Sunday, November 22, 2009

Another Requiem for Detroit

Detroit was the arsenal of democracy in World War II and the incubator of the American middle class. It was the city that taught mass production to the rest of the world. It was a place that made cars, trucks and other tangible products, not derivatives. And it was the architect of the quintessentially American idea of putting people to work and paying them a decent wage. It’s frightening to think seriously about what we’ve allowed to happen to this city and what is now happening to the middle class and the American economy as a whole.
                   Bob Herbert, An American Catastrophe, NYT, 11/21/09

The ghost town known as Detroit is where I spent my life from infancy in 1937 until 1952, when we moved to the suburbs.  Even then, Detroit's northern border was only four miles from our home.  I could take a bus to Royal Oak, transfer to an express bus, and be whisked downtown in no time.  After I married, we still lived no more than a half-hour's drive from the center of the city.  I loved Detroit.  I was not one to stay away.

When I was young and lived in Detroit the Cultural Center was my playground and I never got over the fact that I could walk into those gorgeous buildings--the Detroit Public Library, The Institute of Arts, The Historical Museum--as freely as I could walk down my street.

In later years our writers' group, Detroit Women Writers (now Detroit Working Writers), met at the DPL. After our meetings, I often took the long way back to the parking lot in order to take in the atmosphere of that stately old repository.  In one wing, there is the Burton Historical Collection, where we've spent hours and hours researching local and family histories (for free.  I see they now charge non-residents).  The library is near the campus of Wayne State University and students fill the spaces and keep it busy.

From the library, it is a quick walk straight across Woodward Ave. to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where mummies lie, where a secret, winding staircase takes you down to the cafeteria, where Rembrandts visit and small Picassos reside, and where Fredric Edwin Church's huge wall-length Cotopaxi, when it was in residence,  just blew me away.  But, of course, the main event at the DIA is a visit to Diego Rivera's Industrial Murals.


 You don't have to wander far to see it.  It is a straight walk from the main entry.  Kids are thrilled by the suits of armor lining the hallway before it, and are usually bored by the murals.  Little do they know how very near the murals came to being smashed to bits and swept away--like much of current-day Detroit.  I  wrote an article about them in 1986, when two of Diego's assistants, Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, came back to the DIA to participate in an anniversary celebration. As many times as I had seen those walls  (glanced at might be a better description), I didn't realize that the story they told was my story, our story.

Detroit was the seat of industry during America's modern years, a city on the move.  The census rolls show that Detroit held the "fourth largest city" spot from 1920 to 1950, when Los Angeles pushed it to fifth place.  The 1950s were peak years for Detroit, with a population averaging 2.8 million.  Fifty years later, as of 2006, Detroit was the only city in the United States to have a population grow beyond 1 million and then fall below 1 million.  Now it rests uneasily at 871,000 (2008 figures).

(It didn't get past me that my family was one of many thousands that moved out of Detroit in 1952.  By that time, my dad, an upholsterer, had moved away from the auto industry and was working for a furniture maker based at Detroit's northern limits. They found an affordable little house in the suburbs, and all I can say is if they hadn't, my kids and grandkids, in their present form, wouldn't be here.  My future husband lived just up the street.)

Bob Herbert took a tour of Detroit's ruins and wrote an important piece about what he saw, but I hope he goes back sometime soon to take a look at the beauty of Detroit.  There is still much to be said for that battered, bloodied but not totally bowed town.

I would have sent him first to take a look at some of the glorious architectural structures built early in the 20th century by industrialists who saw a future there.  Until about two months ago, I might not have believed there was a chance in hell for that city, either, but an important meeting forced me down into the bowels, to the Penobscot building.

I was as stunned by its beauty as Bob Herbert was by the devastation he saw.  I wandered the halls and felt like I was in a museum again.  Signs of hard times were there--empty store fronts and very few people--but the Art Deco artwork, the gorgeous wood parquetry, the intricately tiled floors, the stately columns were all intact, all preserved, all spit-shined to a dazzling glow.  I hadn't been moved by the sight of a building in a long time, but standing there, I felt as if the dark clouds hanging over Detroit had lifted for just a moment, and the sun was about to shine through.

When I was a kid, my father would take me to the McGregor Library in Highland Park and wait patiently, reading newspapers, while I wandered around that beautiful Beaux Arts building, where I could breathe in the quiet and almost believe I belonged there, where I could gather books in my arms and actually take them home.

There is talk that the McGregor will reopen soon.  When and if it does, I want to be there.

My Detroit, when I was a kid, was a beautiful lady. Now she is our Grizabella.  To be remembered, to be pitied, but not counted out.  Look closely and you will understand what happiness was.

(Click here for the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit Tour and here for the Detroit Rises Tour.)


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

To Hell with Hunger, Palin's got a book out

The magnitude of the increase in food shortages -- and, in some cases, outright hunger -- identified in the report startled even the nation's leading anti-poverty advocates, who have grown accustomed to longer lines lately at food banks and soup kitchens. The findings also intensify pressure on the White House to fulfill a pledge to stamp out childhood hunger made by President Obama, who called the report "unsettling." 
(Amy Goldstein, Washington Post, 11/17/09)

Every morning I get email alerts from the Big Papers about stories they've published that day.  Yesterday I was skimming the list of articles in the Washington Post, and I saw this:  America's Economic Pain Brings Hunger Pangs.

I read the story and was, as anticipated, duly appalled beyond belief.  This is America and we're talking about hungry people numbering in the millions.  "Hungry" does not mean starving.  It means a scarcity of food.  It means food this morning but what about tonight? It means food today, but what about tomorrow?  It means a rumbling in the stomach because food has to be rationed.  It means that as a country we're following a road we thought we had left behind.

Children in Soup Line - 1930s

So on more than a whim, I pulled up the WaPo website to see where this story fit on their main page, and--guess what?  It wasn't there.   The two top-read stories yesterday morning were about--guess what?  Sarah Palin's book tour blitz.

This week is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness week--not that anyone would notice.   The unofficial event is coordinated and co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.   (In order for it to be official, somebody in the ranks of government would have to recognize hunger and homelessness as a real problem.  Though Obama called the hunger report "unsettling", I don't see any emergency mobilizing going on. It's simply another report among many that causes them to shake their heads and make promises they sincerely believe in, but about which they have no idea how to even begin addressing.)

This is the first paragraph of Goldstein's article:  "The nation's economic crisis has catapulted the number of Americans who lack enough food to the highest level since the government has been keeping track, according to a new federal report, which shows that nearly 50 million people -- including almost one child in four -- struggled last year to get enough to eat."

Fifty million people, including one child in four, didn't have enough to eat last year.  You can cite rampant unemployment, you can blame illegals, you can certainly put the finger on outsourcing and off-shoring, but the report touches on a major factor that nobody wants to talk about:  insufficient wages. 
"The report's main author at USDA, Mark Nord, noted that other recent research by the agency has found that most families in which food is scarce contain at least one adult with a full-time job, suggesting that the problem lies at least partly in wages, not entirely an absence of work." 

So while we talk about "joblessness" and the impact of hundreds of thousands of jobs lost each and every month, we tend to forget that homelessness and hunger also comes to people struggling to make a living in a job market that is increasingly hostile to them and to their families. There are working people living in their cars, for God's sake.

When millions of able-bodied workers with practical skills and functioning brains are reduced to fighting for menial jobs that pay peanuts, under circumstances that not a one of us could have foreseen even 10 years ago, we have to finally admit that for most of us, life in America is not the recurring pleasant dream but the absolute nightmare.

So here I go again:  Jobs, jobs, jobs that pay, pay, pay. . . a living wage, dammit. We can start like this:

We can build factories and roads and bridges and schools and libraries and railroad stations and we can fill those places with art by American artists.  We can put our young people to work maintaining and creating parks and waysides and scenic overlooks.  And we can send our best writers and photographers out on the road to chronicle the Second Coming of the Great Depression. This is history in the making, and it is history repeating itself.  These are real people who, many of them, come from families who were in this place before.  Many of them worked hard and created a life swank in the middle class, only to be dropped back into the dark places of their forebears.  I'm guessing they're ready and eager to get to work.

It goes without saying that we will need to pay our people a living wage for the necessary work they do.  But in turn, they will once again be able to pay their fair share of taxes, they will once again be consumers, and they will once again be shareholders in an America that welcomes and rewards their efforts.

But in the meantime we have to feed people who don't have enough food, we have to house people who are homeless (even as their former homes sit empty), and we have to stop pretending that millions of people without hope for a future is a situation that, given enough time, will right itself.

It's not going to happen without a whole lot of pushing and shoving.  The very thought of a New New Deal sends Corporate America reaching for their buggy-whips.  Back!  Back!  You can have our billions when you pry it from our cold, dead hands!

So.  All Right.  There's a crowbar around here somewhere. . .


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Now, About Those Jobs. . .

We have spent the better part of a year locked in a tedious and unenlightening debate over health care while the jobless rate has steadily surged. It’s now at 10.2 percent. Families struggling with job losses, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies are falling out of the middle class like fruit through the bottom of a rotten basket. The jobless rate for men 16 years old and over is 11.4 percent. For blacks, it’s a back-breaking 15.7 percent.
We need to readjust our focus. We’re worried about Kabul when Detroit has gone down for the count.          Bob Herbert, NYT, 11/10/09


Why are we skirting the issue of joblessness these days?  There will be no recovery without jobs. None.  We need to get cracking on that promised jobs creation program.  But first we need to get past the notion that creating multitudes of low-wage jobs accomplishing nothing more than servicing the upper class is going to get us out of this mess.

We need to re-build and re-tool factories and we need to produce our own goods. Without the majority of the population employed again in meaningful, productive work, we might as well resign ourselves to serfdom and the lives our people led pre-Industrial Revolution.

We need to stop pretending that we need those cheap goods from China and other slave-trade countries. For one thing, they're not all cheap.  Have you looked at the price of athletic shoes lately? With the exception of one company, New Balance, they're all made by human beings working long hours for mere pennies outside of the U.S.  Do the prices reflect that?  Would those ridiculous shoes cost a ridiculous $300 instead of the ridiculous $80 they now cost if they were made here?  Of course not.  I defy anyone to show me how a shoe company in the U.S couldn't produce an $80 pair of running shoes without making a profit.

Almost everything we buy in this country is made somewhere else by people who work under unconscionable conditions for embarrassingly paltry wages.  Do the prices reflect that?  Of course not.  Every year the cost of everything rises, no matter where the goods are produced.  Our new refrigerator was make in Mexico.  I haven't had a new refrigerator in 18 years, but if that was a low, low, non-USA made, non-union made price just for me, I'm not impressed.

Food, clothes, shoes, tools, appliances, office goods, computers--you name it.  They could all be made here by people earning decent wages under conditions that celebrate humanity while still keeping the company in the black.  For most mid- to high-end items, the prices couldn't be much worse.

It can be done.  We all know it can.  It must be done.  There will be no prosperity without a middle class, and there will be no substantial middle class unless we go back to MAKING things. We have to go back to making quality goods better than anyone else at a price that American workers can afford.  That used to be our claim to fame.  American-made goods were the best.  American wages were the best.  When we were the leaders in manufacturing, we lived in an era of exceptional prosperity, and nearly everybody benefited.  The Good Life was here in America.

We can do that again, and we can do it without breaking the bank.  But first things first. The Fat Cats need to go on a diet.   The hard part will be convincing them that their present way of life is killing them--along with the rest of us.  Their King Midas approach to economic stability looks good when they're viewing it from their hog-laden banquet tables, but they need a Marley's Ghost to drop in and show them how they're going to look selling apples on the street corner.

We can't go on like this.   Unemployment has surpassed that magic number--a national average of over 10 percent.  All hell was supposed to break loose if that ever happened, but of course it only affects the unemployed, so watching the stock market go up, even in the face of it, shouldn't surprise us.   But could it at least infuriate us?

Health care is important.  Getting us out of two wars is important.  Climate change is important.  But there is nothing more important today than creating the kinds of jobs that will bring this country back.  Let's get over the idea that such a colossal undertaking can be done without initial governmental/taxpayer help.  We need a WPA-like program and it should have started on Obama's first full day in office.  Congress should have been prepared to sign into law a jobs program that exceeded even our wildest dreams.  Every able-bodied unemployed person should have been ready to flex every muscle when the time came and we should, all of us, have been pushing that enormous, expensive project from day one and working toward making it the most efficient, effective project this country has ever seen.

CCC Crew, Senatobia, MS 1938

So let's say we work on getting that done.  Now we need to go after the off-shore "American" companies and give them the bad news.  They're no longer a part of us.  They get what they've wanted, including all the benefits of being a foreign company.  Cheap goods, low wages, tariffs. . .  Enjoy--somewhere else.

So.  If Americans want to build a strong America we have to do it the American way:   Honestly, righteously, willingly working hard.  Together.  For the common good.


(Cross-posted at Talking Points Memo here)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Islands of Good in a Sea of Hate

 To bring deserving things down by setting undeserving things up is one of its perverted delights; and there is no playing fast and loose with the truth, in any game, without growing the worse for it.
Charles Dickens,  "Little Dorrit"

I stayed away from politics for a few days last week, mostly by choice.  I admit that sometimes it gets me down; the hatefulness, the misdirected energies, the signs of a meaningful recovery growing ever fainter.  I give in sometimes to black moods and it takes a dose of sunshine to get me back on track.  I watched funny movies, played computer games, wandered around my local countryside taking pictures of golden trees and old barns.  It was great.

But yesterday morning--Sunday--the hiatus was over with a bang.  I watched, at my husband's urging, a segment of "The Coral Ridge Hour", a purportedly religious program, where ObamaCare was the sermon of the day.  I came into the program when a video about the dangers of government-run health care was playing.   The lies were so blatant, so transparently Right Wing, and so totally against what I know of Christian beliefs, I sat there either drop-jawed or sputtering.  They lied, and they took pleasure in their lies.  It was Sunday morning and they lied.

They pushed the notions of government-sponsored euthanasia for the elderly  ("Buried deep in the Obamacare bill is a passage that would require all Senior Citizens every five years to get counseling on end-of-life issues.  A less than gentle nudge that at some point the Federal government would like you to die"), wholesale abortions paid for by the Feds, doctors being forced to perform abortions against their moral judgment, rationed life-saving operations, and a guaranteed rapid slide toward socialism if all good Christians don't oppose the Public Option.

They were aided by such notables in compassionate thinking as Star "47 million uninsured Americans is a myth" Parker, a spokesman from James Dobson's "Family Research Council", and somebody billed as "William Lederer, former congressional candidate".

The Coral Ridge Hour is the brainchild of Dr D. James Kennedy, a "minister" in name only.  Dr. Kennedy has been dead for more than two years, but you wouldn't know if from his website or telecasts.  The faithful are carrying on his message of hate and intolerance in a fashion that would make their founder proud.  It was enough to make me sick.

So since I felt back in the game, I thought I would go over to Talking Points Memo Cafe to see what my friends were blogging about.  Once again, I was drop-jawed and sputtering, but in a good way.  I hate to pick out just three excellent bloggers to highlight here, since at any given time there are so many on that site, but these were the three that brought me to my knees.   Their blogs are so passionate, so articulate, so full of goodness.  The perfect antidote to that hateful Sunday morning sermon.

They are here:

The Genocide of the American Middle Class, by flowerchild 
(with links that beg to be read)

Professional Distance, a Discussion of Health Care, by Dickday
 (A necessary heartbreaker)

Hearts Gone Astray, by TheraP
(And then read "The Reason Why", including Doxy's heartbreaking "Elegy", a call for fairness in health care if ever there was one.)

I was so blown away by those four pieces I couldn't even comment.  I was absolutely struck wordless, and it took me until this morning to be able to function again and write the piece I had begun yesterday.

There are good people out there by the thousands fighting the good fight. (Many of them are in my blogrolls)  We need to nurture them, to celebrate them, to emulate them.

So from now on, my Sundays are reserved for them.


(Cross-posted at Talking Points Memo here.)