The Continuing Depopulation Of Detroit

An Emergency That Never Ends

On a blustery Saturday afternoon just two weeks before the day of the foreclosure deadline, an Emergency People’s Assembly Against Tax Foreclosures was held at Old Christ Church to address this siege. It was one of a set of “people’s assemblies” called to deal with the latest crisis in a city where, in recent years, crises have never been lacking.  Before the tax foreclosure assemblies there had been the Emergency People’s Assemblies Against Bank Foreclosures, the Emergency Pack-The-Court Actions to Defend Homeowners from Eviction, the Emergency Town Halls to Defend City Pensions & Services, the Emergency Meetings Against the Emergency Financial Manager, and so on.

“Emergency” had, in other words, been the word of the moment for years and years. That invasive sense of never-ending urgency could similarly be seen in the literature of such groups — in the words always screamingly in capital letters, in the typographical equivalents of exclamation points. When I’d first heard about the most recent event, I was in a meeting with Mike Shane and I said to him, “Over the three years I’ve been visiting Detroit, I’ve never arrived at a time you weren’t holding an Emergency People’s Assembly the following Saturday.”

Shane laughed on cue. “Well, yes, that’s right,” he replied. “We’ve been at this since about 2007.”

The Old Christ Church that day was shiveringly cold. From the pew behind me came the sound of rustling coats as two children squirmed. Beside them sat their grandmother and grandfather, Lula and Daryl Burke, who had come to describe how their home had been sold at a tax foreclosure auction last year. With the help of the grassroots community group Detroit Eviction Defense, Lula explained, the Burkes had convinced the home’s buyer to sell it back to the family.

A little bit of gumption on her part helped, too.  As she recalled explaining to the investor who had bought her home at auction, he could try to sell the house to someone else. But before he did that, she planned to strip every last thing out of it. “It won’t have a furnace, a toilet, doors, windows, all the way down to the light switch,” she warned him.

On the wall behind the altar three white-robed angels were suspended in mid-frolic, oblivious to the current condition of their once regal city. In front of them stood anti-foreclosure lawyer Jerry Goldberg.  “Are we going to allow 62,000 more foreclosures this year?” he thundered, his face growing redder. I later learned that, years ago, Goldberg had sold peanuts down at the old Tigers stadium (now a bulldozed parking lot) and his unrelenting voice had apparently made him very good at it.

“No!” he responded emphatically to his own question. “Are we going to allow them to make our neighborhoods into a bunch of ponds?”

Perhaps I should have led with this information: in some of the city’s latest flashy Adobe InDesign-ed planning documents, certain of Detroit’s more down-and-out neighborhoods have been transformed into ponds. Or, to be more precise, they have been turned into “water retention basins” that planners believe will offer the Detroit of the future superior management of storm water runoff.

Minutes earlier, Alice Jennings, one of the most celebrated social justice lawyers in the city, had explained that, according to Detroit’s planning documents, those retention basins are slated to be built on top of now populated neighborhoods. In other words, ponds are also what we’re talking about when we talk about Detroit’s tax foreclosures.

“No!” Goldberg shouted yet again. “We need to stop these foreclosures with a moratorium, a halt! The idea that this can’t be done is hogwash! The Supreme Court held in 1934 that, during a period of emergency, the people’s need to survive supersedes any financial contract! The governor has a responsibility to declare a state of emergency!”

His sentences all ended in exclamation points, as his torrent of words resounded off the church’s high ceilings. In an upside-down universe, Goldberg would have made a skilled auctioneer rather than a man desperate to save all those homes and their inhabitants.

To be clear, Goldberg isn’t suggesting another of the emergency proclamations that Michigan’s governors have used to impose unelected emergency managers on school districts and municipalities from Detroit to Muskegon Heights. Rather, he’s calling for the governor to declare a state of emergency under Michigan law 10.31, which would allow him to “promulgate reasonable orders, rules, and regulations as he or she considers necessary to protect life and property” — including, of course, halting the tax foreclosures. In 1933, similar actions allowed Michigan’s legislature to pass the Mortgage Moratorium Act, later upheld by the Supreme Court, mandating a five-year halt on property foreclosures.

Winning that moratorium took, among other things, a well-organized national Communist Party, hundreds of worker councils, thousands of eviction blockades, and — I’d be willing to bet, although I don’t have the archival evidence — an incredible number of “emergency meetings.”

Woe to Those Who Plan Iniquities

By late afternoon, Goldberg was resting his vocal chords and about a dozen people from the audience were lining up to take the microphone, including Cheryl West, a tiny, gray-haired woman clutching a thick Bible to her stomach. When it was her turn to speak, she began: “I lost my home of 60 years.” There was no trace of bitterness in her voice, just a touch of awe and disbelief. “It’s been quite a journey. Quite a journey.”

“Let me give you a little background,” she continued. “My entire family is now deceased. My father was the first African American to teach music in Detroit, possibly in the entire state of Michigan. He worked for the school system. He lived in that very house. He lived there through the 1967 riots and we were right at the hub of where the riots started. My sister was a journalist, and during the riots she was one of the people getting the story out to the media, because she was working for UPI at the time. My sister was on the front page of the London Times, that’s how far her news traveled of the city burning down around us.”

Then, after a few more background comments on her life, she opened up her bible. “Since we’re in a church,” she said by way of explanation and began to read from the Book of Micah. She skipped its beginning.

“Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.

They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance…”

Undoubtedly, she assumed that everyone in the church was already familiar with such “iniquities” and the biblical lines that went with them. After all, in the previous few years, they had lived through the 2008 foreclosure crisis, the imposition of an emergency manager on their city, mass water shutoffs, and significant pension cuts for retired city workers, not to speak of all the evils that had come before.

Instead, she read the verses she liked best, the ones that, as she said, God led her to just about the time she lost her home.

“You strip off the rich robe
from those who pass by without a care,
like men returning from battle.
You drive the women of my people
from their pleasant homes.
You take away my blessing
from their children forever.”

She paused, then suddenly, in a surprisingly powerful voice, yelled the next line: “Get up! Go away!”

The church reverberated with her admonishment. And then, with a smile at her own audacity, she added, “The end.”

Shortly afterwards, we filed out of the church. And yet it was not the end. It never is.

There is now, for instance, that new deadline — May 12th — for residents to get on a payment plan to avoid losing their homes to tax foreclosure. That offers more time for people to navigate the revolving doors of the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, head up to the eighth floor, then down to the fifth, all in an effort to fight their way off of the city’s conveyor belt to nowhere. And, of course, it gives residents more time to host emergency people’s assemblies aimed at throwing a monkey wrench  — once and for all — into this assembly line of eviction and displacement.

Even if that happened, however, these gatherings, called for in all capital letters and exclamation points, undoubtedly wouldn’t end. They’ve become as much a fixture of this city as the women and men who organize them, the churches that host them, and the neighborhoods whose survival may depend on them. After all, the worst injustice would not be whatever provokes the next emergency people’s assembly, but the possibility of a future Detroit without such gatherings, one in which all these meetings and people are gone, all the stories have been suppressed. Imagine, then, the worst iniquity of all, the one so many are fighting against: a Detroit where once inhabited streets have been submerged in the silence of water retention ponds, where longtime residents have been scattered and displaced by the foreclosure conveyor belt and no one left in the city knows the history of what’s been drowned.


By: Laura Gottesdiener