October 30, 2009 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Relationship status: It's complicated with Detroit
It’s been a heady week in Detroit, which is part of what’s kept me from the blog for a few days — it’s hard to find quirky historical perspectives on the tense lead-up Devil’s Night and an FBI raid in Dearborn and Detroit that killed a black imam — allegedly an armed, criminal separatist radical, although details of the organization’s intents are murky, no charges of terrorism will be pressed, and the reliability of undercover informants has been questioned. In other news that I didn’t feel like writing about, Detroit made Forbes safest cities list after making the most dangerous cities list in April, Red Dawn keeps blowing stuff up downtown and my dad can’t stop bitching about the traffic problems it’s causing, the Book Tower is being sustainably renovated and (fingers crossed) peopled, and regularly scheduled cultural life is on hold for Halloween which, to page through this week’s alt-weeklies, seems to be scary only for those terrified of clubbbbs, girls in bikinis or shelling out a couple hundred dollars to go to a masquerade ball.
As for me, I have directed much of my spare time and effort to a., getting a job and/or lining up some freelance work and b., planning a tremendous upcoming week of blog content, to this week’s detriment. I know that’s not really how this shill is supposed to work, but perhaps you can find it in your heart to bear with me, at least in these early days of my new bloggery life.
To sate you, meanwhile, here are two somewhat related items that are worth spending some time with:
Race a challenge in Detroit’s urban agriculture movement
The Michigan Messenger reports on the social divide between blacks and whites in the city and their efforts toward urban farming and food activism:
Many black Detroiters have a negative perception of white people who come into the city and start projects in neighborhoods regardless of these groups’ good intentions. “What matters is how do their intentions come across?” [Monica] White [WSU sociology professor] asked. “A common perception is that this is a pet project to make them look and feel socially responsible,” she said of how some native Detroiters look at incoming whites who jump into the urban farming movement.
In general, according to the article, urban farming and garden programs are theoretically open to everyone, but participants tend to be fairly segregated according to community, which tend to be fairly segregated according to race. And that can lead to some friction.
Some of the assumptions the writer seems to make in regards to race perceptions in the city are unsourced, but I’m glad the Messenger is addressing this issue. Urban agriculture often slides through uncritcially as a feel-good solution for struggling communities, and while community gardens and food sharing programs can educate us, put us in touch with where our food comes from, empower us with a sense of autonomy and build strong community relationships, it may not ultimately be a sustainable alternative to having a good, accessible grocery store nearby. And we still need to solve a huge array of other problems at hand — crime, drugs, housing, city infrastructure and, yes, race relations — so some of us might need to take a break from digging in the ground for bell peppers and do something else that builds social captial in Detroit.
Bonus: cute pictures of goats at the end of this article.
Privilege, sacrifice and not feeling so great about yourself
Of course, like anyone else who loves good writing, photography, Detroit and life in general, I love Sweet Juniper and I read it every day and whenever anyone asks me what I’m trying to do with this “blog” business I always use it as the perfect example of the power of blogs that aren’t just topical top-ten lists and link farms and blah, blah, blah.
For an assignment with Assignment Detroit, Mr. Griffioen stayed up all night with a private security guard, and on his blog he writes about the complicated feelings he has about their conversation:
I don’t tell him that I went to law school, or quit a good job on purpose, or moved to Detroit because San Francisco seemed too nice. All of these things that seemed to make so much sense suddenly sound so ridiculous. Instead I wear a mask. I pretend like we actually have something in common, which of course we do (and all that truth would just get in the way of it).
… Someone once commended me for the sacrifices I’ve made. But, I think, I’m so privileged I don’t even know the meaning of sacrifice.
I can’t tell you how many people think I’m doing a “good thing” by moving back to Detroit, or that since I moved back to Detroit, I naturally have grand designs on “saving” it. I don’t. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to explain the guiltiness I am sometimes charged with, and often feel, when I explain that I live in Farmington. I don’t know why I feel so defensive all the time. People want to know if I’m buying and refurbishing foreclosed homes, or teaching neglected kids how to read, or joining the patrols that comb the streets of the hood for homeless teens, or — of course — getting into urban farming.
All of these things need to be done, but I want to spend some time figuring out what, exactly, I can do, and where I can do it to make it count the most. It’s a struggle, and it’s so wrapped up with who you are when you live in or around Detroit that it’s hard not to feel paralyzed by that expectation.
I read this post and I just nodded. And then I read it again. And now I read it whenever I need to be reminded that it’s okay to feel confused about my relationship to this city and my own self-righteousness about living here, coming back here, being from here, knowing about here, and all of those complicated things.