pickup, ambulance service, schools.

Which Vacant Land Problem?

Despite all the publicity about people moving out, leaving 30% of Detroit’s land vacant, most of the vacant land isn’t residential—this was the finding of a survey done of the city’s land parcels by the Detroit Data Collaborative last February.

Most of the vacant land in the city comes from big corporations like Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Kmart, A&P, Triple A, and others. They closed old plants and offices—leaving behind land that was so polluted with toxic chemicals no one could live or build anywhere near it. If they wanted to build elsewhere in the city, one mayor after another pushed residents out, grabbed their land and handed it, along with some tax breaks, over to those same companies.

But guess who else produced vacant land and buildings—the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. One mayor after another closed recreation centers, fire stations, police precincts, neighborhood city halls, and health centers.

In 1980, there were 39 recreation centers in Detroit. Those rec centers once provided activities that gave young people something to do. Today there are only 16.

There were 11 neighborhood city halls in 1980. That saved people from having to go downtown to the City-County building to get a license or pay a fee. Today there are just five.

Look at the recent fires in Detroit and the long response time by firefighters and EMS. As recently as 2005, the city had more than 300 paramedics. Today, it has less than 190.

The city had 16 police precincts in 1980, and 49 mini-stations, where you could go if you had problems with a ticket or needed papers to file an insurance claim. Today there are six police “divisions” and no mini-stations.

There also used to be 11 neighborhood health centers; today just three, plus one with only minimal services available.

These closures directly create vacant land. These and other budget cuts are also one of the reasons people are pushed out of Detroit.

On a rotating basis, the city regularly cuts off street lights in neighborhoods around the city—for days or even weeks at a time, three or four times a year. The city has reduced bus service and eliminated large trash pick-up except for two times a year, cut hours and budgets to the libraries. Now it’s furloughing city workers 26 days a year. Combined with cuts to state workers, these cuts add time standing in long lines to get government services.

And all of this is made many times worse by the push to close public schools, driving children into charter schools. In the last five years alone, 124 Detroit public schools were closed.

City and state funding was cut almost to zero for attractions like the Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. That became the pretext for private interests to take them over—and almost immediately raise or introduce entrance fees.

It’s all these deals and a multitude more that are destroying the city.

Don’t Try to Tell Us It’s Our Fault!

When the mayor held a series of “town hall” meetings around the city to promote his agenda, Detroit citizens came by the thousands to confront the mayor and his stooges. After the first meeting erupted into real anger, the big media acted as though people were crazy.

Oh yes, people were angry—and maybe they should go a little “crazy.” Because the politicians, one after another, have drained the city of money, using the taxes people pay to line the pockets of wealthy businessmen—like Bing himself, who got quite a bit of money several years ago from the city and state. Two downtown stadiums have been built, and yet another new arena is about to be built—all on land taken and cleared by the city. Compuware got four square blocks of land, worth tens of billions of dollars, to build its headquarters downtown. The city and state together gave American Axle 18.5 million dollars to build a new headquarters. And both those companies were given so-called “Renaissance Zone” abatements freeing them from most city, county and state taxes for 13½ years. The state, which has given GM millions of dollars to move its headquarters from one part of the city to another, recently gave it another 25 million dollars just to stay put!

The State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair had been held for 160 straight years, was closed by the state of Michigan. The state said it didn’t have the money—but it had the money to give and prepare that same land for a profit-making company, Meijer, to build a store there.

So yes, people are angry.

Who’s Pulling Bing’s Strings?

It’s been called Mayor Bing’s plan—but that isn’t quite right. He’s only the puppet. Money to push the “shrinking of Detroit” comes from a national organization calling itself “Living Cities.” And this so-called “benevolent” group gets its funding from foundations like Ford, Kresge, Kellogg, and Skillman and backing from big financial interests like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, and Prudential Financial. In other words, the same interests that caused the current economic crisis, who organized the sub-prime mortgage scam, and who are now “robo-signing” foreclosure documents are behind the scam to shrink Detroit.

Aligned with the big Wall Street banks in this effort is the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. And its directors include two retired GM vice presidents, the chief administrative officer of Compuware, a prominent Detroit developer and builder, and the head of a law firm which lives off legal work from the city.

“Urban Renewal” = Black Removal

It’s hardly the first time that people have been pushed out of their homes. In the 1940s and ’50s, the city, with help from the federal and state governments “urban renewed” what used to be known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

Black Bottom, originally a Jewish and Italian area, came to house most of the black people who came up from the rural South during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century. As migration continued, the black population expanded into what came to be known as Paradise Valley and from there to the North End.

Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were denied many city services, and they suffered the ills of old housing, overcrowding and poverty, but they also were intensely solid communities.

Black Bottom had a vibrant social and political life. The Communist Party was active there. Many black churches were community centers. The Nation of Islam was founded there, and Malcolm X was minister of the Nation’s mosque there.

It was a thriving community, with many people tilling small plots of land to put in greens and other vegetables. In fact, the name “Black Bottom” derives from the fact that the land there was the good bottom land nourished by the Detroit River.

Paradise Valley was Detroit’s center for jazz in its heyday, with dozens of jazz clubs not only showcasing jazz greats from around the country, but serving as the training ground for generations of Detroit musicians. It had several hotels where great artists like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington stayed because none of the city’s big hotels would let them in.

These two communities were effectively destroyed when the state used federal funds to tear out Hastings Street, which was the center and heart of the black community. In the place of Hastings Street, which had tied together the whole community, the state built the Chrysler freeway, which cut it in pieces.

In fact, the placement of the freeway was the pretext for a big land grab. The big money in the area coveted the land in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which were close to a downtown rapidly spreading outward after World War II. Affordable public housing units were promised for displaced residents—but never delivered. Eventually however, expensive housing, two downtown stadiums and the Detroit Medical Center were erected there.

Eminent Domaining away Poletown

In 1979, when GM wanted to close two of its oldest plants and replace them with one new plant, politicians rushed to pay GM to take Poletown.

Poletown, which bridged sections of Hamtramck and Detroit, had also been a cohesive community, attracting immigrants from Eastern Europe, who stayed there, as did many of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The area had its own hospitals and a farmers’ market. It had two lively commercial areas on Joseph Campau and on Chene, with little ethnic restaurants, bakeries, butcher shops, hardware stores. And it had parks. There were numerous small plants, plus the massive Dodge Main—which Chrysler was deserting for a city tax abatement at two other plants it wanted to build or rebuild in the city.

Detroit and Hamtramck didn’t even put up a pretense of convincing residents to move. They took the land by claiming “eminent domain”—and sent in bulldozers to move out those people who wouldn’t go and were still demonstrating. The two cities evicted people by force even before the courts had ruled on all the issues.

People were paid a pittance for their homes—not what it would have cost them to get another. 4,200 people and the community they had built up were displaced, replaced by one GM plant sitting in the middle of acres of land—plus a prison. The two commercial centers, Joseph Campau and Chene, were cut in half. The city paid 250 million dollars to acquire the land, plus provide the infrastructure of the plant, including roads, trains, electricity, sewers, etc. On top of that, it provided a 50% tax abatement for twelve years.

Politicians justified this great big gift to GM by claiming the GM plant would employ 6,000 people. It employs 1,200.

These areas robbed were neighborhoods in which people lived, linked together for years. Tearing up neighborhoods added to the city’s atomization and the marginalization of people and burned a new hole in the city budget for decades to come.

Vacant Land = Opportunity, But for Whom?

Mayor Bing decries the “problem” of the city’s vacant land.

In fact, it’s an opportunity.

The city could re-open and build new rec centers, fire stations and neighborhood health centers. Some people have suggested community gardens. Why not? A city that’s livable has gardens. They clean the air and they’re pleasing to people.

The city could build parks, swimming pools, basketball and tennis courts, and ball fields to provide recreation for people, playgrounds for the kids, areas to play checkers and cards for retirees, skating rinks in winter, roller rinks in summer, theaters and amphitheaters where people could put on plays or concerts.

There certainly aren’t enough of such facilities in Detroit. According to the Center for City Park Excellence, Detroit ranks 23rd out of the 25 biggest cities in the amount of park land proportionate to the population and 20th in the number of public pools.

Of course, the politicians would scream: there’s no money for such things. Well, they found the money for all these deals for the wealthy. There is money: the politicians just haven’t been using it for the needs of the population.

People know what needs to be fixed in their own neighborhoods. But with big capital in control, people are not part of the process.

What would people do confronted with the problem of vacant land in Detroit? They might say, “Turn over that tax money to us—we know what needs to be done to turn Detroit into a really liveable city! And all the politicians and big money men who don’t like it can take their carpetbags and leave!”