“There are 78,000 abandoned buildings in this city standing in various levels of decay,” the article begins. “Services have fallen into dysfunction, and debts are piling ever higher. Yet for all the misery, Detroit’s bankruptcy gives an American city a rare chance to reshape itself from top to bottom.” “From top to bottom.” It’s only a phrase, I know, but what if the reporter had written of rebuilding Detroit from bottom to top? Consider the difference in our images of what is happening in that distressed city. In one we picture planners, experts, outsiders, people with the answers imposing their solutions from above. In the other, we start with the struggling communities and impoverished people seeking to nurture whatever will help them survive. We need both approaches, to be sure. Detroit cannot heal all the wounds inflicted by 50 years of disintegration and misrule without a lot of help, but how you describe the problem determines, at least in part, how you define the solutions.
Half a world a way, in the remote villages of Dertu, Kenya, and Ruhiira, Uganda, Nina Munk reports on Jeffrey Sachs’ quest to eradicate poverty from Africa. Yet “with almost every intervention,” writes Joe Nocera, “she documents the chasm that exists between the villagers and those running the project.”
For whom are we building villages and rebuilding cities if not for the people who live in them? Words matter. You do not build a community from top to bottom. You build from the ground up.