Wednesday, December 9, 2009

detroit: how migration changes a city

Migration in and out of cities is a fascinating phenomenon.  From the early 1900's forward, there has been a massive influx into urban centers in the US.  Some of this has come through immigration.  Much of it has been a  result of industrialization; the improvement in farm implements did not require the same workforce to run a farm, at the same time the cities were opening factories.  During WWII, over half a million African Americans migrated to northern cities to fill jobs which were being vacated by men leaving for war.  This created, almost overnight, places like Chicago's south side, and New York's Harlem.  In influx of African Americans into cities, sparked what sociologists call white flight.  Suburbs are the result of white flight.  This left most major urban centers as predominantly African American.  While urban centers continue to grow--at least in the sun-belt cities--there has been a push since the late 70's to move to the suburbs and back out to smaller towns.  The influx of technology jobs (as industrial jobs are sent overseas) provided the means for this migration out of the city.

Detroit has seen exaggerated forms of all of these eras of migration, the most devastating of which has been white flight and the current down turn in the economy.  Detroit has shrunk by half its population over the past decade or so.  Over one third of all homes in the city are vacant.  The entire state is expected to fall below 10 million in population.  This exodus out of the city has sparked a major crisis for city leaders as they are trying to operate the same services for the same size city, geographically, with half of the tax base.  The city is facing a 15.3% unemployment rate and is suffering from a 2.8 billion dollar deficit.

Rather than looking to the federal government for a bailout (it is arguable that government has been a major contributor to the problems in Detroit), they should look to innovators, individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit and hard work ethic, organic solutions (a government prop up will only prolong the bleeding not stop it), and private investors (when money is needed--though judicious government should be used to prevent speculation).

One such group of innovators is the Catherine Ferguson Academy.  They are providing education to young pregnant mothers, who would otherwise have to drop out.  While they only provide services for 300 of Detroit's 3,000 young pregnant mothers, they have a phenomenal graduation rate of 90%.  They have reappropriated some school grounds have have turned it into a working garden.  The women are taught how to grow fruit and vegetables and then turn and sell their produce.  Aside from teaching them valuable job skills which can feed their family, they are learning self reliability and responsibility.  Two filmmakers have put together a documentary showcasing the school.   I highly recommend that you take an hour and watch this video.

One of the solutions to the problem of waning tax base and a vacatant city, some have proposed shrinking the size of the city's footprint.  This is a great idea.  The word self-sustaining needs to be in everyone's vocabulary.  Some have proposed using vacant lots for gardens like the Academies'.  It is no small irony that in the cycle of migration that the rural and the urban are now going to be mixed to one degree or another.

What can we learn?  Do you have a city with urban poor?  Rather than build your next church building or campus, why not buy some unused plot of land in your city.  Find the people in your church who are just sitting on pews with skills in gardening and husbandry.  Start a working community farm.  This demonstrates your genuine concern for being a blessing to your community.  You are giving people the skills and dignity to take care of themselves.  The people in your church will see an direct connection between your church and your community. 

Otherwise, we end up looking like the typical Americans and they typical Christians who tithe to themselves.  

Here is a funny video:

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