Dickson: On Mack and Bewick, a Detroit councilwoman tries to save her city
The men hanging out on the corner held out as long as they could, taking nips from their brown-bagged beverages and buying and selling loose cigarettes, until the people with bullhorns started walking in their direction. Then it was time to go.
Their time as kings of the corner would come again, but for two hours, between 7 and 9 p.m. on Friday, the corner of Mack and Bewick, one of Detroit's most notorious intersections, was occupied by District 5 City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, her staff and volunteers from local service organizations.
"We're fired up!" a man with a bullhorn started the chant.
"We're fed up!" a woman with a bullhorn continued it.
They came on a mission of mercy. Their goal was to connect Detroiters in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods with resources that could help them find job leads, get the proper ID, keep their utilities on, keep or get a roof over their head, expunge felonies from their record and even connect them to substance abuse treatment.
Mack and Bewick shouldn't be a corner worth occupying at this point. Its problems were declared solved more than a decade ago by then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who in December 2003 painted over a beer and wine sign at the Mack & Bewick Market.
One almost imagines a "Mission Accomplished" banner behind Kilpatrick as he spoke to the media that day: "What we're doing here today will ... forever eradicate the proliferation of alcohol and alcoholism" in the city, Kilpatrick said.
Twelve years later, neither the city, nor the corner, nor the store that sits on it reflect the brashness of that man or those times.
Mack & Bewick Market is still selling beer, still selling wine, still selling hard liquor and cigarettes — all from the other side of bulletproof glass — and still has a billboard for Avion tequila on site. The market is a hub that pulls the neighborhood in, for better or worse.
"Mack and Bewick is the east side equivalent of Dexter and Davison," Detroit political insider Karen Dumas wrote in a 2006 essay for the Michigan Chronicle. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, had held a campaign event there.
Dumas left unimpressed with the city politicians who wouldn't have been there without Stabenow's invite, and added that Mack and Bewick "represents all of the mix represented by this city. It's the struggle, and the success, the efforts and failures all housed on one corner. It is the pulse not measured by polls and telephone surveys. It's where you find the people that sometimes feel forgotten, but who need to be heard the most."
Solving Detroit's problems is going to take more than a can of paint. Everyone understands that today. At the start of the second Occupy The Corner event of the summer, on an east side corner Sheffield said was "known for drugs and addiction," the councilwoman predicted that "someone would be touched" by that night's work.
Sheffield's staff had prepared some 250 information packets, stuffed into dark blue folders. After an extended prayer circle to start the night, the herd split in two. The bigger group would walk the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and talking to anyone who would listen. The smaller group would stay on site and intercept drivers moving slow enough to grab one of the folders. By the end of the night, the folders were gone.
There was a light police presence, one black uniform officer and one white plainclothes officer, just enough to deter anyone with different ideas on who should be occupying the corner, but not so much as to make people avoid the party store entirely.
There will come a point, five years from now, when Gloria McCastle, a counselor at the Detroit Recovery Project, will be sober as long as the 19 years she spent as an addict.
"Recovery has a lot of bumps," McCastle admits, but her mission is to help people walk that bumpy road. For McCastle, this is about offering others what she was once offered: the chance to be free, not burdened or governed by addiction.
One older woman, after hearing about the treatment-on-demand offered by the Detroit Recovery Project, took McCastle up on her offer, perhaps intrigued by the immediate nature of the help. McCastle had been handing out refrigerator magnets, but also had the power to do more than leave behind a number to call. She could connect the woman to help immediately, and did.
Friday's Occupy The Corner event was the second of the season. The first, held last Friday at Linwood and Pingree on the west side, was touted by Sheffield as "highly successful." Some 300 people showed up, including Mayor Mike Duggan.
Tragedy struck the very next day when 12 people were shot, one fatally, during a community event at Dexter and Webb. Three people were also shot in two separate incidents in Greektown that weekend, part of the 7.2 square miles of greater downtown that are thought to be the safe part of Detroit. Twenty-four people were shot altogether.
June, according to the Detroit City Council resolution championed by Sheffield, is Gun Violence Awareness Month.
It would be a mistake to judge Occupy The Corner, or the Detroit Recovery Project, by whether it can singlehandedly save a troubled city. No one effort could, no more than a can of paint could in 2003, in a city whose problems range from public health, to disinvestment, to historically bad K-12 education, to widespread poverty, to broken family structures and unsafe streets. It will take an ecosystem of resources and an army of people who know enough and care enough to help Detroiters navigate them. Every dark blue folder helps.
What happens next in this city of 700,000 — heck, what happens at Mack and Bewick after the city councilwoman, the police cars and the people with the bullhorns leave — no one can predict. That things won't change overnight is the safest guess.
But on this Friday night, one person learned that she had options other than being trapped inside a bottle, and chose to explore them. This was a successful occupation.
James David Dickson is op-ed editor of The Detroit News.