Features
Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT/Newscom

Beyond 'ruin porn'

Cities 2010 | The Motor City is facing very hard times, but there is more to Detroit than the usual images of decay. Detroit also has stories of hope and renewal

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

DETROIT-It's a challenge to tell stories about people in this city who see its problems and are working hard to be part of its rebirth. It's a challenge because press accounts of Detroit are training us to view the city in three morbid ways.

"Ruin porn" is the favorite negation. Photo after photo of broken windows, vandalized schools, abandoned and decaying buildings. Murder capital, riots, corruption, crummy cars, poverty, racial bigotry. Detroit has something for nearly everyone to hate or ridicule, and ruin porn-porn in the sense of provoking civic, not sexual, degradation-has become a shorthand way to convey scorn.

The second genre is shoot 'em up. Last month's Metro Times: "A car turned from Jefferson onto Chalmers. It drew closer, then slowed when it reached Jackson's house. The headlights panned the front of the home until they revealed the ex-cop sitting there on the otherwise dark porch, staring back. He had a shotgun in his lap."

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Conventional coverage's third variety focuses on Detroit as the site of weird art. The "ice house," a structure covered with sheets of ice, is a commentary on frozen assets. An artist is selling 1-inch-square plots of Detroit land for a dollar to "inchvestors" building a "surreal virtual world."

The common denominator: Detroit is an urban wasteland, nearly 140 square miles of urban blight. A clever reporter from Britain's The Economist wrote, "Detroit has space, and quiet. It has, as Wallace Stevens said about a snowy landscape, 'nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.'"

Kevin Butcher, pastor of Hope Community Church on the city's extreme southeast edge, responds: "What are we doing when we castigate and point and forget that down in all of that are sons and daughters of God? . . . How dare we dehumanize Detroit and call ourselves followers of the Christ who touched everyone as if they were all equal in God's eyes?"

Last month I tried to learn about this city as viewed by followers of Christ who see all Detroiters as created equal.

Some of them work at the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), several blocks west of Woodward Avenue, a main drag lined with magnificent old church buildings. The neighborhood is about a mile south of the city's thriving cultural center, filled with museums and Wayne State University buildings, coffee shops, and boutiques. That relative prosperity hasn't stretched north across Grand Boulevard.

Executive director Lisa Johanon, 50, has lived in her central Detroit neighborhood 23 years. Her house, like many of its neighbors, has ornate moldings, carved doors, and leaded glass. It sits on nearly half an acre and appreciated throughout the 1990s, but economic downturn deepened by the decline of the Big Three automakers has lowered its value and caused many neighbors to flee. In CDC2's housing development area (approximately 18 blocks) "we typically have 25-30 vacant homes. Now we have 88."

CDC2's offices are in the basement of an 11-unit low- and moderate-income apartment building owned by the organization. The warmly painted space with walls of pumpkin, gold, and sage green is divided into several offices and a big room neatly arranged with rows of tables, Gateway computers, and some couches. CDC2 employs six full-time and six part-time staff, along with five part-time housing counselors. Learning from pastor and Christian Community Development Association founder John Perkins, they emphasize the three Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. This means that the employees live in the neighborhood, so they can live where they minister.

For Johanon, "redistribution" means bringing resources, including skills and education, back into the community. The organization works with about 400 families annually: "If you start working with a child at age 5 or 6, when they become adults these are going to be your future leaders. These are the people who are going to view the community differently, who are not going to have victim mentalities, who are committed to being here, who have a work ethic and a strong relationship with Christ."

Johanon points to Vinny, a polite 20-year-old intern: "He's one of those life changers." Over the years Vinny has been in Breakthrough Enrichment (a Tuesday night program that provides a hot meal, art, drama, dance, or music class, Bible time, and homework help), summer day camp and overnight camp, middle school program, after-school program, high school program, and more day camp and overnight camp, and ongoing relationships with two youth leaders. Through CDC2 his parents started going to church. The organization was there when Vinny's dad died last year and when the family went through foreclosure.

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