They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.—Micah 2:2
Last year, my wife and I moved from suburban Southern California to inner-city Detroit, a crippled city of 139 square miles with an 83 percent African-American population.
We have had the privilege of serving with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and We The People Of Detroit, a grassroots organization started by five African-American women in 2008.
Through door-to-door canvassing, crisis hotline phone banking, water deliveries and soup kitchen service, we have witnessed neighborhoods—almost entirely comprised of African-American residents—pummeled by water shutoffs, mortgage and tax foreclosures, shuttered and poorly funded schools, lackluster public transportation, darkened streetlights and limited access to healthy food.
Meanwhile, we have been surprised to learn that business contracts, foundation grants, bank loans and government decisions overwhelmingly benefit young white suburban refugees eager to participate in Detroit’s comeback.
White businessmen such as Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert and Little Caesar’s Mike Illitch have been gobbling up properties and public subsidies in the 7.2 square miles of downtown and midtown, as they promote the power of entrepreneurship to reduce crime, create jobs and remove blight.
Along the way, we read about Detroiter John Hantz, worth more than $100 million, living in a 14,500-square-foot estate in Indian Village, a neighborhood of about 200 homes of mostly white residents just a mile away from downtown. Five years ago, Hantz teamed up with Mennonite pastor-farmer Michael Score to cast the vision of a 2,000 acre tree farm to “clean up” Detroit’s war-torn Eastside.
In the winter of 2014, the city council voted 5-4 to sell 180 properties to Hantz for $300 a piece.
The agreement came with strings attached: In two years, 50 abandoned homes would be razed, all trash and brush would be cleared, lawns would be consistently mowed, and 15,000 trees would be planted. With his crew of five employees and more than 1,000 volunteers, Score got the job done in 11 months.
From day one, Hantz and Score faced an organized opposition gravely concerned about the city selling land—inhabited by African-Americans for decades—to two white guys. The land is close to downtown, blocks from the riverfront, adjacent to Indian Village and could eventually be sold for a major profit years down the line.
This was a “land grab,” the opposition claimed, and unless great care was taken, long-time residents, many of whose ancestors were pushed out of the Black Bottom neighborhood during construction of the freeways in the 1950s and ’60s, will inevitably get priced out or pushed out of the neighborhood. History repeats itself.
Over a few months, I rode my bike across the city to the eastside to get updates on the progress of Hantz Woodlands. As we stood among cleared brush in gentle snow flurries a week before last Christmas, Score assured me that “not only did the opposition go away, they took their ideas with them. They rallied against us and then slandered us and spread false ideas about us.”
Score lamented: “They should have argued for a land trust side-by-side with Hantz Farms. They could have organized neighbors to buy parcels for $200 each. More than 500 properties could have been bought. We’ve already put $4 million into this project. All they needed was $120,000.”
Ultimately, Score proclaimed, the opposition became a boon to his boss.
The media came out in droves, with gushing pieces from Fortune and The Wall Street Journal, along with The Mennonite. As people heard about Hantz, they flocked to his already successful financial services wing.
From a marketing perspective, Score assured me, Hantz has already cashed in on this investment.
I was struck by Score’s work ethic, determination and compassion for neighbors directly adjacent to his property, some of whom he cited by name. He is faithfully enacting a popular American script that combines capitalist trickle-down principles with Christian love of neighbor: a blend of piety and prayer, prudence and the profit motive.
Score, decked head-to-toe in brand new Carhartt gear (an official Hantz Woodlands sponsor), dismissed his opponents as “ideological,” captive to socialism. He truly believes that with prayer and determination anybody can pull off what he has.
There’s plenty of land to go around for everyone: “They had 138 square miles of other land to choose from.”
The reality is that those with an alternative vision for this land do not have a benefactor like Score does.
Those I spoke with are trying to figure out how to pay their property tax, mortgage and water bills month-to-month.
Two years ago, Malik Yakini of The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) wrote in an op-ed for the Michigan Citizen: “Many of us have opposed those proposals [of John Hantz] because we think their scale is inappropriate and because they are not grounded in the social justice values that guide the current community-based urban agriculture movement.”
As Score points to dozens of neighbors, delighted that Hantz Farm is mowing grass every other week, Yakini and other leaders of color, from organizations on the eastside like Earthworks and Feedom Freedom Farms, are jarred with the notion that poor black Detroiters need wealthy white “investors” cleaning up their neighborhoods.
They simply want an opportunity to work with the land in creative and constructive ways: to grow and feed and to teach urban folks how to re-engage with an indigenous, symbiotic relationship with the land.
In an email, Yakini wrote to me, he homed in on the vital need to overhaul the whole, historic system of injustice:“This is a continuation of the same polices that have created vast disparities in wealth over the past several centuries. We need a radical departure from this antiquated thinking about land ‘ownership,’ capital and power.”
Yakini’s DBCFSN, in fact, crafted a food security policy platform and got the city council to adopt it.
It highlights cooperative community ownership, eliminating barriers to African-American participation in the food system and establishing partnerships with universities and national organizations to develop entrepreneurship while advocating for low-cost loans to spur African-American entrepreneurship. In addition, the loss of the Hantz Woodlands battle has sparked a movement of community land trusts, “equitable and sustainable models of affordable housing and community development” that ultimately focuses on the retention of long-time Detroit residents.
In 1968, Martin Luther King gave a rousing speech at Grosse Pointe High School, just a few miles to the east of where Score and I stood on Hantz property.
Before he was interrupted twice by white protestors, King proclaimed: “Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. …This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”
Almost 50 years later, Detroit’s schizophrenia has intensified as white gentrifiers carve out spaces from the neighborhoods of resilient black residents who have stayed and paid. It is typical for black homeowners to pay interest on bank loans starting at 10.5 percent, adjusting to 17.75 percent.
To add insult to injury, it was reported that city officials took TARP funds allocated for “mortgage relief” and diverted the monies towards “blight removal.”
The predatory targeting of black residents is well-documented.
The city continues to contract a wrecking company to turn off the water of anyone $150 or more behind on payments, a policy condemned by two United Nations rapporteurs who visited Detroit last fall. Tens of thousands more residents, accumulating annual 18 percent interest penalties from the city, will be subject to tax foreclosure. Over the past five years, Detroit public schools have gone from a surplus to a deficit after the governor appointed an emergency manager, stripping the elected school board of all powers.
Gentrification doesn’t just happen.
It is the result of decisions made by city, state and federal governments on behalf of land developers, landlords and banks. White investors in Detroit “covet fields and seize them.” When low-income people of color, longtime residents of now blighted neighborhoods, have access neither to resources nor decision-making, they are rendered helpless in the face of these principalities and powers.
I do not believe Hantz and Score are racists. They sincerely believe the “free market” will serve their self-interest while benefits spill over into the neighborhoods adjacent to Hantz Woodlands. This project has helped a few neighbors, but my concern, based on a systemic and historic analysis of Detroit, is that it is contributing to the racialized schizophrenia that King prophetically critiqued, the means and ends masked by unacknowledged white supremacy and class privilege.
Hantz and Score are in a privileged and powerful position to partner with organizations led by people of color on the east side to clean up the neighborhood and keep long-time residents in their homes: to rehab abandoned homes, create affordable housing, advocate for community benefits agreements and tax foreclosure and water shutoff relief and convert open spaces into community gardens that produce healthy food.
There would be plenty of space for a tree farm, too.
Tommy Airey writes for radicaldiscipleship.net.