Sunday, May 24, 2009

Black and Green

Screenwriter and Author Toni Ann Johnson writes about her efforts to plant trees in her urban Los Angeles neighborhood: . It's a very good article, hopefully her efforts will take root (pun intended). There is some movement for similar green-based initiatives in Detroit, including a potential remodeling of the city. It will likely face the same obstacles as Ms. Johnson's efforts faced. Of key interest is the education of an extremely skeptical urban public:,,,

I believe that many people (e.g., racial minorities) who have grown up in starkly urban environs have become socialized to think of our immediate surroundings as the only way things could/should be. We believe that smokestacks and smog equal civilization. The much greener suburbs/exurbs are 'the boondocks' and 'the sticks' at best, Klan-land at the worst. Environmental activism has become synonymous with the "tree-hugger" cliché' of relatively affluent Caucasians who insist on all-organic foods, don't use deodorant and whose toilet paper probably has wood-flakes in it. Dilapidated urban parks have become more known as hang-outs for the homeless or thugs/gangs, and not much is thought of it.

In particular for Detroit, the population has hemorrhaged over the decades to the point where there is less than half the population than the city had in the mid-1950s, and dropping. News reports indicate as much as 30% or more of landspace in the city is vacant. Public schools designed to serve 2,000 students now serve 400. Many neighborhood blocks have half the houses they used to, and not all that remain are even livable due to abandonment. Long-defunct factories, empty warehouses, burnt-out storefronts, and condemned apartment complexes still stand as glaring eyesores, and are also ripe for not just innocuous squatters, but criminal types doing drug business and predators who may take victims there. The gaps in population density make it tougher on having a regular police presence everywhere (in a city of shrinking budgets/deficits). Decaying water mains breaking are a regular occurrence; the rationale against proactive infrastructure reform is that the city tax-base isn't sufficient to cover the costs of a radical overhaul.

If the ongoing crisis for American automakers hasn't sent the message home, the era of being a high school graduate/GED holder (or at one point, even a dropout) and then segueing into a family-supporting career at a steel-refining/vehicle parts/assembly factory is done. It just is. There is no mass-manufacturing movement that attracted black folks (and others) in droves to Detroit and elsewhere. People here have to accept that the population won't ever be what it was. It's way past time to embrace new industries, and seek resources to provide the training for adults and younger people to get involved.

Part of that involves thinking outside the box for creative uses of available land. City schools should have plots of land to work on with students for credit-- push curriculums in schools stressing agriculture, soil science, botany, forestry, urban planning, etc. Why not have fruit & vegetable farms, why not have forest preserves, why not have some bikes-only paths? Unfortunately, once the more cynical, jaded, and uneducated sorts in local leadership/activism get introduced to ideas like urban farming, shutting down depopulated neighborhoods, and "re-greening" in general, the tendency is to start accusations of suburban land-grab, or "They want to turn Detroit into a Plantation" which adds a totally unnecessary racialized spin to redevelopment efforts. Of course, if one is to look at this through the lens of African-American history, agrarian-based skill sets were common to our ancestors but were generationally lost as the industrialization boom manifested. Maybe this needs to be revisited.