If you are not familiar with Detroit, and you drive around on a little tour, this is what might, initially, impress you:
The beautiful brick homes – gorgeous homes! Expansive, distinguished, embellished with elaborate woodwork and fanciful touches of stained glass and shingling – now abandoned. They are encroached upon by vines, missing bricks, and their windows are smashed in like teeth punched out of a face.
Learning that you are still well and truly within city limits though you find yourself in a vast field where slender birch have taken hold, the undergrowth thickens quietly, and that feeling of secret richness, distinctive of real woodland, prevails.
Long city blocks void of people; the lone trombone player with a hat out though no one is walking by; the small group gathered in an empty lot around a barrel flickering with fire.
Boarded up schools.
Boarded up churches.
Boarded up skyscrapers. And not just one or two, but long rows of them – petrified husks, drained of life. Though lower sections might be shut with plywood, on dozens of floors above the windows are rigidly open and you see straight through to the other side because there’s nothing to block the way. At night these looming towers are black holes blacker than the night sky.
You might be impressed to learn there’s not a single chain grocery store in this city of 800 thousand. And, indeed, that there are only 800 thousand in a city built to accommodate at least two million. Some people in positions of power propose shutting down parts of city in order to condense the population more efficiently. What that would mean: whole neighborhoods cordoned off and inside, no services. No electricity, no plumbing, no transportation, no police.
But it is one of the options being considered to help revive this city, which has achieved a sort of dubious fame for its catastrophic urban decay. You don’t have to be an artist dreaming of loft space to feel the electricity of “potential” humming through all those unused acres and that unmaintained real estate. Detroit seems poised for development. But the question is how – and implicit in the how is, for whom?
In November I visited a dear friend of mine in Detroit. Diana is the executive director of Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which works on issues of environmental justice and symbiotic community and environmental health. I met some of her friends; I learned about other groups and people she works with. They are a network of Detroit-based organizations, artists, activists, and residents devoted to grassroots development which, as I understood from her explanation, means development that is based in a community such that those already there are empowered by the process, rather than marginalized.
On a frigid afternoon under low clouds as mineral-tinged as soggy ceiling tiles we crisscrossed Detroit’s wide span and she showed me what she means.
A good example: D-town Farms. This four-acre organic farm was started by a prominent community figure and as an initiative of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. It produces enough fresh vegetables for the volunteers that currently maintain it, for selling at farmer’s markets, and to supply a small grocery store that was started by some local residents. D-Town Farms’ growth plan is to use an injection of grant money to hire some key staff so that the farm can produce more vegetables, provide more opportunities for education and extracurricular activities, and create more jobs. These would be not just farm jobs, but also jobs to fulfill created needs for produce transportation, commerce, education, and maintenance of the organization. Grassroots development means taking the seeds of positive potential inherent in any existing situation and nurturing them such that they bloom and spawn more seeds.
It’s an approach to development true to what my friend describes as Detroit’s character – a character born of its history in the last century. In very broad strokes: the booming auto industry mid 1900s made jobs available to African Americans and many moved up from the segregated south and settled in Michigan. A large class of affluent African Americans evolved. In the late 60s, political and social tension – usually described, then and now, along racial lines – resulted in almost all White-owned businesses shutting their doors and moving their operations outside Detroit’s boundaries. This massive evacuation of people and economy led to the situation as we see it now: a primarily Black city impoverished of services and jobs bordered by wealthy suburbs choked with the very sorts of megastores that refuse to establish within city limits.
Decades of survival in difficult conditions, of making do and making it work, have forged a certain gritty resourcefulness that defines Detroit attitude. Detroit residents are proud to be so. They’re tough, they’re realistic, they make what they need with the materials at hand. Urban farming on empty city land is no boutique movement, here. It is a practical response to the fact that for many Detroit residents gas stations are the only grocery option and they have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Diana showed me other community gardens – no fences, managed cooperatively by the families that harvest from them. They were all in neighborhoods that looked far from affluent. And she showed me another entrepreneurial response to the same problem – a resident had become a farmer and uses his yard to supply a whole CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) sector.
Bold resourcefulness defines Detroit aesthetics too. We drove through the Heidelberg Project, which is one artists’ transformation of a block of decayed homes where truly terrible things were happening into a vast and wildly colorful art project. We perused a store where local artists and craftsmen sell their work. Cleverly – and often funnily – re-purposed material was the prevalent theme: old clothes made into hipster purses, scrap metal bent into boxes, thrown-away books fashioned into new, different books. My favorite piece was affixed to the wall of a near-by restaurant – a fountain made of salvaged sinks and tubs. And some days after returning from my trip I heard interviewed the radio another Detroit artist – a 21-year-old fashion designer – whose work seems to embody this Detroit character. She’s come up with a coat that is on the one hand supposed to keep Detroit’s homeless people better protected from the weather and on the other to make jobs for those very same homeless, as they are the ones who will be manufacturing it.
Ideal development in Detroit, Diana explains, does not preclude new people coming in. Indeed more money, more people, more businesses and more creative power can only be good. But what this coalition of Detroit residents wants is that development nurture the people and the culture that’s planted here already. They want people hired locally. They want to see more revival and restoration than clear-away and bring-in-new. They want to see the stuff and soul of Detroit, the material born of its past, used with respect and creativity in the fashioning of a future that’s beautiful, useful, re-newed.
The last thing Diana showed me was Central Michigan Train Station – built 1913, nonoperational since 1988. Ruins of remarkable beauty, it looked like dark lace pressed against the white sky. The grime on the stone façade only made the elaborate carving stand out in sharper relief. On the very top someone had graffitied “SAVE THE DEPOT” but at first I read “Save the People.”
Some one had done some landscaping out in front – long red boxes with grass in them. They didn’t look bad, just neutral – like something you’d expect embellishing an upscale strip mall. “Guess how much those cost,” Diana says. It was an out-of-town developer, she warns me. I guess, and I am off by a long shot. “Forty thousand,” she corrects me. Yes, forty grand. And the developer didn’t use a local landscaper, or local material, or local labor. Not even the grass is native.
Note: The photos in this post are from three photographers, and I found them on line. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are from France and came to Detroit to see and record the spectacular ruins. They were tourists, as was I, with my outsider’s perspective. Kevin Bauman is a Detroit resident and his series, http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/, has been lauded for its sensitivity and gentleness.
I welcome photographs of Detroit, for publication here. I am interested in both the views of visitors and of residents – and in putting them side by side. It is the philosophy of this site that all perspectives tell A truth, which is primarily interesting in juxtaposition with other truths.