A failed charter school and someone looking to start a charter school in Kansas can only look to Kansas City, Mo., and wonder what impact high-performing public charter schools may have for kids in the state.
Most commentators, apart from Virginia Postrel and the like, seem to think that it would be tragic for the city of Detroit to lose the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. I agree that liquidating or “monetizing” the collection and shipping the works off to parts unknown like the spare pieces on a totaled car would be tragic.
But at the same time, there’s something about the relationship between the DIA collection and the city government (not to be confused with the people of the city itself) that would seem to warrant the city government’s loss of this asset. When you are a bad steward, even what little you have will be taken from you.
Now one could argue about the details of the DIA’s day-to-day operations, the compensation package for its director, and so on. But apart from these details of stewardship of the DIA itself, the real object lesson in bad stewardship has to do with the city government. Rife with structural corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the city has been unable to provide the basic services and protection that it is responsible for, despite the best efforts of so many individuals working within the city government. So when the city cannot do the primary things it needs to do, it should lose the privilege of overseeing the secondary things, at the very least until it proves itself to be a responsible steward.
Earlier this year I argued for a plan that would privatize the DIA, allowing for the City of Detroit to cash in on a measure of the collection’s worth to satisfy creditors and simultaneously protect the DIA’s artwork from being parceled out in bankruptcy proceedings. At the time, I had doubts about the practicability of the idea. I figured that even if such a path were to be pursued that the DIA would likely end up torn apart like a chew toy. Once the city’s creditors realize that they might be able to extract something of value from the DIA, they have all the incentive in the world to demand an exorbitant price for privatizing the DIA. Likewise the city officials would have a massive bargaining chip they could use to extract as much as possible from potential donors.
I still have doubts about the privatization plan’s practicability, but the prospects do seem a bit brighter now that Judge Gerald Rosen has determined that the City of Detroit is eligible to file for bankruptcy. This is because Judge Rosen is one of the leading advocates for a privatization plan. Rumors like this have been simmering in the media for weeks, but according to the Detroit Free Press, now “some of the city’s most powerful leaders are working furiously to fashion a grand bargain in which nonprofit foundations would put up $500 million to spin off the Detroit Institute of Arts from the city, and that money would be used to reduce pension cuts and help rebuild city services.” Apparently Judge Rosen is using his influence to encourage “some of the country’s largest charitable foundations and their smaller local cousins to pony up the money.”
Following up on last week’s proposal and discussion about the future of the Detroit Institute of Arts in the midst of the city of Detroit’s ongoing budgetary woes, arts commentator Terry Teachout penned a piece for the WSJ about the need for Detroit’s leaders to step up: “Protecting Detroit’s Artwork Is a Job for Detroit.”
Among other things, Teachout writes, “Any argument to keep Detroit’s masterpieces in Detroit has got to make sense to Detroiters who think that pensions are more important than paintings.” Teachout goes on to explore a couple such arguments, but the most salient point is that Detroiters themselves are the best ones to make such arguments.
Grand Rapids has been the focus of national attention over the last week or so, most recently for the services surrounding the passing of former First Lady Betty Ford. In the midst of loss and mourning, there’s some cause for levity. See, for instance, this local news story that is getting some coverage around the country, “Angry bird attacks during Ford services.”
I myself have been a victim of this red-winged menace! Some of you may have heard that one of the reasons that Acton University (our premier week-long program held in Grand Rapids) changed venues this year was to accommodate an increase in participants. But now the real reason can be made public: we had to change venues to avoid these angry birds!
In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.
Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.
In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.
There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”
One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”
Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.
New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”
These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”
I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full: