Occupy Reality: Detroit

To Domesticate, or not to Domesticate, a Feral City


This Week in Detroit: Fishing Plastic Tubs of Christmas Ornaments Out of Your Own Basement.

Fourteen feet of water covering the highway is only the most recent addition to the list of things that DO NOT make this city a tourist destination. (We don’t have a private “hip-trepreneur” tackling that for us yet.) So, people feel it’s appropriate to ask “How do you even live?” when they hear any mention of Detroit.

Life in this city can definitely get better. But the casual implication that Detroit is “blighted” and that there is something repulsive about that seems shockingly obtuse and misinformed to me.

I first realized Detroit had changed me when I visited family in Colorado. Everyone I met asked me about it. At first I was delighted since Detroit is one of my favorite topics of conversation. But every question implied that it’s a wasteland, and I found it surprisingly offensive to think there is anything wrong with Detroit as it is.

My own reaction to people’s fascination with the “decay of Detroit” is what catches me off-guard. An outsider’s alarm at the the condition of the city doesn’t seem like empathy. It seems more like disgust, as if it’s more repulsive than garbage, and more frightening than a natural disaster.

It’s really not about that here.

I feel identified with the ruin, and not in a victimized or hopeless way. I feel protective of it. I feel invested in its potential. And to me there is a beauty here that I have never seen anywhere else. It looks like the future to me, and I’m not alarmed by that.

Observers feel invested in what happens to this city because they recognize on some subconscious level that it represents something about the future of all humanity. Most of us were raised with the idea that an apocalypse of is coming. So, when people see photos of “ruin-porn” in news articles discussing the “unfortunate demise” of a thriving city, to them it is a post-apocalyptic landscape. And they are all watching to see what the world is like after an apocalypse.

Detroit means something to them about what the whole developed world could look like after we “run out.”

I realized after coming here that this image is something I’ve been taught about all my life. Some time in the past fifty years we all conceived of the possibility that we might be collectively driving off a cliff, and some day soon we might all reach the end of our resources and turn on each other until we wipe ourselves out. Maybe a few survivors continue to live on in a desert-like hell planet.

I think that outsiders see Detroit as the largest scale test run for that apocalypse.

But, I lost my fear of that future the first day I spent here. Something about this place snapped me out of that nightmarish expectation and assured me that everything really is going to be ok. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be in Detroit, and sometimes I think I’m just crazy here, but to me it feels both peaceful and exhilarating at the same time. Something really important is happening here.

When you spend time here you just know it. You begin to identify with the intrinsic value of empty structures brimming with potential. And that is precisely because they are un-owned, un-planned-for and undesirable to corporations and ambitious well-to-do people leveraging their resources for their own benefit. Maybe I feel this way because I came here from Austin, (currently being eaten by the rich) but somehow the idea of privately owning a building on the corner, or a lot, or a market, suddenly seems selfish and limiting.

Here in Detroit there is an idea blossoming about how even the untapped potential of an empty lot should be shared with the community around it.

When an urbex trailblazer explores an abandoned building or a feral house there is an appreciation of the beauty of the thing as it is. There is a recognition of the potential for it to become something new. And along with that there is just a little bit of dread at the idea of a private party claiming that place, closing it to the public, and incorporating it into their personal or corporate agenda.

Design contests for “renewing” this city scare me. It’s great that people care about it, and that it’s inspiring architects all over the world, but when I look at those designs I realize that the city, as it is, will need some protection from outsiders with a particular vision to “save” it. Pretty renderings of gleaming super sleek parks and sky-scrapers proposed to be new icons of Detroit’s resiliency honestly give me the creeps.

Nobody who lives here will be served by a new corporate glass and steel emblem of Detroit’s continuing participation in the march of civilization. Residents here want to make a decent living, but they aren’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to hitch their wagons to any more corporate stars or government programs. Resiliency in Detroit means going a different way, and part of that way is appreciating the legitimacy of the people who have stayed, the successful entrepreneurs returning, the buildings still left standing, and the increasing popular interest in the real Detroit.

Yes, a lot of it is standing vacant, a literal shell of what it was. Yes, there are whole sections of the city barely being used, and tens of thousands of rotted wooden houses that could never be saved, waiting to be torn down. But, some of the greatest architectural feats of the past century are dirty, dimly lit, almost forgotten, and in a state of limbo between the possibility of being renovated and the equally likely possibility of being torn down. Here are the best applications for the concepts of “up-cycling,” “found object art,” “maker culture,” and grass-roots “middle urban” revival. If you evaluate the city in terms of land resources potentially available for free use by communities, and discarded items that can be re-purposed in sustainable ways, then Detroit’s value far surpasses other cities.

One of the biggest resources is the community itself. The Detroit Mower Gang is just one example of reverse-vandalism, where groups of private citizens spontaneously take responsibility for the up-keep of public property. There is an idea that entrepreneurship itself can be an honorable service to the public. It’s revolutionary in this time, even though it’s what this country was built on.

This new type of culture gaining a foothold in Detroit and other “shrinking” cities will become more and more integral to prosperity on a global scale. What could be more “sustainable” than utilizing a structure built to last forever, often covered with intricate stone facades celebrating the permanence of industry, and re-purposing it instead of tearing it down? A renovated historical site represents so much more than conservation to the community who shares it.

It’s difficult to quantify what it is about Detroit that makes me resentful about the prospects of shiny new buildings popping up in the place of the old burnt out ones. (Maybe it’s something in the water.) I would love to see some polish put on these “feral” buildings, but not too much polish! What makes me excited about this city is seeing an old factory turned into a used book store, a ruined theater bidding to host the X Games, and a tower in downtown with “PURGE” painted in gigantic letters down the side, because “purge” is what everybody should be doing!

When I see “reduce, re-use, re-cycle” printed in green on expensive specialty store bags I have to wonder why do the same demographic of people seem so horrified by the rapid progression of that industrial shrinkage here?

Yes, it’s hard. It’s really hard to give up luxuries and modern conveniences. And it’s even harder to have them taken from you. There is suffering, but the people who have stayed in Detroit have opportunities (difficult but legitimate opportunities) to basically pioneer a new American lifestyle that only the “doomsday preppers” have given any serious thought to in the past.

And it doesn’t look like doomsday. I mean, it does kind of look like it, but it feels like the bare edge of innovation. These impoverished neighborhoods might naturally innovate a “bypass” around that apocalyptic future. It might not look like hover cars and space needles, but maybe it’s better.

In Detroit “pretty” is not a synonym for “beautiful.”

Detroit insiders don’t see urban revival as bull-dozing the old city and building a shiny new one on top of it like nothing ever happened. People here don’t need developers coming in with home-owner’s associations to police prettiness of neighborhoods, tear down old things and define property boundaries.

In Detroit “re-purpose” is far better than “re-new.”

Cultural phenomena like guerrilla gardening, the Heidelberg Project, and urbex are showing that a beautiful future for Detroit might be much closer, more sustainable, less expensive, and less wasteful than anyone predicted.

An article I read once explained how third world countries get advanced mobile phone networks without ever going through the development phase of telephone poles and wires. It happens because they don’t have all the old infra-structure that they are invested in maintaining. They installed the wireless networks when the technology was already well-developed.

Detroit represents a fascinating new version of this scenario. The old structures are there, but functionally obsolete, completely open to whatever new use they can be put to. And I can’t help thinking that a couple decades from now (maybe sooner) it’ll have vast tracts of self-sustaining closed-system rural-urban communities that are rooted, functional, and prosperous. They’ll be living sustainably with “guerrilla gardening” techniques, food swaps, and efficient solutions for resource problems. They’ll be living this lifestyle while other modern cities grapple with the expense of demolishing obsolete infra-structure. Those other cities must endure the grueling political and social rigamarole of forcing a privileged majority of people to accept workable levels of resource-consumption and the lifestyle changes it will eventually require.

Buying land resources and managing programs to create self-sustaining communities is much more complicated than simply allowing locals to produce food products to sustain themselves on lots that would otherwise do nothing but cost tax-payer money to maintain.

And this is where we get to the things that do need to be demolished and replaced in Detroit. Most of that comes in the form of old ideas and legal/policy limitations. Detroit needs policy-makers with the vision to change restrictions on urban farming, and to redefine how public property can be used. It needs decision makers who can imagine things like licensing contractors to clear feral properties using goats, or subsidizing more public services like the Detroit Bus Company. It needs officials who don’t spend their resources taking issue with Wayne State students for custom building wooden “book” benches for bare bus stops. It needs companies like Quicken Loans who invest in Detroit because it’s Detroit, and not in spite of it.

Maybe the tax base here has shrunk so small that the government has gone bankrupt, but maybe Detroit doesn’t need much government. Civilization is based on humans providing services for each other, producing food, and putting resources to use to improve the quality of life for everyone. If the people of Detroit can make the conceptual leap to affirm and protect their “right to farm,” their right to “make,” their right to “art,” to self-validate and legitimize their ingenuity, to protect their own new customs for dealing with a unique landscape, limited resources, and unusual circumstances they could achieve an unprecedented level of local urban sovereignty.

In a way, they’ve been abandoned and isolated like an island eco-system, and they’ve evolved maybe beyond the rest of the US, and the recognition is just not there yet because the New Detroit is still in its infancy.

But sooner or later, when state governments are struggling with resource management and Detroit is producing heirloom apples and artisan cheeses, it will be reassuring instead of alarming to outsiders. When shipping companies are wondering where to turn as gas prices sky-rocket, Detroit could be exporting locally farmed algae-diesel. And when other cities are trying to retro-fit abandoned industrial areas into food production, those cities will be wait-listed to work with “Green Engineers” who grew up poor in Detroit and received free educations from crowd-funded vocational schools and community programs like the Greening of Detroit.

Who is going to miss the shiny skyscraper with the big logo on it then?

Not me.

Tyree Guyton’s Clocks
The Heidelberg Project

See for yourself, here: Detroit is a Phoenix

Also, if you liked the ideas you’ve read here, please hit the green “recommend” button below, so that others might stumble upon this essay.

(In popular culture a concept does not exist in the minds of the majority of people if there are no words to discuss it. Find words, make words, research words, and share them. English is a bastard language and that is its super power. Let’s use it: #ReclaimDetroit #SitOnItDetroit #FoodSovereignty #GreenPunk #DetroitMowerGang #ReverseVandalism #GreeningOfDetroit #UrbainFarmaissance #DetroitUrbex #DepictTheD #DetroitInsider #OnlyInTheD #IGersDetroit #BackToNature #DetroitIsBeautiful #GarbageBeauty DetroitAsF#ck #UrbanExploring #Holonomics #Karmanomics #GreenGraffiti #ActSustainably #AutopsyOfAmerica #TrailBlazers_Urbex #PreciousJunk #EnnobleTheOrdinary #DetroitHustlesHarder #iHeart313 #MotorCityShooters #UrbexWorld #FeralHouse #Grime_Lords #TypographyInTheWild #Abandonment_Issues #Glitz_N_Grime #OccupyReality )

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Logynn Hailley’s story.