Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is Detroit Beyond Redemption?

Gulp, my hometown (1930-51), when I moved, newly married, to East Lansing to finish my doctoral courses with the cheaper in-state tuition of Michigan State. I worried about its future as early as 1949 when I won the Jesuit Midwest Province annual essay contest. “Needed: More Red-blooded Americans” was my first published essay. I argue that Detroit Catholics should approach the racism that crippled Detroit after World War II, when thousands of blacks had moved from the South for defense jobs with their religious ideals. Local Communists indeed were more Christian in their support of those blacks than most Catholics. (My girlfriend and I upset most of my fellow students when we double-dated with a black couple to the Senior Prom at Eastwood Gardens: integrating their leading dance spot was upsetting.)

It wasn’t my first such move: for my term paper in Father John Culkins. S.J.’s sociology course I had explored the sociological contradictions of the new “Life”-like “Ebony” which simultaneously supported A. Phillips Randolph promotion of his union of Railroad Porters as well as touting “white” hair straighteners in its ads. Culkins liked it so much he tried to get me to become a sociology major! 

I later learned that he was the leading American critic of the Radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, orating just up Detroit’s main street Woodward Avenue in suburban Royal Oak. He had disgraced Culkins’ Church by mocking FDR’s leadership as a “Jew Deal.” I later would realize that Philip C. Johnson returned from his preMOMA audit of modern architecture by supporting both Huey Long and FDR foes like Coughlin in 1936. Coughlin was of course accelerating racism in Detroit with his anti-Semitic conservatism. The more I mulled my unsuccessful early ant-racism, the more despondent I became.

Saved again, I proudly report, with the Internet Radio that keeps me in contact with my favorite Philly NPR station, WHYY. Why? Sunday mornings I go to my kind of Church by informing myself through responsible FM. (Afternoons, it’s Fareed Zacharia and “State of the Union” on CNN and “Meet the Press” on NBC.) 

Today’s “On Being” (7/21/13) was my introduction devoted to Detroit’s 96-year-old philosopher Grace Lee Boggs and her description of “Feed ‘Em Freedom”, their urban farming scheme. Despondent because of all those abandoned yards? Would you believe there are now 1600 vegetable gardens happily blooming there now. (Hit their podcast at “on being.org” to savour a credible savior.

Ms. Boggs studied philosophy at the University of Chicago when it was at the peak of the Hutchins regime. She happily reported her basement room where the rats were uncongenial boarders and she survived on her $10 weekly income. She talked with the verve of a twenty year old about her first hero, A. Phillips Randolph, founder of the railroad porters union. He had the chutzpah to hit FDR (and his wife when he was reluctant!) for an executive order forbidding segregation in defense industry. They grumbled, but he persisted, and in March 1941, Executive Order 8802. Heh, setting a good example for Truman who abolished segregated defense forces in 1948.EO 9981!

Our heroine clearly explained how Hegel taught her to turn problems into solutions. Detroit’s current malaise gives those who haven’t abandoned the city an opportunity to abandon old values for more persuasive solution. To summarize her articulate ideology is absurdly complex. That’s why podcasts were invented. 

There is something encouraging about the way idealists like Dr. Boggs can turn a dead end into a flood of gardens raising eating standards for the poor of Detroit. “On Being” is truly Philosophical. It moved me to send WHYY an annual payment of $120. Tune in and see if you become as hooked as I am on American Public Radio, an indispensable Minneapolis based supplier of fresh ideas “On Being”. 

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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