Last week, I read about a proposed urban farm project that purportedly would transform the vacant, abandoned lots that make up much of Detroit’s inner city. Businessman John Hantz wants the City of Detroit to donate the vacant property. Hantz envisions the farm as a “destination” for locally grown produce that creates jobs within the city. However, this venture makes no mention of neighborhood buy-in. Community gardeners there have their doubts. And, its proposed equestrian recreation area doesn’t seem targeted to the youth from nearby neighborhoods. So, I have to wonder, is this urban farm plan really saving grace for Detroit’s inner city or just one more way for capitalist white America to profit off the backs of Detroit’s poor, urban, African American residents?
A month ago, I might not have even raised this question. That was before I read Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City by Luke Bergmann. While a graduate student in anthropology, Bergman spent three years living in Detroit, studying incarcerated youth. His studies yielded more than a degree and a dissertation. He became deeply emotionally involved with several of the boys and their families.
Before telling the tales of two of these boys, Duke and Rodney, Bergmann provides the reader an excellent historical review of Detroit, from its founding more than 300 years ago through today. Today, Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. The freeways of the late 1940s and early 1950s bulldozed residential neighborhoods and black owned businesses. Fires spawned by the July 1967 Detroit Rebellion and subsequent urban renewal ventures destroyed the fabric of community even further.
Once a city of hope for African Americans (think Motown), Detroit now offers nothing but despair, as its urban residents as the system continues it pillage: law enforcement, the courts, the prison industrial complex and media-fueled consumerism continue to squeeze what profit they can from the people living here. On a personal level, the result is a heartbreaking, vicious cycle of poverty where the only means of survival is selling drugs and the only relief, using.
However, Bergmann finds that within this hopeless landscape, community does continue to connect. The center of connection is the neighborhood liquor stores, primarily owned by white, Chaldean Americans. Not only destinations for liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, these stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in the inner city. They also function as social hubs. And, while legal retail activities take place within, illegal drug sales take place right outside.
As Bergman tells the stories of Duke and Rodney, he does more than spin a good story–or make excuses for their “poor choices.” He shows why the choices they make are rationale reactions to the environment in which they live.
Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, says, “Luke Bergman sometimes risks life and limb to bring us firsthand the lives of young people who mainstream media and academic research have ignored–except for the occasional crime story or impersonal policy brief. Getting Ghost is a journey worth taking, though you may want to grab hold along the way.”
Luke Bergmann, Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and the Struggle for the Soul of an American City, (The New Press, 2008).