Photo of Grace Lee Boggs, by Kyle McDonald

Photo of Grace Lee Boggs, by Kyle McDonald

Strong Towns was my gateway drug to the world of podcasting, and I have since discovered some choice favorites. One is Krista Tippett’s On Being, which Gracen Johnson quoted from a few months ago. In this award-winning show, the host interviews spiritual leaders, scientists, authors, and other thinkers, all speaking on topics related to the big questions of life: Who are we? What is our purpose here?

I recently listened to a show featuring the late philosopher and civil rights activist, Grace Lee Boggs, (she passed away in October) who spoke about her hometown of Detroit, and its resilience and evolution in spite of enormous challenges:

[When] I came here in '53, there were two million Detroiters, the place was just booming. My husband's plant, Chrysler, employed 17,000 workers. And after that, because of the technology introduced during the World War, the plant was automated and began employing 2,000 workers and instead of booming, the neighborhood began being pockmarked with vacant lots.

And what happened was that the African-American elders who had been raised in the South looked at those lots and they saw not light, but promise. They saw an opportunity to grow food for themselves as a community, and they also saw an opportunity to help young people think of change and development in a more — in a slower way rather than in terms of a quick fix. So out of the negative came this enormous positive of the urban agricultural movement and that's what you see in Detroit every day. You can see the possibility of giving up, of moving forward, making a little leap.

Another quote midway through the interview really stood out to me. When asked about the “pain and loss” that so many Detroit residents have experienced even as they find ways to evolve and grow, Ms. Boggs responded:

Well, is it a terrible loss not to be able to buy a big car, or is it an opportunity to regain our legs? […] You look at the "Motor City" and how the auto industry has depopulated the city, has made us dependent upon cars, has done so much to remove people from the streets and to the decline of neighborhoods so that people very often will drive into their garage adjoining their kitchen without even waving to the neighbors, and how we have to restore the “neighbor” to the ‘hood. That a lot of the decline of neighborhoods and of community is due to the auto industry. 

So much of what we hear about Detroit comes from outsiders (and I admit to being one of them) who just point to it as a poster child of decline and failure, and eat up the abandoned building photos like they’re candy. But here, on this podcast, is someone speaking profoundly wise words about the city of Detroit, and she actually lives there and has been an activist there for many decades.

If you want a real perspective on the city, its people, and its efforts to evolve, I highly recommend this episode of On Being.

(Top photo from the Knight Foundation)