Talking Gaza in Detroit

7 June 2024
Ben Hillier
A deserted lot on 8 Mile Road, Detroit PHOTO: Ben Hillier

“You better work in Michigan, boy, or you’ll become a senior and they’ll throw you in that nursing home and all’s you’ll get is a room and three meals. My brother’s in there—three to a room. No movie nights. No activities. Get me out of here, he said. Ward of the state. I said the state has a foot on your neck and I ain’t got no lawyer.”

The talker is hauling a garbage bag full of empty cans on a bus heading north-west on Grand River Avenue. Like a lot of people in this part of the world, he’s loud enough that every other passenger can be part of the conversation. That’s made easier since the bus is just idling, going nowhere.

The driver spent maybe seven minutes tending to an elderly woman who, he realised, needed to be on a different route. So now he’s taken off on foot—across the block, behind a service station—carrying her shopping trolley to chase down the right bus on a cross street. Lacking the stride of youth, she trails behind at a shuffle, which is all the pace those bowed legs and withered frame can muster.

“He’s got God’s spirit, that man!”, another passenger cries out to general agreement. “Yes, sir—here’s a good man. You want a son like that!”

Decency of the kind that stops a bus, to hell with the timetable, surely is common in Detroit. It’s hard to believe many people could pull themselves up without frequent doses of “God’s spirit” in this city, which is an endless series of punches in the gut and slaps to the face.

It’s the drunk, maybe drugged, woman selling her services mid-morning, stumbling and tripping over the almost deserted Michigan Avenue pavement in Southwest.

It’s the congregation of men about a homeless shelter just south of the freeway in Highland Park not long past day break.

It’s the billboard on 8 Mile Road rented by Javontae Nixon’s family, overlooking the wasteland Bel Air car park in Osborn, offering money for information about who killed him.

It’s the sign nailed to the street pole at Van Dyke and Harper avenues: “Cash 4 diabetic supplies”.

It’s the woman in Prince Valley market assailing the cashier over the price of a can of grape soda she can’t afford.

It’s the once stately McGregor Public Library on Woodward Avenue, windows smashed, overgrown, gate chained.

It’s the boarded and burned-out houses, derelict and empty, balconies collapsing, which stretch block after block between vacant lots where other homes were bulldozed and the unused footpaths have been reclaimed by untended lawns that resemble urban savannahs.

It’s church after church after church, mainly Baptist missionary, some looking little different from corner stores. In this place desperate for economic deliverance, the promise of spiritual salvation appears everywhere—yet even churches are boarded and deserted, as though the almighty himself gave up and left town. (“No Trespassing”, scolds a Derrick Memorial Missionary Church yard sign in one empty lot on 7 Mile Road.)

It’s the bricked-up and shuttered shops disrupted only by basic or obscene markets: Family Dollar, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Dollar Castle, baleful liquor store after baleful liquor store offering “checks cashed”, pawn shops and nail and beauty salons, auto repair and service stations, personal injury lawyer adverts and fast food chains serving up only hardened arteries among all the heartache.

It’s the certainty that this devastation is no natural disaster.

What was once a prospering city in what is still the richest country in the world has been flattened in so many districts, not with the sort of weaponry being used to level Gaza, and not at such speed, but by other means.

Detroit was the heart of the US union movement, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and of the much vaunted “middle class”—workers who could live in relative comfort and security. Workers who didn’t just dream of getting ahead, but who really made life work, and inspired others throughout the country to follow their lead.

It was America’s fourth largest city in 1950, with 1.8 million residents and about 300,000 manufacturing jobs. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was born here. Martin Luther King first delivered a version of his “I have a dream” speech here in 1963, which was followed several years later by some of the country’s fiercest Black rioting against racism and discrimination.

The city’s decline has been widely documented. Keith Wagstaff, a former staff writer at The Week, describes it as “a slow-motion, decades-long collapse that began when manufacturers left what used to be an industrial powerhouse, abruptly halting the progress of a growing black middle class”.

Capitalists killed the city. After squeezing workers for all they could get, and not being satisfied with the surplus, bosses moved factories to non-union states and deserted the population. Part of it was making an example of those who resisted and who rose “above their station”. Part of it was just the humdrum logic of capitalism: discarding workers when opportunities arise elsewhere or when economic competition becomes more intense.

At any rate, Detroit has been humiliated, devastated and depopulated. By 1980, the number of residents had dropped by a third from its 1950 peak. In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy. Today, there are just over 600,000 people left, three-quarters of whom are Black, according to last year’s census estimate. Median household incomes are less than half the national average, and the poverty rate is nearly 34 percent, per the city’s published statistics.

This weekend [these notes are from the end of May—ed.], there’s a summit going on downtown, the People’s Conference for Palestine. It feels appropriate to discuss Gaza here, though not for the reasons the conference organisers announce (we’re in one of the heartlands of Arab America).

Detroit has been destroyed. Not just unrepaired. Not just neglected. Destroyed. Whole blocks bulldozed. Whole neighbourhoods ruined. The devastation stretches along and adjacent to Van Dyke, Grand River, Woodward, Gratiot, 8 Mile, 7 Mile and so many narrower streets in between.

Detroit is a reminder that the US ruling class doesn’t just obliterate foreign cities; it obliterates its own. In fact, it does so all the better to accumulate the resources used to create the weaponry that flattens cities all over—Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki; Baghdad, Basra, Fallujah; Gaza City, Khan Younis, Jabalia, Rafah. Not just cities, but countries—the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and more.

Workers of all colours and creeds are the source of the United States’ immense wealth, so much of which is used to feed the military industrial complex and aid Israel’s genocide. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 900kg bombs, tank munitions, artillery shells—tens of billions of dollars of horror have been shipped to Tel Aviv by the US. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the United States provided nearly 70 percent of Israel’s conventional weapons between 2019 and 2023.

Those resources have been looted from places like Detroit; from workers all over the country. It’s money that could have been used to refurbish and reopen McGregor Public Library. To fix the pavements and potholed roads. To rebuild the abandoned homes so that the homeless shelters are no longer needed. To pay for a living wage and for health care and aged care, so that women don’t have to sell themselves on the street, so that old men don’t have to haul bags of cans around to cash for a few dollars; so that their brothers don’t feel like prisoners in care.

Instead, the wealth, at least part thereof, pilfered from those who create it, has been turned into means of destruction blowing Gaza to smithereens.

It’s impossible to settle into the conference for the devastation right in front of us: a city in distress, obscured only by the glitz of a refurbished downtown into which billions of dollars have flowed, driving up rents and property taxes and, perversely, threatening yet more displacement of poorer communities. Billionaires are back, finding new ways to exploit the town, which is on a rebound—for some at least.

No doubt downtown is absolutely sparkling. Municipal authorities have paid for landscape gardeners, stonemasons and sanitation workers. Buildings have been refurbished by new owners. There’s waterfront development, newly paved streets, newly grassed areas, lots of streetscaping work going on and new condominiums planned.

The money drifts north along the Cass Corridor through midtown in pockets of gentrification all the way to Wayne State University. There’s also a little “money drift” evident along Michigan Avenue: new lampposts have been installed for a few miles and new traffic lights hang at intersections, although there’s not much if anything in terms of commercial development. It’s just a bit of city hall money on basic infrastructure amid a litany of shuttered shops and deserted lots.

The money drifts only so far. City authorities don’t bother with basic street cleaning or repair in many of the residential areas—except for those with obvious money, which admittedly are not difficult to find, like Arden Park and Palmer Woods. North Corktown is looking revitalised as well. No doubt other areas are doing okay or thriving. As in any city, there are different classes of people and different classes of neighbourhoods. But that trite truism fails to inure one to the generational devastation in so many working-class areas.

On 7 Mile again and Derrick is swilling spirits out of a Gatorade bottle. “Mother fucker. What are you doing here?” It’s the sort of exasperated-chuckle greeting one might get bumping into an old friend in a strange place. Here, a white boy’s presence just seems cause for bemusement. Discovering that it’s an Australian horrified by the city and trying to understand it stirs a little curiosity.

Derrick sits down and we suss each other out like two dogs in a park sniffing the other’s whiskers. Small talk. Some pencil pointing. Slow nodding. Then he comes through. “Here’s my number—write it down. You call me tomorrow and I’ll show you ’round. I’ll show you everything you need to know”, Derrick says. “My car’s in the garage, but we’ll get around—you’ll see.”

But tomorrow is a morning Greyhound to Illinois.

“Oooh, Chicago”, he rumbles with a shake of the head. “They’s worse than us. You be careful in Chicago.”

And that, for us at least, is Detroit’s last word. Derrick on 7 Mile, almost penniless and his car in surgery, is thinking of the welfare of a stranger from the other side of the world.

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