America is Better Than This: Let’s Put Detroit to Work

A boarded-up house next to the former Michigan Central Station building near downtown Detroit. Photo: Balazs Gardi

This article originally appeared on JustinWedes.com

Over the course of the last few painful months, I’ve descended into the depths of another world that does not feel like America. A world illuminated by creaky old stove burners, backyard pit fires, and backseat car lights where people take shelter from the cold. On these pot-holed streets, even the streetlights don’t shine any more. The dark world of Detroit hunkers down in silence.

I broke this silence often last year, knocking on doors to half boarded-up homes whose only sign of human inhabitance were the tipped-over tricycles on the front lawn.

Do you have water running in your home?

No sir. I don’t.

Can I come in and talk with you about that?

I guess…

The walk to the sofa to look at the water bill was often a shameful, hesitant one. The floors crunched under our feet from the stick of no mopping water. Cases of Poland Spring stacked up in the kitchen to feed the babies and cook. (Maybe also to bathe?) Plants shriveled up in the windowsills: plenty of sun but just no water. What Mother Nature gives man has taken away.

How much do they say you owe?

$3,200.

How long you been living here?

‘Bout 8 months.

The squeeze from above turns little blood out of these proud but humbled turnips. The bondholders demand more interest; the bankruptcy judge pounds his gavel and sips his water bottle. But life must go on. Life will go on.

Did you go down to the payment center?

Yeah, they told me they’d cut me back on if I paid $56 and got on their 2-year plan.

Did you sign the contract?

No, I don’t got the money.

The light outside is dimming, and I know that I should get going. After dark these streets are dangerous to navigate on bicycle. It’s not the “criminals” I’m worried about – most of those don’t live in these poor neighborhoods – it’s the distracted driver who doesn’t see me under the faint moonlight in rural-urban Detroit. I make plans to go with her to the payment center tomorrow with the check for 56 treasury notes that stands between her and hydration. Then a hug goodbye and a nod of reassurance.

America is better than this, goddammit! The country that built the automobile, that put a man on the moon, made a vaccine for polio, invented the Internet and gave us Miles Davis. How have we sunk so low? When did we turn off the motor to the Motor City?

Enough pity. Enough shaming. Enough guilt. Life is resilience. Life is opportunity.

Donde hay vida hay posibilidad. / Where there is life there is possibility. – Rubén Blades

Detroit is going to come back stronger, but it won’t happen on its own. You are needed to make Motown great again. Detroit will rise when workers rise. Detroit will rise when the 99% rises. Where Detroit goes, the country will go.

One thing I’ve learned in my hundreds of dark hours breaking the shameful silence of the street is that Detroiters are resilient and proud. They live with deep dignity and spit in the face of injustice and impossibility: where else will you see a man walk out of a half boarded-up home in a three-piece suit? And to a fucking job interview!

Detroit wants to work, it doesn’t want just charity. What life is there in begging on the streets? Dependency is a sickness upon both the individual and society, driving us into deeper apathy where we survive rather than thrive. What we seek is independence from the forces that have placated us and held us down. What we seek is dignity.

America is better than this, goddammit. Let’s put Detroit back to work.

Justin Wedes is the Chief Organizer of the Detroit Water Brigade, a non-profit organization that provides emergency relief to families without water in Detroit and advocates for an end to the water shutoffs. Join us in the coming months as we build equitable solutions to deep systemic poverty. Visit detroitwaterbrigade.org to learn more and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!