Detroit, community resilience, and the American dream
Cross-posted from Shareable Magazine.
When I told my friends and family I would be traveling to Detroit to write about community resilience, I got the same reaction from everyone: Silence. Then, slowly, as if not to offend me, people would look at me very seriously and say things like, “Be very careful — you never hear anything good about Detroit. Remember, you’re a woman, you have more to lose from an attack than just your wallet.” Frequently the conversation would move to the murder rate, or economic devastation, and a reminder that “desperate times make people do crazy things.” My surprise at this reaction was compounded by the fact that those words weren’t just coming from my parents, they were coming from born and bred city folks who know that the greatest cities always get a bad rap from people who have never been there.
Photo: Andrew Langdal
This all made me more determined to go see the city for myself. I had a sneaking suspicion that Detroit was just like my beloved New York City: gritty, homey, and real in all the right places, with a community spirit missed by those just passing through.
But the warnings about potential physical harm did get to me. Despite being a New York kid who has little fear of traveling alone, I have an embarrassing confession to make: I bought pepper spray, knowing that if anything dangerous really did happen, I would probably clumsily spray myself in the face. It was more about silencing the voices of concerned family and friends than it was about actual protection.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got off the plane and left the airport. Would I walk out to a city that looked like a war zone?
The moment I got into a cab I knew everything was going to be fine. As in every great city, in Detroit, you can learn everything you want to know from a cabbie. My driver, who moved to Detroit from Yemen some 10 years ago, told me that while the city can be a dangerous place full of racial tensions, it has become home because of the friends he’s met here and the community that has welcomed him.
After a few minutes of highway driving, we arrived at the Inn on Ferry Street, a collection of well-preserved Victorian houses. The entire block was a magical collection of buildings that took me back to a time in which industrial barons would build 17-bedroom homes just because they could.
While fidgeting with my key, I met a woman named Rachel Lutz. She asked me what I was doing in town. I said, with some apprehension, “Writing about community resilience.”
She responded, “Well, you’ll have to meet all of my friends.” Within 15 minutes, I had the numbers of young entrepreneurs and people starting their own nonprofits, as well as established nonprofit and foundation types. When I said I was overwhelmed by her kindness, Lutz explained her perspective.
“It’s my pleasure,” she told me. “So many people come here for ‘devastation porn.’ They come here to look at the abandoned buildings and devastation, but there’s something even greater here that people should be paying attention to. Right now, Detroit, and particularly this neighborhood, Midtown, is where the rebirth is being fostered by 20-somethings who are quitting their jobs, cashing in their savings or pulling together a little capital, and going for their dreams. This is one of the few places left where if you are willing to put up a little capital, you can make your dream, whatever it is, come true. We live in the biggest small town you’ll ever experience and everyone’s ready to pick up a shovel and work with you to build the future.”
For the record, I threw out my pepper spray the very next day.
So, what does this have to do with community resilience? Let me tell you.
Detroit, in a lot of ways, parallels the track we are on as a nation. After an industrial boom in the late 19th century, Detroit became a hub of commerce and a place where people could come to find opportunity. At the beginning of the 20th century, Detroit became synonymous with the automobile industry. City planning began to revolve around car dependency. Suburbanization and sprawl became a way of life.
Suburban isolation and dependence on industry are legacies we don’t always like to talk about in this country, but as the economy collapses, they become hard to ignore. Unresolved racial tensions and the abandonment of cities are facts of life here in the states. Let’s be clear, Detroit is not alone in this. It may be more pronounced here, but if we stay on the current track of trying to house ourselves in single-family homes, consuming without regard for practicality or sustainability, and looking to a single source for our well being — in our case straight-up consumer-driven capitalism — there is no need to look into a crystal ball. The snapshot of our future is staring us in the face in the stereotypical shots of Detroit.
But I believe Detroit also holds the key to the future. We must evolve to a more sustainable way of living if we are to survive, and I think we all innately sense it. We know that two-income-dependent housing prices, with unemployment and underemployment hovering near the double digits, do not add up. We know that a growing world population is not going to be able to support an American citizenry that consumes three times as many resources as the rest of the world. Within our lifetimes, many of us will have to find new ways to get our needs met, and pioneer a new meaning of what “the good life” really is.
Those who have stayed in and moved to Detroit are pioneers. It’s like what happens to a forest after a great fire. At first glance, it looks like everything is dead. But, if you look closer you’ll find that the soil is fertile and ready for planting.
During my time there, I met with people in their 20s and 30s who have bought storefronts, started art collectives, and founded their own nonprofits. They are living the dream.
From the delicious crepe shop Good Girls Go To Paris to Rachel’s Place, a vintage store owned that takes up an entire house in Corktown, the whole city is filled with local, organic things to eat, see, and enjoy. And the best part is that everyone is really into supporting these businesses. The local pride made everything taste better, worth the price, and left me with a joy that box stores like H&M or Barnes and Noble never do.
Every business owner I talked to echoed the sentiment that there is nowhere they could have fulfilled their dream of owning a business as successfully as they have in Detroit.
One of my favorite finds was the Spiral Collective, where co-owners Janet Jones, Dell Pryor, and
Sharon Pryor (Dell’s daughter) run a gift shop, a book store, and an art gallery. It’s a comfortable, warm, and beautiful space. I popped in to get out of the rain and was immediately greeted and embraced by these sweet ladies.
They spoke with me about their experiences as women business owners and artists in Detroit. I felt like I got a wonderful dose of history, culture, and mentoring every time I went in. It oddly felt like home.
Projects that are changing Detroit
Giving young people a voice in defining their city: Later in the week, I met with Mike Han — co-publisher of I Am Young Detroit, a blog that works to dispel the myths about Detroit and to highlight the cool, progressive, creative work being done by the under-40 set in the city.
Mike is a young entrepreneur himself. His blog streetculturemash documents a more sustainable and creative lifestyle. SCM is also a “lifetyle brand” that offers everything from organic apparel to furniture to fixed gear bikes. Mike and I spoke about what a great city Detroit is for young folks, artists, and creative types, and why the spirit of helping each other thrives there. “Basically, people are excited if you’re excited in Detroit,” said Mike. “If you want to do something good, people are like, ‘I can help with that,’ or ‘Do you know so and so?’ Because we’re like a small town, people are well-connected and willing to use those connections to help you pursue your dream.”
We also talked about local city government. The city has a history of political corruption, and there are very real suburban vs. urban issues which have their roots in racial tensions. Eight Mile Road continues to be the physical barrier between the largely African American city and mostly white suburbs. White flight and the well-documented discrimination that kept blacks from moving into the suburbs has lead to resentment on both sides with regards to planned revitalization of the city.
On the one hand, the city and the suburbs need each other. The city needs the ideas, people power, and investment of industries that moved their operations to the suburbs. On the other hand, it makes sense that some Detroit residents find it insulting that suburban people who have chosen to abandon the city, send their kids to private schools, and live in communities protected by police forces, would want have a hand in deciding what the future of the city should be.
There is also a palpable fear in Detroit that once revitalization does happen, gentrification will follow, and that those who rebuilt the city will have to leave once white, upper-class people deem it a posh place to live. As someone who has worked in community development, I hesitated to share this story because I worry that Detroit will become synonymous with places like San Francisco or Williamsburg — places in which “redevelopment” and “revitalization” really means pushing out low- to moderate-income people and people of color.
But my hope is that there are enough citizens within Detroit who will fight, with the same fervor they have fought for years, to keep the city theirs. The city’s mayor, Dave Bing, with his Detroit Works Project, has invited citizens to actively be involved in the city’s re-envisioning process (Bing, naturally, has both supporters and detractors). Almost 1,000 people turned out for the first public meeting to discuss strategies from the consolidation of neighborhoods to the possibility of more public transportation in this historically car driven city. As Mike said: “We may have a shortage of some things, but one thing there isn’t a shortage of is passion for this city”.
Putting community development in the hands of the community: Later that night, some new friends invited me to Soup at Spaulding in North Corktown, a creative funding initiative started by local community members. The community meets every Thursday to eat a simple and delicious meal of soup (made from ingredients from the community garden Spirit Farm and donations from Avalon Bakery), buy local produce, and learn about two community projects that need funding. The $5 admission covers the cost of your meal and goes to whichever project the group votes on. The projects then go up on KickStarter to get more funding.
That night, a woman named Danielle “Doxie” Kaltz, who started the Detroit chapter of a service arm of Burning Man called Burners Without Borders, presented about a project she created after seeing homeless folks living under bridges. She has been packing backpacks full of blankets, toiletries, food, and anything else people might need, and driving around and giving them out to those experiencing homelessness. She won the pot that night.
Building healthier, more connected community, one seed at a time: On one of my last days in the city, I met Mark Covington, founder of the Georgia Street community collective. After getting laid off from his job as an environmental engineer and moving back into his family’s home, Mark noticed that people were dumping in the empty lots across from his house. “I knew no one else was going to clean those lots, so I decided I would,” he said with a shrug, as if it were simply the logical thing to do. After the lots got dumped on again, he decided to plant a garden to prevent re-dumping. Not only did it work, but community members began to come out of their houses to see what he was up to. Neighborhood kids began to help with the planting and become interested in gardening, and people, who sensed a connectedness with Mark, began to share their difficulties with affording food while paying for heating and electricity. This spurred Mark to grow more food and involve the community. In time he developed an outdoor movie night, a “read to your kids” night, and community celebration nights.
He bought the building next to his grandmother’s house for next to nothing and he and his brother are doing all the renovations. They hope to have a space for more community dinners and celebrations, a computer lab for the kids, a clothing and food donation drop-off space, and an emergency fund for community members experiencing tough times. The collective now consists of five lots on Georgia Street, including a fruit orchard. Talk about community resilience. Detroit is the embodiment of the DIY movement.
Giving students a chance to design the future: Many institutions in town, like the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and Wayne State University, as well as both community and global foundations, are taking notice and picking up a shovel as well. University and foundation partnerships are funding business incubators, light rail development projects, and grants that allow entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, tech industry folks, and artists to live in the city while connecting them to communities in need. CCS has even sent its students out into Detroit to think creatively about how art and design can foster community development.
One project in particular, CCS student Veronika Scott’s “Element Survival Coat,” has garnered national attention. After spending time in homeless shelters, Veronika designed a stylish coat lined with house insulation. It’s waterproof and self-hea
ted, and it can be turned into a sleeping bag at night. It can be sewn by someone with no prior experience and will hopefully be given at no cost to those who need it. The idea is to empower those experiencing homelessness by employing them to sew the coats and providing them with free housing and meals in addition to a paid job.
“I really think it’s a blessing that we’ve been deconstructed,” said Mike Han. “We just have to build it right this time. If we do, we can show the world how to live in a sustainable way, with a city that can move quickly to adapt to whatever changes comes its way.”
So, here’s my final confession: I want to move to Detroit. Having lived in New York City, D.C, Boston, and now San Francisco, I’m used to comfortable city life that caters to the young. But never have I experienced a place so filled with talent, energy, passion, and determination to make the city — and the world — a better place. If you are looking for a place to develop your dream, whatever it may be, consider trying to do so in Detroit, in the place I am now dubbing the birthplace of our collective new American destiny. See you there.