The state of Detroit
I have always been perplexed by places that people seem to despise. In fact, if someone ever tells me that I shouldn’t go somewhere, I always seem to find my way there sooner or later. Driven both by curiosity and intrigue, I seek answers. I want to get to the bottom of things and learn about the true source of problems that any place might have. Recently, I got an opportunity to visit one of those places: Detroit.
Detroit has, for some time, been of interest to me. Detroit is a complex and unique situation because you have to look at the city from multiple angles. As you will recall, Detroit was, for many years, the center for automobile production in the world. Gradually, as automobile production was outsourced and dispersed to smaller parts dealers, Detroit slowly fell into the economic slump that it remains in to this day. The poor economy gradually became the root of problems ranging from crime, to diminished education, and racial tensions.
Upon arriving in Detroit, I had a clear-cut set of goals in mind, definitely more so than usual. I specifically wanted to learn about the state of Detroit’s economy, but more on a local and personal level. I wanted not only to see it, but to touch it and feel it in a tangible sense. I chose to stay with a group of people of whom I knew I would be different than. The people who I stayed with were predominately from the Occupy Detroit movement , ranging from functional anarchists and atheists to sustainable livers and people working towards a sustainable future. They were part of an inner-city project to revive a street and teach people who it is possible to rebuild a community and live a sustainable life.
While staying with them, I definitely made a point of learning both about them, but also about the city in general. In many ways, I wish that I would have had more time, but I feel like I was properly introduced to the city, even if it was just a glimpse.
Traveling around Detroit, it is difficult not to notice the stark contrasts between poor and rich. It is almost as if some areas have just turned to inhabitable ghost towns. I walked streets that were literally full of empty houses. The grass, trees, and shrubs, which landscaped the house, grew as if they hadn’t been tended to in years. In most cases, they probably hadn’t. These streets had a looming eerie presence about them as if to say, beware.
I crossed into areas that were considered ‘dangerous’, such as 8-mile road, and walked areas of the city where I don’t think that a soul was present. What I found, is that there are several opposing forces weighing upon Detroit. It seems to me that if Detroit were a person, it would be a pessimistic-opportunist.
Detroit is torn between people who are pessimistic, willing to accept Detroit as-is and give up hope, and those who are trying to use Detroit’s current state as an opportunity to correct a wrong and start in a new direction. I was most encouraged to see the sustainable movements in Detroit. Outside of the people who I stayed with, two movements come to mind: urban gardens and the Heidelberg project.
The urban gardens of Detroit are an interesting concept. In a nutshell, urban gardens are gardens grown near a home, business, or building that are aimed at making an individual or a business self-dependent on its own crops. It wasn’t really until the industrial age that the number of self-sustaining people began its decline to where it is today. New technologies, methods, tools, and fertilizers were likely the catalysts, which reduced the demand for rural farmers. Soon, just a few farmers were able to handle the work load of many.
This ultimately led to our societal dependency on a small number of large commercial farmers for products. Although there are some positives to this, there are additionally multiple issues with this style of production, which is why I believe you are seeing a resurgence in this theme of sustainability. These gardens are becoming increasingly plentiful in and around Detroit, there are even multiple in Downtown Detroit including a restaurant that only serves food grown in its gardens.
The Heidelberg project was slightly different, but yet I respect what they are trying to do. At least, I think I do based on my perception of their artwork. The Heidelberg project in my mind is trying to bring attention to a few facts. First, they are attempting to highlight hypocrisy and waste within our society. They do this by collecting tons of old goods such as trashed TVs, cars, dolls, shoes, etc. Second, they use gaudy works to draw attention to serious social issues facing Detroit. I think that this is true because they have gained a lot of attention from the city and surrounding communities. Some of the serious issues that I am talking about are listed on a board that they have posted between several of the houses. Third, they are expressing art in an abstract and creative way giving new meaning to expression. Honestly, it isn’t exactly the art that I would draw, but I appreciate their perspective and what they are trying to do for their community.
Obviously, these two movements are not the only ones. They are just the only ones that I experienced while visiting Detroit. I have no doubt that other movements exist in and around Detroit City that are doing great things in small places.
What Detroit Offers Us
Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it
– George Santayana
To any passerby, parts of Detroit are eerily similar to scenes from Chernobyl or other cities that have suddenly lost its population. In comparison, Chernobyl (Pripyat), was the result of an instantaneous nuclear meltdown; Detroit on the other hand, is the result of mankind’s prolonged actions.
In my mind, even if you don’t believe in Detroit or its future, there are still several strong lessons we can learn from Detroit. The truth is, even Detroit can learn from its past. History is one of our greatest teachers. We would be foolish not to listen to it.
Detroit, like many other ghost towns, lost much of its steam from not being economically diverse. Unfortunately, Detroit was guilty of eggs-in-one-basket syndrome. To me, the future of sustainability and longevity is diversity. We need to be diverse in our skills, abilities, and yes even our thoughts. Narrow-mindedness is a thing of the past. As Albert Einstein once said, “we cannot solve problems by using the same consciousness that created them.”
We should also be careful of over spreading our resources as well as over development. We must remember that we can always expand, but its the contraction that hurts us the most. Growing too fast leads not only to growing pains, but poorly formed infrastructure. Detroit is a prime example of this.
At the end of the day, Detroit gives us the opportunity to look at things with a clean slate. We must ask ourselves, if we could do it over again, would we do it better or differently?
So, is Detroit that bad?
As I try to put Detroit into words, I find myself fumbling for the right description. I suppose that if one were to judge Detroit purely based off of its outer appeal. I’d say that it would be easy to dismiss Detroit as being doomed and beyond repair. However, if one were to dig a little deeper than Detroit’s outer shell, that person would see that Detroit is a unique opportunity to attempt something new. Detroit is an opportunity for people to accept the pitfalls of poor economic structure, learn from our history, and try things in places where no one else can.
I wouldn’t go nearly as far as saying Detroit will return to its economical hay-day. Nor would I suggest that it will become an economic power house again in the near future; I just don’t think that is a practical or attainable goal for Detroit in a globalized economy. I do believe however that Detroit has the ability over time to restructure itself, cut its losses and highlight its strengths. Detroit has the opportunity to try something new; to socially and structurally rebuild a city. Effectively, Detroit cannot get much worse. There is only one direction to move.
It is said, that if enough people truly believe and work towards a cause than it is attainable. People can believe what they want, but in the end time will be the judge. Ultimately, people will decide for themselves what they want. After all wasn’t it Henry Ford who said, “whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”?
Your turn, what do you think?
Have you been to Detroit recently, or in the past? What is (are) your thought(s) on the current state of Detroit? Do you think that Detroit is really that bad?
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