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Cities In Revolt: Detroit

By Shea Howell

Shea Howell, an educator, activist and founding member of the Boggs Center, shares her remarks from a plenary session at the recently convened With/Out – ¿Borders? conference hosted by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. This is the first in a three-part series on “Cities in Revolt.”

The battle for the kind of country we are becoming is being fought in our cities. Cities, especially those shaped in the traditions of African American and progressive struggles, are under assault. Corporate forces committed to the protection of the power and privilege of an increasingly smaller, whiter, and wealthier elite are attacking cities in an effort to turn them into centers of profit and play.

text that reads, "Detroit is groud zero in this struggle. We are in a state of emergency."

Central to this attack is the displacement and removal of people who have been in the forefront of developing new ways of living in places long abandoned by capital. Now, as resources are becoming increasingly scarce, finance capital is finding new ways to extract wealth from urban centers.These efforts require a direct denial of cities as political entities. Across the country, through a series of financial and legal maneuvers, cities are stripped of political identity and power, reduced to mere administrative units of state governments.

Detroit is ground zero in this struggle. We are in a state of emergency. This is evident in three critical areas: land, water, and the diminishment of the public sphere.  


Detroit is 139 square miles, or large enough to hold all of Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco with land left over. We have lost more than half our population since 1950 and more than 25% since 2000. Nearly one-third of the land in the city is open space. 

After decades of abandonment by capital, Detroit is experiencing increased development. Almost all of this development is concentrated in a little more than seven square miles in the downtown area, leaving most of the city untouched. Efforts are underway to create a business-entertainment complex in the core of the city that is becoming a wealthy enclave, surrounded by poorer neighborhoods. Much of this development, removed from public scrutiny by emergency management and bankruptcy, is at public expenses.

Rhonda Williams, Shea Howell, David Stovall, and Patrisse Cullors at the Cities in Revolt plenary
Rhonda Williams, Shea Howell, David Stovall, and Patrisse Cullors at the Cities in Revolt plenary

For example, last week, Mike Ilitch’s Olympia Development Corporation broke ground for a new Red Wings Hockey Stadium. This will be the third stadium, all within walking distance of each other, in the downtown corridor. Olympia Development got 39 parcels of land for $1. The overall project will cost $650 million; it includes a large housing and commercial complex. The stadium alone will cost more than $480 million and will be 58% publicly funded along with generous tax breaks. This includes $285 million from school funds.

Meanwhile over 300 people—mostly elderly, African American, and lower income have been displaced—to make room for the new complex.

In the neighborhoods, the story is similar. Under the guise of a new foundation funded strategic plan, some neighborhoods are marked for development, others designated to stagnate and crumble. Efforts are underway to put nearly 45,000 city owned parcels into a special development land bank, giving the city the opportunity for development without any public accountability. Meanwhile African American homeowners are rapidly losing homes to foreclosures. The recent mortgage figures for the city reflect a dismal picture. In 2013 there were only 550 mortgages written for the entire city. From 2006 to 2012 mortgages for African Americans in the region fell 79%, contrasted to whites who fell 11%.


The water crisis began when the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage (DWSD) announced that 90,000 households, nearly half the city, were behind in their water bills. To deal with the problem DWSD began an aggressive shut off campaign of 1,000 to 3,000 households per week. This past June close to 20,000 homes had been shut off. The haphazard and crude program led to a massive public outcry and international condemnation, including a finding by the United Nations that the effort constituted a human rights abuse.

Prompted by the bankruptcy and the desire of the Emergency Manager to make the DWSD a more attractive sale item, a critical element of the shut off program, was the decision to shut off home owners only rather than major corporate clients, many of whom owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in past due water bills. Outstanding corporate debtors included the Red Wings, golf courses, Chrysler, and the State of Michigan. Nearly one-half of the unpaid bills were owed by only 45 corporations. Had the Emergency Manager only been concerned about generating revenue, it seems reasonable that he would go after these corporate clients. Instead he hired outside contractors for $5.7 million to shut off anyone owing $150.

Arcus Center instagram post on protest where a banner reads, "water is life stop the shutoffs"Resistance to these shut offs included informal efforts to turn water back on; setting up emergency water stations in churches and community centers; civil disobedience; and court challenges. This continues to be an ongoing battle, as a broadly based coalition stresses the importance of adopting a People’s Water Affordability Plan that would guarantee water to all, with a fee structure that supports a sustainable water system.

Last week, political commentator Glen Ford summed up the situation saying,

The city’s water department is more beholden to the rich individuals and institutions that hold the bonds than it is to its own citizens, even in the case of a vital life-giving resource such as water.

And that really, I think, is where the battle line has been drawn, and not just in Detroit, but across the nation and across the entire planet in this late stage of capitalism that some people call neoliberalism, in which the corporations are trying to swallow up all the resources of the world, public and private, for their own use.

And so this story goes beyond the basic inequities in Detroit regarding water. The fact that although thousands–and tens of thousands, in fact–of poor households have been targeted for cutoff of their water, mainly businesses have been left alone, businesses that own millions of dollars in back water bills. But they’re not threatened.  And I think what we’re actually seeing in the guise of defending the bottom line of the Detroit water department is a continuation of the ethnic cleansing of Detroit, the ethnic and economic cleansing of the city, trying to get rid of all these poor people in Detroit so that a better business environment can be created.


The Public Sphere

The land giveaways, development, and water fiasco are all being done under the guise of a financial necessity, demanded by the bankruptcy process. An Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, appointed by the governor is running this process and has complete authority over every function of the city. The Mayor and City Council have no power, except what he gives them. The City Charter is set aside. All contracts are void and open to renegotiation. All decisions about the disposal of city assets and financial responsibilities are his alone. 

Over the course of the year, the Emergency Manager has consistently favored banks at the expense of people in the city. For example, his first plan to deal with bankruptcy offered banks 75 cents on the dollar, and pensioners 10 cents.

Decisions are made behind closed doors within the context of a legal framework that has allowed the give away of public lands, the privatization of city assets, the cutting of city workers, the slashing of salaries and medical benefits, the cutting of pensions, and the reshaping of the city.Text that reads, "We have to develop new forms of work and a new life affirming culture."

This assault on Detroit is not because of the failure of the city; nor is it because of corruption and mismanagement. This assault is because of the success of the city in developing progressive practices that embody the contours of a new, compassionate, and sustainable urban life. As a city steeped in the African American traditions and progressive labor organizing, and artistic visions, Detroit is emerging from industrial devastation as a new kind of city. We are actively reimaging urban life on principles of sustainability, cooperation, productivity and joy. There is wide spread recognition that cities will never again be developed by large-scale industrial production. Instead we have to develop new forms of work and a new life affirming culture. 

Signs of this are everywhere. We are a global leader in urban agriculture. We have thriving small craft, art, and local services evolving with concerns toward sustainability and social responsibility. We are developing forms of place based education that engages young people as “solutionaries,” learning and growing as they build and restore community. We are developing new ways of local production for local consumption.

Detroit is evolving with a vision that challenges the corporate view of cities and their people. It is a vision that understands cities as places for all people to thrive and develop in caring, sustainable, and just ways.

This vision threatens the foundations of corporate America. It says not only that other ways of development are possible, but they are actually happening.

Detroit is part of an emerging movement of cities globally, that are becoming centers of progressive thoughts and actions. In Detroit we have long understood the distinction between rebellion and revolution. Rebellions are the righteous standing up against dehumanization and oppression. Revolution, however, is not just standing against something. It is for the advancement of our humanity and the development of our human capacities. Thus, our task today is to find the forms of critical resistance to the assault on our cities that move all of us toward a life affirming future.

As I was preparing this, I asked philosopher activist Grace Lee Boggs what I should share. She said:

Tell people we are in the midst of an international movement to redesign cities on the basis of new work and new culture. So much of that movement is the movement among young people, especially, who are a generation that can remake the world. They are more aware of the changes happening in the world than any previous generation. They need more conversations about this so they can unleash their imaginations. 

For all of us, the challenge of critical resistance in our cities is an invitation to conversation and imagination.

Shea Howell is an educator, activist, and founding member and board member of the Boggs Center, a space to nurture the development of visionary organizing rooted in place and history. She is also a co-founder of DETROIT SUMMER, a multicultural, intergenerational youth leadership program that engages the talents and energies of young people to rebuild and redefine Detroit. She is a professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan where she teaches courses on communication theory and multicultural and political communication. 


  1. This post is the same story for my hometown of Flint, Michigan, located one hour North of Detroit. What was once a car capitol on the I-75 corridor (Flint is the birthplace of Buick, Chevrolet, and General Motors; Detroit the birthplace of Ford and Chrysler), we have lost more than 70,000 jobs in Flint in the last 40yrs after GM began moving jobs to Mexico and areas of the Global South. In June, 2009, Forbes named Flint the #1 hardest hit-city of the 2008 Crash. Like Detroit, Flint has also been under emergency management. But we are experiencing a Renaissance. Of sorts. Flint is now becoming a college town. With the University of Michigan, Mott Community College (located in the top 10 in the USA amongst community colleges), Baker College, and several satellite Universities, we have post-secondary students in the high tens of thousands in the Greater Flint Area.

    And with Detroit, Flint is now leading the conversation about green spaces and urban farming. At its peak, the pop. of Flint was around 200,000 in the 1960s but in 2013, came in at less than 100,000. In 2008, Flint shared with New Orleans the top spot for a US city with the highest loss of population. The difference was, folks were slowly returning to New Orleans (2008 was three years after Katrina). Not so for Flint.

    Due to so many leaving, dilapidated houses have been razed which has created whole neighborhoods with vast green spaces. What do you do with those green spaces? Convert them into urban gardens. And in places where several houses have been razed, there are plots large enough for actual farming. So the great irony is that a city which once belched factory smoke throughout the better part of the 20th century now has clear skies and is leading national conversations about healthy, green farming. Agnes Repplier once said, “Irony brings a deeper and less friendly understanding.” When we think about what losses were incurred to gain those green spaces, I’m inclined to believe she was right. But green spaces can bring health and in their way, happiness. Like Detroit, Flint has a long climb back to greatness, or some semblance of it, but it can live again.

    Thank you, Shea Howell, for this excellent post. I shared it on my blog and cited you at

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