Voices: Pushing Back Against the Post-Apocalypse in Detroit

Grasslands in deepest Detroit are pushing back against emptiness.

Marianne, my landlady in homestead New Detroit, cuddled one of her ducks in the bucolic backyard of her huge old house. She was excited. She had seen a red fox in the moonlight shortly after midnight as she rode home on her bicycle from her job as a bartender a mile away. It
was a fleeting and thrilling glimpse of some new life she had heard about, but never had confirmed. She pondered the possibilities and wondered if she’d found further proof that America’s urban blight was being reborn as something ­­­­­­better. “There are more pheasants here
than people,” said Marianne, who was wearing an Earth Mother sun dress and waving a sprinkling can. “Three to one, pheasants to people. And I saw this fox.”

This is deepest Detroit, a city where grasslands have overtaken the spaces where tens of thousands of decrepit homes were burned down or demolished during the city’s long descent into hell. It is a place where patchwork communities are increasing at a rate that is strikingly visible on the landscape of a city filled with emptiness and abandonment. It is a place that, after coming through the biggest bankruptcy in American history, is booming in a way unique to this
particular point of the post-Cold War era. Commercial construction is up, the arts scene is exploding, and what’s left of the housing stock is being snapped up by bankers and proto-beatniks alike. It heralds many things, maybe or maybe not the least of which is The Return of the White People.

"The shrunken heart of the American automobile industry has become the heartland of a new communal economy in which people can live cheaply if they are willing to barter, scavenge, rebuild."

Whether that is a good thing or bad is the subject of sharply divided opinions. There are indeed fox and pheasant and even coyotes in the overgrown urban prairies of downtown Detroit. The air of this post-industrial wasteland sometimes smells like farm country. Soil is being tilled. Crops are being sown. On certain quiet evenings in the summertime, you can even hear a Homburg-wearing hipster braying in the distance.

Image via Mike Boening/Flickr

Detroit was my latest, and perhaps last, stop on a year-long road trip across the United States, trying not just to understand the new society burbling on the fringes of the Twenty-Teen decade, but my fitful place in it. This stirring, sort-of reanimated husk of a Midwest metropolis is just one of the grass-roots reclamation projects of the most forgotten places in America, from the swamplands of Mississippi to the streets of Compton to the cow towns of Wyoming to, finally, this left-for-dead city, where I once grew up. Detroit is my final destination of a trip that began in June of 2014, when my relationship with a Key West cabaret singer prompted her to finally kick me out, to right now, a 6,000-mile expedition. When the world falls apart, sometimes it’s best to just hit the road running and, maybe, never stop.

I grew up here, went to college here, worked on the Dodge Truck plant at Eight Mile and Mound Roads between and often during schools here. I never thought I would find what I found when I finally came back here.

The shrunken heart of the American automobile industry has become the heartland of a new communal economy in which people can live cheaply if they are willing to barter, scavenge, rebuild and make copious deposits in a cosmic favor bank of limitless returns.

It is a place of almost gentle anarchy and oblivious socialist sensibilities, where traffic laws are blithely ignored and creativity has become the chief currency. There is something of a throwback to the spirit of the Pioneer days of Westward expansion, only the homesteading here is breathing a different kind of life back into left-for-dead communities across America.

Earlier this year, I moved onto a block of four abandoned old homes on the city’s near West Side, what is commonly called the New Center area. The plumbing was shot, the utilities barely functioned, city services were close to nonexistent. But I had rarely been happier. My neighbors were people who stayed to defend their homes and newcomers, the latter looking for their big break in art or commerce and others seeking a second or third or last chance at a good life.

In July, I was on one of my usual walks to shop at the heavily fortified island of retail commerce, a liquor store/check-cashing/bodega complex almost across the street from where Berry Gordon founded Motown, and where now tour buses filled with well-heeled Europeans and Asians stop to shoot selfies. I was close to home, walking New York-style fast over an expanse of urban prairie, when I saw the beckoning call of a streetwalker, a teen-aged girl, just a goddam kid. Within 500 feet of home, with my cold Budand cold Doctor Pepper and Italian submarine sandwich, a Neuvo Cadillac whipped past and headed toward the girl who was a couple of blocks away, while still in view. He drove up on the sidewalk hard byprairie land, got out and began berating and beating the girl.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Leave her alone.”

He took umbrage the way only an unregulated pimp would, got in his car and drove at me while I quick-stepped my way back home.

“What did you say?”

“I said, 'Leave that girl alone,' ” I said.

He got out and I took the initiative, jumping high to fling a punch from above that ultimately missed. He took my quarter of Bud and beat my head to the ground. I staggered home, bemoaning my lost submarine, and struggled with memory and cognizant observation for days. I write about this shit on Facebook by the day, and have no regrets.

Image via Geoff Llerena/Flickr