Barn's burnt down
I can see the Moon.
~ Mizuta Masahide

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The White House Urban Economic Forum in Detroit!

There is a logic to the madness of my desire to settle down and finally plant some asparagus in Detroit. I have more family in the area than I can count on all my or Little Missy's fingers and toes. I like the proximity to an international airport (as opposed to the two-hour drive I have now). Access to prime health care facilities for my daughter and I are important as I age, and she decides between skateboarding and martial arts. The urban agriculture community is mainstreamed and is increasingly embraced as a viable, necessary and equal partner in Detroit's reinvention. And it is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

It also still has its problems, as any city of over 600,000 people would, with the added challenge of having a poorly maintained infrastructure built to serve the needs of 2 million people. The crime rate varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood (downtown Detroit is safer than the national average, whereas parts of far East Detroit...are not). The public schools that are not charters continue to struggle and even some of the charter schools aren't doing much better. Unemployment and adult illiteracy are high. Public transportation is woefully inadequate. In some ways, it's like a postmodern Swamp of Sadness.

These issues are real. And I'm sure for the residents who have stuck things out, these issues are exhausting to deal with. But the city is more than these issues. The city is 600,000 people, more than 75% of which are employed, an even higher percentage are literate, and an even higher percentage are law-abiding people with hopes, goals, pluck and determination to make their city work.

And their efforts are working. Furthermore, they welcome new arrivals who respect their efforts and seek to join in the reinvention of the city. I've not met anyone yet who views me and my enthusiasm as the hallmarks of a carpetbagger. Maybe because they recognize the same thing in me that I see in them: I've been through some debilitating rough patches. In some ways, as I spy the light at the end of the tunnel, I'm still having to extract myself from the last few feet of muck and quicksand to pull through.

I don't embrace Detroit, or urban agriculture or law from a position of rose-tinted naivete. It comes from a place of hard won hope, in the sense of Ernest Callenbach's last thoughts before he died:

"Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful test candidates score better. Hopeful builders construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere of hope is essential to shared successful effort: “Yes, we can!” is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for people who intend to do something together -- whether it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping wounded people through first aid, or inventing new social structures (perhaps one in which only people are “persons,” not corporations). We cannot know what threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity is one of our species’ built-in resources. We cope, and faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest resource of all."

The Urban Economic Forum in Detroit is one of the many hopeful signs, not just for Detroit, but for the United States as a whole. I am beyond eager to join the work there, and pursue my own dreams as a future urban farming, entrepreneurial lawyer. And no, I don't think that's biting off too much. There have always been people who were lawyer-ands. I look forward to joining their numbers.

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