Far from City Hall

If government can't or won't help, let's all meet in the street

Young Chris and Denise were taking turns playing the small wooden xylophone at the table sponsored by the Detroit Disability Justice Coalition. While the kids were banging away at the instrument, I couldn't help pulling out my mandolin, strumming along with them and dancing a bit. It was the highlight of my time at the People's Festival: An East Side Declaration of Love and Hope, held earlier this month over at Mack Avenue and East Grand Boulevard.

Not that there wasn't plenty of other enjoyable stuff going on there.

The youth of the St. Charles Praise Dancers did their thing outdoors; there was a demonstration on how to make sauerkraut, another one on belly dancing, a presentation on composting, a station where folks could pedal a stationary bicycle in order to charge up some lights, a session on creating neighborhood community councils, and ... well, there was a lot of stuff going on.

There were tables with literature and other offerings from many of the 33 organizations that came together to create the festival, many of them in the orbit around the progressive activism of the Boggs Center.

"It was fantastic," says Gloria Lowe, founder and CEO of We Want Green, Too. "We created this environment that people had not experienced in a long time. We saw and heard the smiles and the laughter. I did not see one person hollering and screaming at the kids. Older people were having conversations with their neighbors.

"People who hadn't seen each other in years were reunited. I saw my high school teacher, who I haven't seen in 30 years. It felt like a huge family reunion, and truly a family, multigenerational."

Lowe was one of the prime movers in the planning group. Her business focuses on building sustainable urban communities through training in the skills necessary to remodel and build green living spaces in an affordable way. The trainees tend to be disabled veterans, citizens returning to the city after incarceration, and homeless people.

There was a green vibe going throughout the festival.

It was on the grounds of Genesis Lutheran Church, where an organic garden tended by volunteers from GenesisHOPE grows next to a small orchard, and a compost pile recycles debris into dirt for use in future years. The garden project is part of a work-skills training program for teenagers. They tend the garden, harvest the vegetables, and sell them at Eastern Market. They'll soon be selling them right at the garden site where GenesisHOPE will sponsor a produce market two days a week starting in July.

"For me, the festival was to celebrate," says Chloe Richardson, a community organizer for GenesisHOPE. "In this community, there are a lot of things that aren't the way they should be, and this was a time to have fun, it was also about healing and the beginning of a lot of work that needs to be done."

A quick tour through the surrounding neighborhood would underscore Richardson's comment about things that need to be done.

The area is plagued with the same problems one sees in many of the city's residential areas — abandoned houses and overgrown lots.

Unemployment is alarmingly high in Detroit, and, as the folks at the Boggs Center say, young people lack meaningful work. Part of the effort among these organizations is the creation of an entrepreneurial spirit to help people see the resources that are already in the community and use them to build a better future.

Can-Did Revolution, a fledgling canning business founded and run by twentysomethings Andrew Plisner and Kezia Curtis, had a table at the festival that provided an example of the entrepreneurial effort. They are both active with Freedom Freedom Growers, a local urban agriculture organization. After a trip to an apple orchard last fall, Curtis had an excess of apples around the house. Plisner thought it would be a good idea to try canning.

They started off with jam, then moved on to an applesauce recipe from Curtis' family. In January, they started the business in earnest. It was literally a kitchen start-up on a shoestring. They work with local suppliers and are trying to build their business in the local community, networking with like-minded people.

"We're learning as we go," says Plisner. "We're trying to figure it out. I was at the festival to celebrate the phenomenal work that so many folks have been involved in, and to provide a glimpse of what's possible."

Can-Did hasn't really taken off yet, and Plisner reports profits in the low hundreds of dollars, but it's a start.

That's part of what the People's Festival was about, jump-starting community economic development from within.

The idea of a big corporation coming in and providing tens of thousands of jobs is a pipe dream. And with the mayor's office is in turmoil with a revolving door of officials, a financial deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a new lawsuit from a fired executive, it's hard to see how the city government is ever going to get to supporting economic development in neighborhoods. I don't even know if that's part of the government's duties. But it seems that somebody needs to step into the vacuum and make things happen. The organizations that put on the People's Festival are willing to do it.

"A big reason for the festival was to move us to the next step of helping the community to understand the need for self-governance," Lowe says.

"We need to let the folks know we're here, and what we're doing in our community. Not just that we're here but that we are here for them. We can change all this drama that's going on around us right now. We need to have a discussion about what we are able to do rather what we accept.

"We want sustainability. We want to live healthy. We want to eat good. We want our children to be happy. It's not just about the garden. We want to maintain this earth. We want to know what that feels like."

Another high point of the day for me was when they handed out prizes to kids who had written a short essay on what they like about Detroit while at the festival.

A young man named Demar, who wrote about working in the garden, racial equality, struggle and success, won an IBM laptop computer.

A boy named Reggie, who wrote about Motown records, the Motor City Museum and rebuilding the city, won a new bicycle.

They both burst with pride as they read their essays and received their prizes.

I'm not one of those who goes around making the children the reason for all community efforts, although that's a great motivation. The bottom line is that what we do is for all of us, young and old.

We're all part of the continuum. But I must admit, when the kids point the way, it sounds so simple. Maybe that's the way it should be.