Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes

The old school is just visible above Spain Elementary (foreground) and Ben Carson (right).

Half-hidden behind two newer school buildings, a stone’s throw from busy Mack Avenue in the heart of the Detroit Medical Center campus, a hundred-year-old brick structure in Midtown Detroit hides an extraordinary story.

In 2016, as the Michigan Legislature debates the future of the Detroit Public Schools, the tale of Detroit’s forgotten Lincoln School holds the key to understanding what has become of Michigan’s largest public school district.

It’s a story that Michigan has forgotten for a reason. Continue reading “Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes”

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A New Arena, A Shuttered School, and an Immoral Legislature


A month or two ago, I was arriving in Detroit from Ann Arbor on the Greyhound bus when something outside the window caught my eye: the juxtaposition of a shuttered public school, just off the I-75 service drive, with the flashing lights of the Motor City Casino behind it, and the new Red Wings arena – built with public funding – rising not far away.

After getting off the bus, I biked over and took a few photos, with the idea for a “meme,” like the one above, already in my head. Over the past few weeks, the Michigan Legislature’s refusal to allocate funding to the Detroit Public Schools made the grotesque immorality of the situation increasingly evident. I posted the image on my Facebook page around 4 pm yesterday, the second day of the DPS sickout, with the statement “Emergency management is never having to say you’re sorry.”

A day later, it’s been shared 674 times. I suppose you could say it struck a chord. (Update: up to 714 since I began writing this post.)

A little background: “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” is a phrase that has taken on a life of its own, but it was popularized (as “socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor”) by the late Michael Harrington, author of The Other America and longtime president of the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington borrowed the phrase from the illustrious but now sadly forgotten housing expert and social reformer Charles Abrams, also of New York City, in describing the regressive effects of federal housing policy.

Michael Harrington (left) and Charles Abrams (right – but also left, politically).

The hockey arena, now to be known as the Little Caesars Arena after its owners, the Ilitch family, is financed by 58% public funding, or $261 million in Michigan taxpayer dollars. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the funding comes in the form of a state bond issue which is to be paid back by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority (DDA), using its property tax collection powers, by the year 2045. A 2014 ruling by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette cleared the way for the DDA to collect tax dollars that would otherwise go towards the state School Aid Fund, to the tune of $15 million per year.

That’s a somewhat different timetable than the one-time injection of money that DPS needs to stay afloat after years of state emergency management. But nonetheless, the state Legislature’s eagerness to satisfy the appetites of a billionaire pizza dynasty – and its contrasting indifference to the plight of tens of thousands of impoverished, often malnourished schoolchildren – is nothing short of scurrilous.

Perhaps ironically, the school featured in the photograph, at the interchange of I-75 and the Lodge, is the Benjamin Franklin School, opened in 1865 and shuttered in 2010 after stints as the Burton International Academy and an adult education center. The existing structure dates to 1922.

franklin-school basketball
Detroiter Isaiah Burnett takes a shot on the Franklin School’s basketball court, March 2016.

As the publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack, among other pursuits, Benjamin Franklin popularized a variety of sayings. Among them: “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.”

That is a truth that the Republicans in the Michigan House seem determined to prove.

Proposed Midtown Rezoning Would Restrict Shelters for Humans, Favor Shelters for Dogs


Note: Link to petition to City Council is here. This piece was updated 4/11/16 with a few minor corrections. City planning staff previously stated this would be the largest rezoning in Detroit’s history, but they have since checked their records, and in fact, a prior rezoning of the west riverfront area (in advance of proposed casinos) was larger.

Detroit City Council is considering a major rezoning in the heart of Midtown -specifically, in the old Cass Corridor, extending from Charlotte Street north to the Wayne State University campus, between Woodward and the Lodge Expressway. It would be the largest second-largest rezoning proposal in Detroit’s history, according to Detroit city planning staff.

For those unfamiliar with city planning, zoning refers to the complex set of restrictions that determine what you can and can’t do with a piece of real estate – that is, land. It’s what shapes a city in a whole host of ways – from what buildings look like, to who gets to use them. Given Midtown’s status as a focus for massive investment, what happens to zoning in Midtown has profound import for the rest of the city as well.

Mixed Uses: Back to the Future

Most of Detroit’s current zoning classifications are many decades old, and follow the traditional pattern of separating out different uses, like residential, commercial, and industrial functions. (Those who have played SimCity 2000 may recall that these were green, blue, and yellow in that edition of that game.)

The rezoning proposal would replace old “residential” and “business” zoning in this district with two brand-new, mixed-use zoning classifications with the mellifluous names of “Special Development District: Small Scale/ Mixed-Use” and “Special Development District: Commercial/Residential,” or, more concisely, SD1 and SD2.

It’s widely recognized that the old planning standard of strict divisions between uses was not such a good idea. In fact, it effectively made traditional downtowns illegal. No longer could new development easily incorporate both shops on the ground floor, and apartments above, as was common when Detroit’s Cass Corridor was initially constructed.

The proposed rezoning would fix that. It would also loosen the parking requirements for new development in this major public transit corridor, and prevent new developments from opening drive-throughs, or constructing parking lots between the sidewalk and the building, in the fashion of a suburban strip mall.

Area proposed for rezoning as SD1 (yellow) and SD2 (green).

That’s the good part. Unfortunately, the rezoning proposal also contains provisions that would sideline the social service institutions that have long been part of the soul of the Cass Corridor, and still provide critically needed care for our region’s neediest people.

Who’s Not In the Mix

In a lot of ways, zoning makes sense. You probably don’t want a massive refinery right next to a residential area, for example, for reasons of public health – although Detroit’s current zoning policies have not prevented that from happening.

Unfortunately, zoning has also been abused to buttress social inequality. One of the earliest uses of zoning in the United States, in fact, was the City of San Francisco’s 1885 attempt to bar commercial laundries from most of its area – and, in so doing, shut out their Chinese immigrant workers and owners. Southern cities zoned areas by race, and to this day, the residential zoning in many suburban jurisdictions only allows single-family homes on large lots, effectively keeping out poor and working-class families.

And, sadly, the proposed new zoning districts also appear targeted to exclude institutions that serve poor people – and that have often been located in the old Cass Corridor.

The new zoning categories, as written, would place severe restrictions on a variety of charitable social service institutions, including nursing homes, emergency shelters, and other group living facilities – at the same time as they ease restrictions on various commercial uses, such as brewpubs and pet shops.

For example, under the rezoning, commercial kennels would become a “conditional use” throughout the area – that is, allowed to open, subject to Planning Commission Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department staff approval. They are currently prohibited in the portions of the neighborhood zoned residential (generally, the lots fronting the east-west streets in the neighborhood).

Midtown dog park. Photo: Curbed Detroit.

However, nursing homes, which are currently a “by-right” use throughout the neighborhood – that is, automatically allowed – would become a “conditional use” in both new zoning categories. Emergency shelters, pre-release adjustment centers and residential substance abuse treatment centers, which are currently conditional uses throughout the area, would both be prohibited entirely under the new zoning categories.

In other words, the rezoning would restrict the opening of shelter facilities for humans, while making it easier to open shelter facilities for dogs.

Download the full comparison table between the existing and proposed zoning categories at this link. “R” means “by right,” “C” means “conditional,” and blank spaces mean “prohibited.”

Being Nice in the New Detroit

To be honest, it’s hard to say how much the proposed zoning changes would, in themselves, affect the trajectory of the old Cass Corridor. Existing social services in the area would be “grandfathered in” in the rezoning, so they would not be forced to move, though their ability to expand would be limited. It’s not exactly as if a host of new shelters and nursing homes are clamoring to open in the area, where real estate prices have skyrocketed so much as to make that nearly impossible.

Already, many of the social services that used to define the lower Corridor have been pushed to the margins – not through zoning, but through other means. An example is the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light residential substance abuse treatment center, which used to be in the old Park Avenue Hotel recently demolished for the new Red Wings arena. The Salvation Army vacated that near-downtown location in 2003 for a new site at MLK and I-96, a full mile to the west.

The former Harbor Light shelter is imploded, making way for new hockey arena, 2015.

However, this naked attempt to exclude the neediest people from the greater downtown area by action of the City itself goes against the principles of democracy and equality that Detroit has, at its best, embodied. How sad that a city that’s been down and out for so long would treat its most vulnerable residents just as badly.

The rezoning  also sets a troubling principle for the rest of the city. It’s almost certain that the new zoning categories will also be applied to other areas of the city viewed as ripe for redevelopment, from Southwest Detroit to the Villages to the Avenue of Fashion.

This isn’t the first time that Detroit has tried to push social services to the margins of the downtown. Detroit’s old Skid Row used to occupy the west side of downtown, along Michigan Avenue near First and Second Avenues. (This low-rent area was also the first point of entry for Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans in Detroit.)

In the 1950s, the city demolished that area for “urban renewal.” (A half-century later, the place is still fairly dead to pedestrian activity, dominated by the giant superblocks of the McNamara Federal Building and the MGM Grand Casino.) The social services simply moved a half-mile north, creating the Cass Corridor that would later become so notorious.

It’s not too late, however, to learn from the lessons of the past, instead of repeating its injustices time and time again. Detroit’s redevelopment need not create two cities, separate and unequal. Yet we need to muster the courage to tell our elected officials that we cannot countenance our own government – the institution that’s charged with protecting its citizens – using its powers to push our most vulnerable people to the wayside in favor of trendy restaurants and bars.

The future of Midtown Detroit must be a future that is truly mixed use, a future where everyone is welcome,not a future as a luxury entertainment enclave for the metropolitan elite.

If you’ve read this far, please sign this petition to City Council asking them to amend the proposed rezoning.

Memo to Hillary: Detroit Incinerator Is Not “Clean Energy”

Hillary Clinton speaking in Detroit Saturday, and Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator. Photos: Emily Lawler ( and Steve Neavling (Motor City Muckraker).

In a campaign visit to a Detroit auto parts plant Saturday, Hillary Clinton praised what she described as the continuing strength of Michigan’s hard-hit manufacturing sector. But her reference to sustainable practices at General Motors’ Poletown plant, which draws much of its energy from Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, might smell a little funny to the incinerator’s neighbors.

“You used to make B-24 bombers at Willow Run,” Clinton said. “Now you’re developing driverless cars there…Chevy is making electric cars in Hamtramck and using clean energy to do it.”

It’s unlikely that Clinton is familiar with the details of energy sourcing at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which now produces the Chevy Volt and has a checkered history of its own with respect to corporate power. In the 1980s, Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood (population 3,500) was demolished by the city to accommodate the new plant, in what has been called the largest and fastest-ever relocation of people in the United States under the power of eminent domain. That struggle pitted Detroit Mayor Coleman Young against neighborhood residents and dissidents who included self-described “independent socialist” City Councilman Ken Cockrel, Sr. Mayor Young argued the plant was desperately needed to bring jobs back to Detroit, but Cockrel accused Mayor Young of putting the welfare of a wealthy corporation above the well-being of residents, charges which echo today in Senator Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton.

No media sources seem to have taken special note of Clinton’s statement, but those familiar with the Hamtramck plant may know that the bulk of its so-called “renewable energy” comes from a surprising source: Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, best known by many residents for the noxious odors that it wafts through surrounding neighborhoods.

Pipeline connects incinerator and plant. Source: General Motors.

The trash incinerator is just over I-94 from the GM plant, and GM announced construction of a steam pipeline connecting the two facilities in 2013. According to the GM press release, the pipe was expected to provide 15.8 megawatts of energy to the plant, or fully 12 percent of GM’s company-wide renewable energy goal. The Hamtramck plant also has a major solar panel installation, which was as of 2014 the largest of its kind in Michigan, but that produces only 516 kilowatts, or less than one-third the energy supplied by burning trash from Detroit and its suburbs.

Like the Poletown plant itself, the Detroit incinerator was built under Mayor Young, but not by private interests. It was constructed by the city itself. Mayor Young sold it as a jobs project for a city struggling with rampant unemployment. It opened in 1986, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and remains the largest waste incinerator in the United States. Unfortunately, even without considering its environmental effects, the incinerator proved a disastrous investment for the city. It failed to turn a profit and, within a few years of its opening, the city attempted to cut its losses by selling the facility to private investors. However, the incinerator’s current owner, Detroit Renewable Power, has received millions of dollars in tax credits from the city.

To say that the incinerator is unpopular with Detroit neighbors would be an understatement. In 2013 alone, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality logged 113 complaints over the incinerator’s noxious pollution, which can be detected from both prosperous corners of Midtown and the hard-hit neighborhoods across I-75. The precise health effects of the incinerator are unknown, but the hospitalization rate for asthma in its vicinity, which also includes major freeways, is more than double that of the rest of the state. Most recently, the incinerator has been the subject of class-action lawsuits by residents, as reported by Motor City Muckraker.

Environmental Injustice and Due Diligence

“Clean energy” from a giant trash-burning facility in the middle of an impoverished, majority-black city is probably not the kind of thing Hillary Clinton wants to be promoting, particularly given her outspoken criticism of Michigan’s handling of the Flint water crisis. The poisoning of Flint may be the most shocking case of environmental injustice in Michigan, but it’s one that the Detroit incinerator parallels in many respects: a largely poor, largely black community exposed to toxic substances in a misguided attempt to improve a city’s bottom line.

Again, Hillary Clinton probably knows none of this. Most likely, her staffers obtained the Chevy reference from a General Motors fact sheet. Yet her statement remains an unfortunate example of the way unpleasant truths can be papered over in politics, particularly when one is striving to put a brave face on a city that has borne the worst effects of almost every federal policy over the last century, from subsidized suburban segregation to unfair international trade policies.

On the heels of her Chevy reference, Clinton said: “Shinola has created more than 500 jobs and they’ve cornered the market on watches for presidents. Both my husband and President Obama love their Shinolas.” It hardly needs to be said, however, that the market on watches for presidents is a small one, and while Shinola can justly be praised for employing Detroiters, it is difficult to imagine a firm that better exemplifies the rising chasm of inequality than a boutique manufacturer which sells thousand-dollar watches in a city where more than half of all children live in poverty.

The sad histories of the Poletown plant and the Detroit incinerator also testify to the perils in tethering political leadership to the private quest for profit. Coleman Young did not set out to be the “mayor from General Motors,” as some of his critics dubbed him, any more than he set out to send a foul-smelling cloud of garbage fumes over his beloved city. Yet, nonetheless, he made the choice to support both projects, and Detroit continues to deal with the consequences.

The Motor City may yet be America’s comeback city, but one may ask what kind of comeback can be built on burning trash. As Michiganders consider their choice for the Democratic presidential nomination in tomorrow’s primary, they might wish to ask themselves whether their candidate would tend to accept corporate claims at face value, or subject them to the scrutiny of a smell test.

In Democratic Primary, UAW Faces Choice Between Ideals and Accommodation


If there was ever a major labor union in the United States that embodied the hope for genuine democracy, that union was Detroit’s United Auto Workers.

The biggest exception to the narrowly focused “business unionism” that typified much of the American labor movement, the UAW was born in a frenzy of organizing in the New Deal era and reached its apex under Walter Reuther in the two decades that followed. Son of a German-born West Virginia socialist, Reuther carved out a career as spokesman for the left wing of American labor, trying to broaden the movement’s scope beyond wages and benefits to take up the causes of civil rights and economic justice for all people, union members or not.

At his most radical, Reuther preached what he called “economic democracy,” arguing that critical business decisions ought to be made by workers as well as managers. “We must wipe out the double standard in America and in the world which divides the masses from the minority that controls the preponderance of economic power,” he wrote in 1947.

Seven decades later, however, the UAW is on the ropes, and the memory of its postwar heyday is dim. The Democratic presidential primary of 2016 will test the union leadership’s resolve. Will the UAW keep playing defense and endorse establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, despite her weak record on protecting American workers? Or will Solidarity House cast its lot with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent campaign embodies many of the goals the UAW once sought to achieve?

Polling the Rank and File

At a mid-February canvass training at the Detroit headquarters of the Sanders campaign, housed in a former steel distribution warehouse turned art gallery in the city’s North End, several UAW members said they hoped the union would take a stand for the socialist candidate.

“When [Bernie] said ‘bring back the middle class,’ I mean, the UAW started the middle class,” said a young, African-American member of UAW Local 7, a native Detroiter now residing in the Macomb County suburbs. He asked not to be named, as he was part of the new class of lower-paid “second-tier” workers created under recent UAW bargaining agreements, and enjoyed far less job security as a result. Local 7 represents workers at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly, the only remaining auto plant located entirely within the Motor City. (GM’s Poletown plant straddles the Detroit-Hamtramck border.)

“If he gets elected, [the union] could get the numbers they had back in the seventies or eighties or more,” he said. The UAW now has about 400,000 members, scarcely one-quarter of its 1979 peak of 1.5 million. Fittingly, that peak came in 1979, just before Macomb County’s “Reagan Democrats” helped elect a president who effectively slammed the door on labor.

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, some hoped he would turn back the anti-labor tide. Instead, he spearheaded Congressional ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), defying the majority of Democrats in Congress, and setting the stage for automakers to decamp for the low-wage, non-union environment of Mexico. According to the UAW, “U.S. trade deficits with Mexico cost almost 700,000 U.S. jobs by 2010.  Most of the jobs displaced were in manufacturing.”

For Al Benchich, retired 12-year president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, the Clinton association with NAFTA ought to be enough to decide the union’s 2016 endorsement, and not in favor of Hillary.

“She’s supported NAFTA, and from my perspective, the union should be endorsing Bernie,” said Benchich. He noted that Clinton has backed off from her initial support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mammoth trade deal which many unions, including the UAW, fear could further devastate American manufacturing. Yet in his perspective, that’s too little, too late.

Benchich hopes that the UAW will endorse Sanders, perhaps on the strength of rank and file sentiment. “They’re polling the membership now for the first time ever, which is a good thing,” he said.

The Choice

Benchich noted that the UAW’s top leadership, the International Executive Board, is split between supporters of Sanders and Clinton. Vice-President Cindy Estrada, a Southwest Detroit native and University of Michigan alumnus, is a vocal supporter of Sanders. During Sanders’ first campaign visit to Michigan on February 15, he was invited to speak by UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, long one of the union’s most outspoken locals, and drew an overflow crowd. (See video above.)

However, much of the American labor leadership has already cast its lot with Clinton. Sanders’ most prominent labor endorsements comes from the Communication Workers of America (CWA), representing about 700,000 members. The UAW endorsement would be his next largest endorsement in membership terms, topping the American Postal Workers Union and National Nurses United. However, given the UAW’s history as the vanguard of American unionism, its endorsement would be an especially welcome prize for Bernie, especially as the March 8 Michigan primary approaches.

We can only imagine the conversations on this topic inside Solidarity House, the UAW’s headquarters on the Detroit River.

In a 1948 debate, the UAW’s Walter Reuther made note of a striking statistic. Just before the Great Depression, he observed, “36,000 families at the top of our economic pyramid had more income in 1929 than 12,000,000 families at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Senator Sanders, of course, is well known for his references to the fact that today, the top tenth of one percent in the United States owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent.

In 2016, will the UAW take sides with the candidate who’s carried on Reuther’s critique of the concentration of wealth? Or will it fall into line behind the political dynasty that masterminded the Democratic Party’s right turn?

We’ll have to wait and see.

For more on the history of the UAW and Walter Reuther, see native Detroiter Kevin Boyle’s The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism and Nelson Lichtenstein’s Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

Strength In What Remains

Mural at Oakland Avenue and Custer in Detroit’s North End.

Democracy in Detroit, and all of Michigan, is in trouble.

And the trouble it’s in runs much deeper than many of us want to admit.

Even before the poisoning of Flint’s water, even before the state-orchestrated bankruptcy of Detroit, even before the passage of so-called “right to work” legislation in a state once synonymous with the union movement, democracy in Michigan was in crisis.

If you wanted, you could trace the roots of the crisis pretty far back in time. Maybe the trouble began in 1896, when Henry Ford puttered onto Bagley Avenue in his Quadricycle, setting up the state for a century of dependence on a few giant corporations. Maybe it started even earlier, way back in 1833, when Kentucky slave-hunters kidnapped two black Detroiters and sparked the city’s first race riot.

Yet, for much of the twentieth century, things seemed to be going pretty well in Detroit. We were driving the American economy, at the head of the movement for civil rights, and may have boasted the nation’s most prosperous middle class.

Thomas Sugrue’s myth-shattering history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, shows that this apparent good fortune masked deep tensions. As early as the 1940s, the automakers were abandoning Detroit, shifting production to suburbs and rural locations. Meanwhile, segregation kept black Detroiters confined to deteriorating neighborhoods, and white racism opened huge fissures in the New Deal coalition the unions had worked so hard to to build.

By the time the 21st century rolled around, the flight of industry and the racial fragmentation of metropolitan Detroit had set the stage for what was once unthinkable. With the state under one-party rule, corporate interests rolled back Michigan’s labor tradition and turned it into a so-called “right-to-work” state, breaking the back of union strength. The city of Detroit, once a leading bastion of black political power, was placed under the control of an emergency manager by a governor elected without the votes of anything more than a handful of Detroiters.

If the emergency manager law proves anything, it’s that we can’t have a fair political system without a fair economy. Politics and economics are bound together. With the emergency manager law, the state has essentially deemed some cities too poor for democracy, as well as too black.

Does democracy in Detroit have a future? I believe it does.

Democratic values still run strong in our city, region, and state. The memory of the middle class may be fading, but it’s far from dead. The people of Michigan still have a latent sympathy for the little guy, and a distrust of corporate elites who try to dictate what’s best for the rest of us. Despite the continuing strength of racism, there are still many people, on both sides of Eight Mile Road, with the courage to fight for justice and equality. There is strength in what remains.

Yet the answer, in the end, is for all of us to determine in the years to come. I hope this blog does a little to help us keep the faith that we can respond in the affirmative.